(RNS) -- With contenders such as "Sixth Sense" and "The GreenMile" in the Best Picture category of last year's Academy Awards, theOscars showcased films unafraid to wade into spiritual territory.

But among Best Picture nominees this year, matters of faith have hada devil of a time, some critics claim.

"Last year was a big year for things that were more overtlyspiritual," said Dick Staub, president of the Seattle-based Center forFaith and Culture. "If you look at this year's nominees, I'd saytraditional religion is in trouble. The church is loveless, lifeless,legalistic -- it's a negative force in the community."

Case in point: the Miramax film "Chocolat," according to AnneNavarro, a media critic for the film office of the U.S. CatholicConference.

The movie -- the story of a tug-of-war between a woman who opens achocolate store in a French village and the Catholic mayor who wants toshut her down -- is "anti-Catholic at its core," Navarro said.

Far from sending a message of religious tolerance, as some havesuggested, "Chocolat" tells audiences that "you should really just notbe Catholic because if you're Catholic you're uptight and self-righteousand repressed," Navarro said. Her organization's own list of the top 10movies of the year 2000 ignored "Chocolat," "Gladiator" and "ErinBrockovich" but included the other two Best Picture nominees --"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Traffic."

"There is not one Catholic that is represented in a fair manner inthis movie, which is set during Lent -- one of the holiest times forChristians," Navarro said of "Chocolat." "The movie makes theself-sacrifice done during Lent seem completely stupid. It trivializesour religious practices and maliciously ridicules abstinence, penitenceand any kind of morality."

The film's Oscar rivals seemed equally skittish about faith -- eventhe Buddhist/Confucian/Taoist-tinged martial arts romance "CrouchingTiger, Hidden Dragon" from Taiwan-born director Ang Lee, said Staub.Though the Mandarin-language film is "set against the backdrop ofBuddhism," its characters rebel against its traditions.

"Ang Lee said that the strength of the Buddhism is also its weakness-- the traditions built into it are also the traditions that peoplereact against," Staub said. "In this movie, the key character is a womanwho is fighting against a tradition that says she should honor herfamilial responsibility to be a princess. But she wants to follow herown sense of destiny to become a warrior. She's pushing against thosetraditional constraints."

Faith is also pushed offstage in the movie "Traffic," said Navarro,pointing out that filmmakers bypassed raising the issue in a storylineinvolving a teen-ager who enters a drug rehabilitation program.

"The daughter goes into drug rehabilitation but there's no mentionof God, which there usually is in rehab programs," Navarro said. "In a12-step program, the first step is usually handing the problem over to ahigher power."

"Cast Away" -- not nominated for Best Picture -- was notable for thesame misstep, she said.

"Even if you are completely not spiritual or versed in religion inanyway, if you spend four years on an island by yourself at some pointthe thought of God has got to cross your mind," Navarro said.

And though "Gladiator" sandwiches the tale of a Roman general'squest for revenge between shots of the Elysan Fields (an afterlifeutopia in Greek mythology), the character's faith takes a backseat tothe revenge tale, said Navarro.

"There is some element of religion because you do have sort of asuggestion of some sort of afterlife with the Elysan Fields, and Maximusdoes pray to ancient Roman gods," Navarro said. "But even that wasn'treally the main focus of the film."

What could have received more focus was the plight of Christians inancient Rome, said Monsignor James Lisante, director of the ChristopherAwards.

"A lot of people suffered in Roman society because of theirChristian faith," said Lisante, whose group honors movies that affirmthe human spirit. "That's an angle that would have been interesting tobring out."

Even so, the nominated films do give a tacit nod to some of the samevalues espoused by Christianity, insists Ryan Todt, who occasionallywrites movie reviews for the website of the Presbyterian Church ofAmerica.

"Whether filmmakers want to or not, they're presenting concepts thatwe as Christians want to teach," Todt said. "I don't think Hollywoodgoes out of its way to present religion or spirituality, but it'sthere."

Take "Gladiator," for example.

"I don't know that the filmmakers set out to make a film about aman's faith, but that movie was just a great example of how we reallyare creatures of faith," said Todt. "The image of faith there is ashattered one because Maximus has faith in something I don't think istrue. But the movie just shows that humans are going to have faith insomething, it's just a matter of what."

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