(RNS) -- With contenders such as "Sixth Sense" and "The Green Mile" in the Best Picture category of last year's Academy Awards, the Oscars showcased films unafraid to wade into spiritual territory.
But among Best Picture nominees this year, matters of faith have had a devil of a time, some critics claim.
"Last year was a big year for things that were more overtly spiritual," said Dick Staub, president of the Seattle-based Center for Faith and Culture. "If you look at this year's nominees, I'd say traditional 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 Anne Navarro, a media critic for the film office of the U.S. Catholic Conference.
The movie -- the story of a tug-of-war between a woman who opens a chocolate store in a French village and the Catholic mayor who wants to shut her down -- is "anti-Catholic at its core," Navarro said.
Far from sending a message of religious tolerance, as some have suggested, "Chocolat" tells audiences that "you should really just not be Catholic because if you're Catholic you're uptight and self-righteous and repressed," Navarro said. Her organization's own list of the top 10 movies of the year 2000 ignored "Chocolat," "Gladiator" and "Erin Brockovich" 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 in this movie, which is set during Lent -- one of the holiest times for Christians," Navarro said of "Chocolat." "The movie makes the self-sacrifice done during Lent seem completely stupid. It trivializes our religious practices and maliciously ridicules abstinence, penitence and any kind of morality."
The film's Oscar rivals seemed equally skittish about faith -- even the Buddhist/Confucian/Taoist-tinged martial arts romance "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" from Taiwan-born director Ang Lee, said Staub. Though the Mandarin-language film is "set against the backdrop of Buddhism," 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 people react against," Staub said. "In this movie, the key character is a woman who is fighting against a tradition that says she should honor her familial responsibility to be a princess. But she wants to follow her own sense of destiny to become a warrior. She's pushing against those traditional constraints."
Faith is also pushed offstage in the movie "Traffic," said Navarro, pointing out that filmmakers bypassed raising the issue in a storyline involving a teen-ager who enters a drug rehabilitation program.
"The daughter goes into drug rehabilitation but there's no mention of God, which there usually is in rehab programs," Navarro said. "In a 12-step program, the first step is usually handing the problem over to a higher power."
"Cast Away" -- not nominated for Best Picture -- was notable for the same misstep, she said.
"Even if you are completely not spiritual or versed in religion in anyway, if you spend four years on an island by yourself at some point the thought of God has got to cross your mind," Navarro said.
And though "Gladiator" sandwiches the tale of a Roman general's quest for revenge between shots of the Elysan Fields (an afterlife utopia in Greek mythology), the character's faith takes a backseat to the revenge tale, said Navarro.
"There is some element of religion because you do have sort of a suggestion of some sort of afterlife with the Elysan Fields, and Maximus does pray to ancient Roman gods," Navarro said. "But even that wasn't really the main focus of the film."
What could have received more focus was the plight of Christians in ancient Rome, said Monsignor James Lisante, director of the Christopher Awards.
"A lot of people suffered in Roman society because of their Christian faith," said Lisante, whose group honors movies that affirm the human spirit. "That's an angle that would have been interesting to bring out."
Even so, the nominated films do give a tacit nod to some of the same values espoused by Christianity, insists Ryan Todt, who occasionally writes movie reviews for the website of the Presbyterian Church of America.
"Whether filmmakers want to or not, they're presenting concepts that we as Christians want to teach," Todt said. "I don't think Hollywood goes out of its way to present religion or spirituality, but it's there."
Take "Gladiator," for example.
"I don't know that the filmmakers set out to make a film about a man's faith, but that movie was just a great example of how we really are creatures of faith," said Todt. "The image of faith there is a shattered one because Maximus has faith in something I don't think is true. But the movie just shows that humans are going to have faith in something, it's just a matter of what."
Though shying away from overt references to religion, the Best Picture nominees do reflect moral and spiritual themes that resonate with the public, Staub said.
"Themes of justice, honor and morality are all a part of most of the nominated movies," he said. "And when you look at `Erin Brockovich' and the rest of them, they all have a strong, idealistic individual who is up against some institutional evil. Each has the belief that one person can serve society and make a difference for people -- and that's what a lot of religion is about."
The presence of such themes on the big screen is no surprise in a time when faith, spirituality and pop culture mingle comfortably, noted Robert Thompson, executive director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"Even though it's not so obviously reflected in the (Best Picture) nominees, we are seeing a lot more overtly spiritual themes in mainstream pop culture," he said. "You've got a program like `Oz' on HBO, which has not one but two Catholic clergy as part of the regular cast. You've got shows like `Touched by an Angel' that are doing quite well. There's a lot of evidence that the public is hungry for this sort of thing, and that's not going to go away."