Hollywood rarely shows much faith in films with prominent religious themes

by STEPHEN WHITTY
religious films

“Ordinary Angels,” starring Hilary Swank, will be released on Feb. 23.

If you’re searching for the divine, don’t start with the movie house.

It seems like a curious disconnect. Films featuring faith are hard to find, yet a 2023 Gallup poll reported that 47 percent of Americans describe themselves as “religious,” another 33 percent as “spiritual” and 2 percent as “both.” (The poll didn’t define its terms, nor did its respondents, so “spiritual” might mean anything from disliking organized religion to embracing pantheism.)

However people understood the two options, though, that left only 18 percent of people insisting they were neither religious nor spiritual. An earlier Gallup poll, which didn’t include “spiritual” as an option, had similar results, with 22 percent of Americans not answering or choosing “unaffiliated” but the rest lining up behind various long-established creeds. (Among the affiliated, the top responses were Protestant, 48.9 percent; Catholic, 23 percent).

So if non-believers are a minority in America, why do they make up the majority of Hollywood’s heroes?

There are some films that enthusiastically address issues of God, sin and the afterlife. But usually these are independent productions made specifically by, and for the faithful, marketed through church groups. Only very rarely — the recent child-trafficking film “Sound of Freedom,” Mel Gibson’s gory “The Passion of the Christ” – do they break through the God ghetto into the pop cultural mainstream.

Kevin Sorbo in the film “God’s Not Dead.”

Most often, like minority-centered movies of decades past — the Yiddish-language films of the early ‘30s, the Blaxploitation movies of the ’70s — they’re meant to serve, or sometimes crassly exploit, an underserved audience. They are made cheaply, populated by their own small stable of empathetic stars — Kevin Sorbo, Kirk Cameron — and, without much outreach to critics or audiences, disappear quickly.

They obviously fill a need — but only because it’s one Hollywood strenuously refuses to even acknowledge. And that’s because religion frightens Hollywood. It always has.

And the feeling goes both ways.

Whether they genuinely feared their immoral influence or just resented the competition for audiences, Catholic officials and prominent Protestant ministers were wary of movies from the start. When public cries began for censorship, conservative Christians invariably yelled the loudest; that those demands were often coupled with dislike and distrust of the “foreigners” running most of the studios added an ugly strain of anti-Semitism.

Under attack, the studios eventually capitulated, basically handcuffing themselves and turning the keys over to The Production Code. Those independent officials, led by observant Catholic Joseph Breen, set the high and often stifling standards for what could and couldn’t be shown on screen. And so, no more sophisticated comedies about adulterous couples. No more vulgar language, unpunished vice or jiggling, giggling chorus girls.

But far from leading to quietly, genuinely religious films, what the restrictions produced was often marked by schmaltz and sentimentality — a tendency that only grew more extreme in times of tension. During World War II, Hollywood pumped out films about plucky priests and beatific nuns; the ’50s battle against godless Communism brought an onslaught of Biblical epics.

It made for a good show. But a show was all it usually was. Although by the ’50s, Europeans — Bergman, Fellini, Bresson — were seriously wrestling with issues of faith and redemption, that was a place where Angelenos feared to tread. And when censorship began to retreat in the ’60s, American studios gave up any interest in the subject whatsoever. By the 1970s it had practically disappeared.

Deeply, personally religious filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader would continue to explore sin and salvation. For others, though, the subject faded away.

That trend has grown. These days, unless it’s the actual point of the movie, religion is rarely a part of it. (How often have you seen a movie character absentmindedly cross themselves? Or stop on the way home to buy a challah?) You’re far more likely to see someone in a movie light up a cigarette or use the F-word than enter a church or synagogue. If it weren’t for movies about demonic possession, or child abuse, you wouldn’t see any clergy onscreen at all.

The personal irony is that I’m not saying this as a believer. Although I was raised Catholic, and my wife and family are Jewish, I’m in that roughly 20 percent of the nation that doesn’t identify as religious or spiritual. I don’t have that special faith (although I don’t disdain people who do, as long as they don’t try to force their views on others). To be clear, my complaint isn’t that my own experiences aren’t reflected in today’s movies; it’s that the personal experiences of a majority of Americans aren’t.

And that makes for poorer movies, always.

Of course, it has been a long time since Hollywood movies were tuned into the concerns of regular, everyday Americans, turning out pictures like “Marty” or “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”; lovelorn Bronx butchers and struggling Tucson waitresses don’t deliver the sort of four-quadrant audience appeal you get with a superhero or a cocky fighter pilot. But faith is a part of many people’s lives. Cutting it out of the stories you tell leaves a hole.

Cristiana Dell’Anna stars in “Cabrini.”

Some current movies are trying to fill that gap. “Ordinary Angels,” opening Feb. 23, is a based-on-a-true-story tale of a father under stress and a lovely little girl with a dire medical condition; “Cabrini,” opening March 8, is the biopic of Mother Mary Cabrini, the Italian nun and first U.S. saint. And refreshingly, although both films come from faith-based production companies — “Cabrini” was made by some of the people behind “Sound of Freedom” — neither leans heavily on religious clichés. (Watch trailers for both below.)

Or on the stereotypes of religious films. The casts feature mainstream actors (supporting actors in “Cabrini” include David Morse and John Lithgow; “Ordinary Angels” has a great, juicy leading role for Hilary Swank.) Both feature characters going to services, but instead of simply praying for miracles to happen, they join with others to make them happen. And unlike some movies, which deliver scolding sermons (See what happens when you don’t have faith?) these films deliver comforting ones (See what we can do together, when we come together?)

They are not proselytizing films, like “Heaven Is Real” and “Left Behind.” They are not old-fashioned holy spectacles, like “Ben-Hur” or “Demetrius and the Gladiators.” They are fairly simple, straightforward stories about recognizable struggles — a healthcare system that delivers neither health nor care, a patriarchy that can be inhospitable to independent women, a secular world that cares little about the sick and poor. And they are films that show people meeting those challenges with determination and success, thanks to others’ help and their own faith.

They are movies that probably reflect the way a lot of Americans feel about religion and spirituality, and we could use more of them. May they be fruitful, and multiply.

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