Atonement: Coming to Terms with Religion and Cinema

From even our youngest age, most of us are taught that there are several topics which, for whatever reason incomprehensible to our tiny minds at the time, are entirely inappropriate to discuss with people outside of our immediate family; money, politics, and perhaps most problematic, religion. This is not to say that religion isn’t a part of all of our lives in some form or another. However, in order to understand religion outside the confines of the Catholic church or the holy scriptures we must do the unthinkable, we must define what religion is. In simplest terms, religion is typically characterized as an organized set of values and/or beliefs impressed upon an individual or a group as a means to guide them through living a decent life. In a day and age where the focus of most movies onscreen is cramming as much violence, sex, and profanity as possible, and our focus offscreen is on who just checked into rehab and who is getting divorced, it may be hard to imagine that religion and film aren’t entirely different from one another. However, as just about anyone will tell you, movies are just as indicative of our values as the canonized works of any religion.
As a child, I was raised in the Catholic Church. We weren’t very strict followers, but we attended a Roman Catholic orthodox mass, which entails an hour and a half of mass, followed by an hour of Sunday school, and another hour and a half of the same mass as before delivered in Latin. To say that we were Roman Catholic would do a great disservice to the experience. My church was about as orthodox as any you could find in the Midwest, which instilled a great sense of what the Catholic Church would like me to believe. The trouble is, as any teen will tell you, that after a certain age, you don’t want to be told what to believe. You want to decide for yourself. Film played an integral role in this rebellion. Films are full of judgments and themes on life, death, and overall, the human condition. The beauty of this is that film is also an intensely subjective art. While I may understand the theme of a movie as one thing, someone else may pick up on something completely different. Together, as a class or an audience, we are free to discuss the importance of certain scenes of film’s to fully establish the film-viewing experience. Most religions tend to be very set in their understanding of the word of God or Gods, creating conflict through the various religious communities. One example of such is the main difference between the Jewish faith and the Christian church. While the Jews understand the teachings of Jesus Christ, it is their interpretation that he was not the son of God, but Christians praise him primarily because they believe that he is the son of God.
Although it’s important to understand the viewpoint that I personally take, that religion and cinema have the same express purpose, it’s important to understand how cinema and religion work together in some instances and in others, very clearly against one another. The very nature of any relationship with religion is very turbulent and of course, with the film world, it is no different. The instances of religion and film working towards a common goal are more historical than anything else. Some examples include some of the earliest epics which were directly adapted from the Bible, such as 1956 film The Ten Commandments. These films tended to focus on the blanket belief in a higher being and deliver the message of living a righteous life. These films were almost always purposefully vague, for the purpose of drawing a bigger audience as well as to not offend members of the Judeo-Christian faiths. More important than they were to deliver a wholesome message, movies such as this and the 1959 film Ben-Hur were spectacles. It would be naïve to say that this is the first, only, and/or last instance of religion being used for monetary gain. However, the most important aspect of these films is that they paved the way for Hollywood and the church to have a symbiotic relationship. Even today, there is a niche market for religious films as there is still a very strong religious presence both in the United States and abroad. However, it is important to understand that these are, as previously stated, primarily a niche and tend to draw the crowd that they once did in the heyday of the religious epic.
However, as the idea of the nuclear family and the “wholesome” America fell out of favor, more often than not, the topic of religion did as well. Although there are a few instances of films, such as the 1955 film Night of the Hunter, which presented a negative image of religion during the height of the popularity of the religious epic, these examples are few and far between. Following the idyllic representation of religion in the 1950s, films began to look at religion, particularly religious figures such as men of God but rarely God himself, with some cynicism. These films typically seemed to be a sort of backlash to the piety of the figures onscreen in these religious epics. People began to question whether humankind could be as good as the figures the public saw onscreen. As time went on, and more specifically in my own lifetime, religion in films was rarely discussed and religious films themselves were always viewed suspiciously. Films such as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ stirred up controversy because of their presentation of religious material. This is not the first instance of film and religion being in conflict with the needs and/or desires of film-goers, but is easily one of the most memorable. The film itself, in my personal opinion, is an exercise in anti-semitic filmmaking. This is not to discredit its contribution to pop culture at the time of its release and the importance of the discussions that followed its release, but the film itself is far from being entertainment or even accurate. Another important force that has determined the negative relationship between film and religion in my lifetime is current events themselves. With the uncovering of the scandal in the Catholic Church surrounding priests and their predatory relationships with members of the church, religion in film was very much affected. While one of the most powerful institutions was being taken down by scandal, it seemed the perfect opportunity for atheists and other opponents of organized religion to launch their complaints. One example is the 2007 film The Golden Compass, which the author of the source material admits to being an anti-religious novel. Still these movies preach values, but most importantly, they tend to ask their viewers to question what is being taught to them. It would be unfair to call it “anti-religion” because what it tends to do is point out that these supposedly infallible systems are in fact flawed. However, since religion is such a controversial topic, there is little room for moral shades of gray in the eyes of public.
There is this strong insistence that any piece of media be either pro-religion or against religion. Just the same, there is the same push that religion and cinema cannot work together. However, there are clearly examples of religious cinema as seen in the 1950s which, in my opinion gives as much right to create anti-religious films as well. Most importantly though is that religion be understood. There are strong connotations to words like Jew or even Catholic. More often than not people think of secular places such as a synagogue or a cathedral. It’s important to understand that while these are deservedly revered places, holy places even, these are not the only places of religion. Just as easily, a dim lit movie theater can be a place of worship. The primary purpose of religion is to reflect values and a way of life and in many ways, we see our own ways of life in the movies of today and tomorrow. They showcase our values visually whereas religions may do it with sacred texts and the written word. In many ways, religion and film work with each other, in other instances they work against each other, but almost always, they are one and the same. They are a system of values we use to guide us through our everyday lives.


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