Cinema for Christians and Similar Souls
Call me paranoid, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there are religionists, perhaps even Christians, lurking around this here website. So I’d like to recommend some recent movies that have at least a smidgeon of religion in them. For those who because of their theology would forgo screening these movies, know that they have additional elements that are also pleasing. And unlike so much of current cinema, these films are not corrupting.
Our first flick is Creation (2009), directed by Jon Amiel, and it’s about Charles Darwin during the time he wrote The Origin of Species. But the film is not tendentious à la Richard Dawkins; it doesn’t preach about the truth of evolution. The main part of the story is about the loss of Darwin's young daughter and about the conflict between him and his religious wife, Emma.
This is a very pretty film. Darwin is played by the British actor Paul Bettany, Emma by Bettany’s real-life wife, the American actress Jennifer Connelly. Two scenes that really stand out are the one where Darwin and his wife have it out, and the one where Darwin goes into a chapel and prays for his sick daughter:
Sir, I kneel before You in all humility. If it is in Your power, God, to save her… then I will believe in You for the rest of my days. Take me, if You must take someone, but not her. She… She’s such a good little girl, you see. She… I ask this in the name of Your child and mine and in the name of all children. Thank you. Amen.
Bettany does a beautiful job of delivering those lines. For those who adhere to creationism or Intelligent Design, this short clip will give you a sense of the religious conflict in the flick. It might even make you want to see it.
Film number two may be the most “arty,” ponderous, and even problematic of my suggestions; it’s The Tree of Life (2011) by director Terrence Malick. The first part of the film retraces the history of the world from the darkness preceding Creation, through the evolution of life, and ends up with a 1950s American family and all their tribulations.
To get from the Big Bang to that middle-American family takes only about 20 minutes. There’s one enigmatic scene of two dinosaurs in a riverbed that I don’t know how to interpret. But once we get to postwar America, our interpretive problems ease up.
Malick’s storytelling here is very unconventional. For one thing, music runs through the whole thing; one might even say that the film is meant to illustrate the music. In any event, there’s a strong drama here about an American family, albeit told very obliquely. It features Brad Pitt, and she of the opalescent skin and azure eyes: Jessica Chastain. I won’t reveal what she says in it, but there’s a sweet scene where Miss Jessica is holding her infant and then points to the sky.
This is a beautiful movie. The cinematography is gorgeous, as is the music. But if you like conventional storytelling and think you’ll pass on it, then watch the eternity segment; it won’t spoil the story should you then choose to screen the entire movie. You’ll have to sit through a minute or two of some ponderousness, but then “Eternity” kicks into gear; it’s quite wonderful, and an example of what’s called “pure cinema.”
Our third film is Anna Karenina (2012), directed by Joe Wright. Those familiar with the story (and its author, Leo Tolstoy) might suspect a bit of religion to enter in, which is seen mainly in the character Levin. But be warned: this version of Anna is very stylized and arty. Much of the film takes place in a theatre and makes use of theatrical devices, like the tableau. The waltzes these aristocrats engage in at their balls are most unique; were they choreographed just for the movie? But the film does eventually move out of doors and become more naturalistic. To get an idea about the style of this film, watch this short video.
Keira Knightley may well be the finest Anna of all time. Her Anna finally “gets religion” in the climactic scene, where Anna yells “forgive me” as she commits what some say is the only unforgivable sin. Another scene imbued with religion is the one where Levin, although a landowner and aristocrat, is using a scythe alongside a peasant crew “bringing in the sheaves.” Levin addresses the peasant next to him as they apply their scythes:
LEVIN: I’ll be buying in feed before winter’s over.
THEODORE: Well, you don’t press people hard, but you live rightly, for your soul, not your belly.
LEVIN: How do we know what’s rightly?
THEODORE: Just by knowing it. How else?
LEVIN: But … I believe in reason.
THEODORE: Reason? Was it reason that made you choose a wife?
Our fourth film comes from director Ridley Scott, and no, it is not 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, although that’s a terrific film and especially relevant right now with all the unpleasantness roiling the Middle East. No, our fourth film is Prometheus (2012), which is the latest in the Alien franchise, films that are a toxic admixture of sci-fi, horror, bad corporate behavior, and acid for blood. Nonetheless, there is a definite religious element in this latest installment.
The gist of the story is that archeological evidence from sites all around the globe suggests that humans were created by extraterrestrials. So, naturally, a bunch of scientists set out for the planet they think is the home of these ETs, whom they call “the Engineers.”
One of the lead scientists on this expedition is one Elizabeth Shaw, who is a believer; she even wears a cross, which figures in the story. After they find evidence of the Engineers, her love interest, a fellow researcher, tells Shaw: “I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.” Shaw asks: “Why would I want to do that?” He responds: “Because they made us.” To which Shaw deftly responds: “And who made them?”
When she’s in the infirmary being treated, Shaw’s cross is taken from her because of possible contamination. Toward the end of the movie, when she asks for it back, she’s asked: “Even after all this, you still believe?”
But Shaw doesn’t answer, because she’s busy thinking about taking one of the Engineer’s ships to their real home planet. “May I ask what you hope to achieve by going there?” Shaw answers: “They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.”
To “know why” is the most basic religious desire. But the criteria for what constitutes “knowledge” are quite debatable. As Shaw flies off to the planet of the Engineers, her last communiqué to Earth is: “It is New Year’s Day. The year of Our Lord 2094. My name is Elizabeth Shaw, last survivor of the Prometheus, and I’m still searching.” “Still searching” is the situation many people of “good faith” find themselves in.
(There’s a sequel to Prometheus coming out in 2016, and it’s rumored to be titled Paradise. Paradise is mentioned in an alternate scene to the ending of Prometheus. You can get a sense of it all by watching this update about the progress on the upcoming sequel.)
I’m gonna throw in one more religious film that’s not as recent as the others. It recently played again on cable, and I appreciated it much more on my HDTV than on the crummy old analog TV that I saw it on the first time. The film is The End of the Affair (1999) by director Neil Jordan. Like Anna, it deals with an adulterous love affair. For one of the lovers, the affair leads to God. But the other lover asks God to “leave me alone forever.”
This is an interesting story, and some of it is told by way of recursion – that is, going back over the same material with different information. The book came out in 1951; author Graham Greene is supposedly the “gold standard” of the Catholic novel. By the way, there seems to be a miracle in this movie. In any event, don’t confuse Jordan’s film with the 1955 version.
So there you have it, from the Big Bang to a fictive future set on another planet in A.D. 2094. I don’t know if you can find salvation in any of it, but you might find something to think about.
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.