Thursday, September 1, 2011

Religion and the Movies

I am not alone in observing that, over the past 40 years and more, movies and other popular media have done a poor job of portraying religion in the lives of their characters. In a country where vast numbers of people still attend some church or temple or mosque, where religion and politics remain a hot topic, the films produced in Hollywood (and elsewhere) are often silent on the topic of faith. If the story includes a clergyman, it is invariably in a perfunctory role at a wedding or funeral service; and if this clergy person is allowed to speak, he is likely to sound harsh, negative, or foolish.

It's as if the filmmakers are embarrassed to bring up anything to do with the genuine role Christianity (the usual faith) plays in people's lives, as if it is too private, whereas scenes of sexual intimacy can be shown in graphic detail.

Productions from the U.K. tend to be worse, of course, reflecting that country's abandonment of a great deal of traditional belief. Consider a recent PBS Masterpiece Mystery production of "Inspector Lewis" in which a young Jesuit priest was seen flagellating himself, then lying prostrate on the floor of a chapel on the grounds of a stately home. We learn that he was there "on retreat." This is laughable and not what Jesuit priests do on retreats. It's as if the screenwriter has no way to portray this character except by sensationalizing him.

In the next episode of the same series, which is otherwise well done, a young man wears a rosary over his Sacred Heart of Mary t-shirt, as if to say, "I'm one of those fanatic Catholics." Everyone was shocked to learn that the dead man, an Oxford don, had secretly been active at the local St. Ann's Church; but, then, he had a brain tumor and was a bit deranged. That would explain it. Faith and science just don't mix in most Oxford circles.

So the message here is that to be a Catholic or openly religious is a bizarre thing to be in a thoroughly secularized, Hobbesian universe, where material values are the only rational option. The Anglican preachers in these programs tend to be gloomy, trite, twisted, or piously irrelevant.

I have been trying to recall a film in which a priest or other clergyman was important, taken seriously, and not mocked. The list is very short.

"You Can Count on Me" (2000) includes a key scene in which the priest (played by the writer-director Kenneth Lonergan) asks the Mark Ruffalo character if he sees his life as important--in the big scheme of things. This, for me, became the major question of the movie and the most memorable scene.

"Tree of Wooden Clogs," a 1978 film we saw on video last year, is an Italian gem in which a sensible village priest is part of the quiet village life somewhere in Lombardy, where families pray together at night and where happiness comes from simple songs and stories. There religion is not a big deal, just a central part of life.

It is so easy to stereotype priests and other clergy as out of touch with ordinary life. Perhaps it's better to leave them out altogether from the movies (I don't watch enough TV to comment) since the temptation to ridicule by going over the top (and offending some viewers) is just too great. It is a pity since the type of comfort, love, and meaning people get in their practice of their faith is enormous.

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