Films took on religious themes from varied perspectives

This year’s edition of Sundance may well be remembered as the one in which the fest got religion, judging by the sheer number of entries that chose to foreground issues of faith and spirituality.

While festivals are rarely wanting for films exploring the tension between strict doctrine and human impulse, the glut of such stories on display this edition would seem to indicate that the increasing polarization of left and right in American culture — between liberal secularism and conservative Christianity — has stimulated and provoked our independent filmmakers in a significant way. Or, at the very least, got them thinking.

Then again, actual thought may have been a bit too much to expect from Kevin Smith’s “Red State,” whose Park City premiere occasioned a ticket-buying frenzy, a horde of protesters and a memorable appearance by Smith himself — all of which generated expectations this horror-satire about a clan of murderously homophobic Christians couldn’t hope to meet, let alone surpass. Not faring much better in the estimation of most critics were “Salvation Boulevard,” George Ratliff’s one-joke takedown of organized religion, and Matthew Chapman’s widely reviled “The Ledge,” which, among other things, features Patrick Wilson as a militant gay-hating fundamentalist.

In this smirky, simplistic context, Vera Farmiga stood as one of the heroes of the festival for tackling the subject of faith head-on with such layered sensitivity and emotional generosity in “Higher Ground,” a compassionate, deeply searching drama about an evangelical woman’s struggle to reconcile her beliefs with her feelings and intellect. Though Farmiga’s perspective is ultimately a skeptical one, she’s made the rare film that willingly depicts, and respects, spiritual conviction and the life of devotion to which it calls its followers. In a culture war that seems to get nastier by the day, “Higher Ground” is an olive branch extended with amazing grace and considerable artistry.

Unsurprisingly, Farmiga’s film emerged as one of the dramatic competition’s more divisive pictures. On the nonfiction side, the same could be said of “The Redemption of General Butt Naked.” The key word in that arresting title turns out to be neither “butt” nor “naked” but “redemption” — a notion filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion regard with a productive measure of ambivalence. It’s hard not to be moved by the documentary’s portrait of Joshua Milton Blahyi, a born-again pastor seeking to make amends for the thousands of murders he committed as a fearsome Liberian warlord. It’s equally hard to know what to make of the footage of the ex-general confronting the family members of his victims, whose quiet anguish speaks volumes louder than Blahyi’s declarations of deliverance.

Matters of faith had a way of popping up in unexpected places during the festival — such as in “Senna,” Asif Kapadia’s wrenching, brilliantly edited portrait of Brazilian racing star Ayrton Senna, whose feeling of invincibility on the track is traced back to his belief in God’s protection. (By contrast, Paddy Considine’s “Tyrannosaur” dramatizes a redemptive journey but disdains the power of faith as a conduit for genuine healing or self-improvement.) And two midnight selections, Todd Rohal’s “The Catechism Cataclysm” and Michael Tully’s “Septien,” took a cockeyed, humorous look at Christian characters in backwoods settings.

Oddly enough, at least two Sundance highlights dealt with the subject of cult involvement, but neither pic had much to say about religion. Rather, the joint themes of “Sound of My Voice,” which screened in the fest’s Next sidebar, are the power of persuasion and the human susceptibility to mind control, and helmer Zal Batmanglij plays with them in ingenious and unpredictable ways.

Similarly, true worship of any kind couldn’t be more absent from the hushed and terrifying world of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which instead leaves the viewer with a sense of implacable evil. Structured around a revelatory turn by Elizabeth Olsen as a damaged soul seeking temporary shelter (but not permanent escape) from a murderous sex cult, this mesmerizing psychological chiller was, for me, the stunner of the American indie pack, announcing first-timer Sean Durkin as a fully formed filmmaker with a gift for disturbingly beautiful images and a ruthless sense of narrative cunning. Here’s hoping Fox Searchlight, having been smart enough to buy “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” is also smart enough not to tamper with that mouthful of a title, which not only is crucial to the film’s meaning but, if spoken enough times, takes on a reverberant, almost incantatory power. Sort of like a prayer, if you will — one that, should the gods of cinema prove amenable, we will hear uttered long after Sundance 2011 has faded into memory.

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