Faith, Hope, & Clarity: Hollywood Again Shows Respect in Films for Spiritual Ideas

Silence Martin Scorsese
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Like a prodigal son, Hollywood is again returning to religion.

Since the 1980s, Hollywood has been criticized (with justification) for depicting any religious believer as mindless, evil or both. Filmmakers this year treat them with respect.

Silence” and “Hacksaw Ridge” daringly center around devout Christians. Religious beliefs have a positive effect on the lead characters in other 2016 films, including “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Jackie,” “Mr. Church,” even “The Conjuring 2.”

Studios have their own belief system, and it’s based on recent hits. Hollywood loves stories about an individual whose principles are challenged, but usually the protagonist is a superhero, cop or animated creature.

“Silence” depicts the culture clash of Western Christians with Japanese. The long legacy of the “white savior” is turned upside down, and the film raises issues of faith, doubt, personal integrity, and the fine line between belief and stubborn pride. To its credit, “Silence” raises questions that audience members must answer.

The subject matter and treatment of its themes are out of sync with most current movies; this daring approach is so startling that the movie seems hip. Kudos to Paramount and the backers.

In the Lionsgate-Summit “Hacksaw Ridge,” Desmond Doss’ actions are driven by his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs. His WWII actions would be unbelievable if they weren’t true. His religion gives him personal strength, and it drives him to help others; he makes the world a better place.

An audience member doesn’t need to be Christian to appreciate the values depicted. These are universal stories about the human condition. And both films are examples of great storytelling (from Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson, respectively), with terrific work above and below the line. The movies have something else in common: Andrew Garfield gives his two best performances.

In Fox’s “Hidden Figures,” the heroines (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae) are churchgoers. That fact alone is a statement: Religious beliefs are depicted as an important part of daily life.

Similarly, church provides comfort from personal anguish to Viola Davis in Par’s “Fences.”

In Searchlight’s “Jackie,” Jacqueline Kennedy is lost in grief after the 1963 assassination of her husband. She consults with a priest (John Hurt) and when audiences see the clerical garb and hear the Irish accent, they may brace themselves for a comical character. But in fact, he turns out to be genuinely helpful and insightful — though not in an expected way, which is one of the strengths of the movie.

This year’s films offer a good alternative to Hollywood’s recent trend of contempt for organized religion, as exemplified by “The Da Vinci Code” and last year’s best-picture Oscar winner “Spotlight.”

In the latter, every priest onscreen is a child molester, and every child molester is a priest. The film offers damning statistics and anecdotes, mostly true. But there is no balance, no mention of the fact that child molesters lurk in virtually every profession.

Nobody acknowledges that the vast majority of priests do good work. Though “Spotlight” is well-crafted, it’s impossible to exit the theater with any positive feelings about religion (especially Catholicism) or believers.

The 2016 crop is a good antidote. Hollywood is clearly trying to make films that better represent the world population, so this is a positive step. Next: Maybe positive depictions of Hindu or Muslim believers?

In its faith-based themes, “Silence” is a throwback to some classic movies, including those directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Powell & Pressberger (specifically “Black Narcissus”).

All of them are European.

But Hollywood had its own version of religion. In the earliest decades, studios regularly released films where religion was important to the lead characters, from “The Jazz Singer” to “Song of Bernadette” and “Going My Way” through “The Nun’s Story” (and even the nuns in “The Sound of Music”). And, of course, Hollywood always loved its biblical epics — which are actually about action, sex and sin, but always throw in several positive mentions of God.

The 1973 “The Exorcist” was one of the last big-budget studio depictions of priests-as-heroes. Just a few years later, Hollywood got into a blockbuster mentality, where the goal was to woo every demographic and alienate none of them. A positive attitude toward religion was considered too risky. However, negativity came easily; in the late 20th century, it was always safe to be cynical.

The results were a wide range of films with unfavorable depictions of Christians, from “Footloose” to “The Magdalene Sisters” to “The Da Vinci Code” and the 2016 “Assassin’s Creed.”

After the surprise mega-success of Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ,” Hollywood dabbled in spiritual themes again with such movies as “The Nativity Story.” But in general, questions about religion and God were relegated to well-meaning independent movies targeted at a specific audience, e.g., “Left Behind,” “War Room” and “God Is Not Dead.”

In 1961, Variety ran an interview with Malcolm Boyd, an Episcopalian clergyman who was also a film critic. Boyd lamented biblical epics including “The 10 Commandments” and “Solomon and Sheba,” while praising films that were “more honestly religious” in their depictions of moral questions, including the then-daring “Elmer Gantry,” “La Dolce Vita” and “The Misfits.” The headline was “Must virtue always be dull?”

Clearly, virtue again has a place in Hollywood’s canon, and the results are anything but dull.