The last “religious movie” I watched was “The Last Exorcism,” and it wasn’t by choice. I was writing a story that addressed exorcism and popular culture’s interest in evil, and the recently released movie was a relevant hook. Really, I hate horror movies, and this one had me covering my eyes and ears like a 5-year-old who’s afraid something is under her bed.
Without spoiling it for anyone, suffice it to say that the movie’s ending threw me for a loop, and without the bizarre twist, I think I would have found it much more worthy of religious reflection. After all, it addressed themes palpable to a Catholic worldview: the battle between good and evil, faith and doubt in times of fear, right and wrong in life-threatening situations. But, as a priest told me, the difference between real exorcisms and Hollywood portrayals is that evil often wins on the big screen.
Of course, I’m defining “religious movie” loosely as a film with a main plot that revolves around faith. I’d include among these classics like “The Nun’s Story” (1959) and recent films like “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” (2008).
But, as Alyssa Rosenberg points out at TheAtlanic.com, most “religious movies” are really bad. You know what’s she’s talking about — the overly sappy and poorly-plotted flick you wouldn’t see unless you felt you had a moral obligation to. The film that, compared to your personal knowledge of the complexity of Christianity, bears no resemblance to the real deal. Rosenberg picks on “No Greater Love” (2009), whose trailer suggests the protagonist decides to convert to Christianity not for himself, but out of love for a girl. “If we’re going to pay $11 for movie tickets, Christians deserve vastly better than horribly-written, cheaply lit conversion stories,” Rosenberg writes.
Yet, when she made a similar accusation the week before, some readers suggested that those seeking Christian entertainment “aren’t looking for serious questions about or characterization of religion.”
That assessment doesn’t sit right with her, and the same goes for me. If we can’t take seriously religion — which professes to satisfy a person’s deepest longings, including salvation — in our culture’s most captivating form of media, what are we doing?
There seem to be two issues at play:
- That “religious films” are often poorer in quality than non-religious ones. Bad acting, bad production, bad plot. Think Thérèse (2004), which, for all the Catholic hype, was a visual and intellectual disappointment. (There. I said it.)
- That movie-makers and movie-goers don’t really know what Christians want, and this goes for the Christians as well. I think many Christians do crave epic stories that speak to the very being of man. At the very least, we don’t want our films to be crappy, because that’s an insult to our sense of beauty and art. And as this terrific 2007 interview with Act One founder Barbara Nicolosi reminds us, Catholics were historically the patrons of the arts, and there’s work being done to reclaim that role in some form (think The Passion of the Christ (2004), which was extraordinarily well done, but, as Rosenberg writes, Mel Gibson can’t be the only one who can do it).
According to 2009 Motion Picture Association of America statistics, people ages 25 to 39 are the largest age group to attend movies in theaters. They’re also a group more likely to be single than in past decades, according to recent U.S. Census data. So, Catholic singles, for your dates and nights out with friends, do you go to so-called “religious movies”? What makes something a “religious movie”? And do you judge its quality against mainstream film?
And am I alone in thinking that the ending of “The Last Exorcism” was way over the top?