As a person born and raised as a Catholic, I have often wondered if cinema is fully accepted in my faith or if there are any sinful parts of it. Is it okay to watch movies? Are there ones that aren’t friendly to the church? It’s questions like these that get me thinking about whether or not my faith and movies easily go hand-in-hand. Nonetheless, in terms of influence, I believe that religion has always had an influence on cinema. The bible has provided a wide array of stories, which can be interpreted in more ways than one.
Throughout the history of Hollywood, we have seen the effects of religion on cinema through movies such as The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Passion of the Christ, and The Prince of Egypt. Even movies such as mother!, Children of Men, Sausage Party, and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace have religious aspects towards them whether to be intentional or not. However, religion in Hollywood has always received as much madness as goodness. Whether it be because no one is interested in a religious movie or that Christians believe that the movie is offensive and doesn’t accurately represent the bible.
Religious Contributions to Film
In spite of this, religion has provided a contribution to Hollywood by showcasing the stories of the Bible on a scale that people around the world can see. Although the genre of Christian movies were more popular back in the 1950s and 60s, we can see that influence in The Ten Commandments. In particular, this movie has made an impact on cinema as it is raved to be one of the best religious movies ever seen on the big screen, even with its Rotten Tomatoes score 94 percent is impressive. Some even say that what makes it different from most other biblical stories was that it wasn’t sad. The bible is full of stories like The Ten Commandments, which gave viewers a dazzling experience.
What made the movie impressive was that it contained elaborate set designs and special effects that looked to be ahead of its time in the 1950s. One scene that stands out the most from The Ten Commandments is the scene where Moses parts the Red Sea, which is a pivotal moment in the Old Testament. As it is told in the book of Exodus chapter 14, “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all the night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.” Thanks to the effects done to pull off the Red Sea parting ways, the movie won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Furthermore, Tennessee pastor Ron Phillips says that the movie raised the narrative bar. “What I appreciate about it is that they didn’t try to amend the biblical story; they just told it,” says Ron Phillips, senior pastor at Abba’s House in Hixson. “I think people like reality; they like it told that way.” 1 The cinematic eye of director Cecil B. DeMille gave viewers a wonderful perspective on religious tales while ensuring the intent of the passages were not distorted. While The Ten Commandments brought the scriptures to life while offering a keen insight into the Christianity of Hollywood, there’s also the side of religious influence from non-traditional means. Most of these films were sprinkled with Christian undertones.
In Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 drama Children of Men, viewers found a parallel between the movie and the Nativity story. For those not familiar, the Nativity story is the tale of Jesus’ birth and how his mother and father fled their home country to safely conceive the baby. The baby is born in a barn and people everywhere come to see the child.
In Children of Men, Theo is sent to protect Kee, a young girl who’s pregnant. The catch here is that they live in a world where the last born child was nearly 20 years ago. She doesn’t know who the father is and claims that she is a virgin-like Jesus’ mother Mary, who is often referred to as the virgin mother. Viewers are offered the connection of Theo as Joseph-who was just as confused when Kee told him that she’s a virgin. When other people see the baby after its birth, they respond by either exclaiming “Jesus Christ” or doing the sign of the cross. Additionally, American Christians noticed that the movie was released on Christmas Day in the US, the day that is often celebrated to be the day of Jesus’ birth. Although the movie grossed $70 million, it almost passed its budget, which was $76 million.
Children of Men isn’t the only nonreligious film with religious themes abound. A few movies have tiny tidbits of religion in place. First, in the 2016 animated raunchy comedy Sausage Party, a group of grocery store food believe that the customers are gods taking them to “the great beyond,” which they have been told is the afterlife. When the movie reveals what happens to the food after they pass the grocery store doors, they discover that they are to be eaten, cooked, or used for whatever purpose the human needs them for.
From Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Anakin Skywalker claims to have had a virgin birth (like Jesus) to Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 film mother!, which is one giant metaphor of religious undertones, Hollywood can’t get enough of the Bible. If they like it or not, religious themes in nonreligious movies can elevate a movie to become more intriguing.
On the contrary, Hollywood is not all positive with it’s appreciation of Christianity. We have seen religious movies face controversy. In 1988, the book The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis was adapted into a movie by acclaimed director Martin Scorsese. The movie’s biggest names include Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ, Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, and David Bowie as Pontius Pilot. The book transcends the story of Jesus’ life as he lives life having doubts about being the Son of God. When crucified on the cross, he sees a vision of an angel (disguised to be the devil) telling him that God wants him to live a happy life and he’s not the Messiah.
Although the movie was a critical success, Christians everywhere did not approve of it as it steered away from the actual narrative read in the bible. The film was banned in countries such as Chile, the Philippines, and Argentina. A movie theater in Paris that was playing it was attacked by a group of Catholics that set fire to it, and a man in Ithaca, New York drove a school bus into a theater playing the movie. The Last Temptation of Christ wasn’t the only religious movie that met backlash.
Mel Gibson’s 2004 biblical epic The Passion of the Christ met with controversy as it was allegedly accused of antisemitism, being inaccurate to the actual story, and overly violent. The movie even got the endorsement of Pope John Paul II, but that did not seem to be much help to the film’s dismay. While the film made more than the cost of its budget, the movie was met with mixed to negative reviews. The Passion of the Christ is also the highest grossing Christian film of all time raking in $622.3 million. This may seem like a lot, but it’s not much compared to the highest grossing film of all time: superhero action flick Avengers: Endgame which gained $2.7 billion.
In conclusion, we can see the influence of religion on cinema through a variety of movies. We’ve seen it in Christian movies such as The Ten Commandments, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Passion of the Christ and non religious films like Children of Men, Sausage Party, or Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Religion has made its way into Hollywood by either having movies being about biblical stories or those that have religious themes to them. Regardless of what Hollywood thinks of religion and vice versa, we can clearly see that religion influences cinema in more ways than one.