Archives For A Serious Man

How do we value films? When it comes to film review-style criticism this really is the central question. Some would say that the value a film comes down to one thing and one thing only: what can the audience get out of the film. I’d agree with this in part, but I think it’s necessary to note that the audience is not the most important part of the equation. You can’t simply determine the value of a film by examining how many thematic or intellectual or emotional ideas an audience has been able to extract from it. Sparking ideas and conversation is a wonderful thing, but watching a film is not required in order to do that, nor must any film actively attempt such resonance. In the relationship between film and audience it must always be the film that takes precedence. We must evaluate not the conversation the film sparks, but how effectively it speaks to the audience. Click to read more

I do not like preachy films. This goes for all films, religious or otherwise. I don’t need some movie trying to sell me the idea that Christianity is the path of salvation, nor do I need a movie selling me on a political ideology. I love stories. Good stories. Those stories can have meaning, or theme, or even a point they’re trying to make, but no good story can be preachy. Why, then, am I so often attracted to films about religion or religious people?

I can break it down into three types of religion-themed films, which interest me:

  • The first is the bible story/myth. I’m talking about adaptations of stories in holy texts. The Ten Commandments. The Passion of the Christ. That sort of thing.
  • The second is the “religious people” film. These films are about people who live in a religious society, are often religious themselves, and are often wrestling with their beliefs on some level. Recent examples would include A Serious Man and Of Gods and Men.
  • Finally, there’s the religious allegory film. These are films that play on religious and spiritual themes, or recall religious stories in order to elevate their material. Superman being a mixture of Moses and Jesus is a good example. Though Close Encounters of the Third Kind is not really at all about religion, it definitely recalls a certain religiosity or spirituality.

I find all three of these types of films fascinating. Though I’m not religious, I very much enjoy the stories from the Bible, and I find the literary value in them nearly endless. Like great works by Shakespeare or Dickens, Bible stories provide a lot of room for amazing thematic interpretation. Similarly, though I don’t really wrestle with my belief in religion, I do sympathize with belief, and as such I find myself deeply interested in the personal quandaries of those who do believe. More importantly, the questions these characters are asking, are usually not as simplistic as “is there a God?” They’re dealing with questions of how to live a good life and remain hopeful in the face of adversity. What greater themes could you find in a film?

The literary allusions associated with religious films also make them very rewarding. Even the smallest allusion to a Bible character or story can bring to mind themes that elevate the subject matter of a story. Sometimes it’s cloying and silly, but when done right, it can be the perfect little addition to film.

I do not care for evangelical films. I get why they are made, but they are preaching. Instead of attempting to tell interesting stories, they are concerned with proselytizing. That’s boring, and it’s insulting when it’s so brazen. Last year, for some silly reason, I watched one of those religious films. It was basically an It’s a Wonderful Life kind of story, though it was more clearly a knock-off of the Nicolas Cage film, The Family Man. Really. It was basically the exact same film. The only difference was that in the religious film version, the main character’s original path would have been to become a pastor. It was awful.

Keep those types of films away from me, but give me more religion. Give me The Passion of Joan of Arc, or The Last Temptation of Christ. Give me The Life of Brian and Black Narcissus. I love these films passionately. They are grand in theme, and personal in execution. They are also often complex. Not simply content to take their stories at face value, but to really examine the meanings behind the religious themes involved. They represent filmmaking and storytelling at its finest, and though I do not believe, I can still appreciate a damn good story.

And I apologize for swearing at the end there.