Last night, I went and saw “The Monuments Men,” a dramatization of the very real efforts to save Europe’s art and cultural history from Nazi looting and destruction. As a fine art lover this is a historical event (an ongoing one) that has me riveted, so I am right in the target market for this film. However, while I love to see Bill Murray and George Clooney mugging for the camera as much as anyone, I left feeling disappointed and manipulated (and I wasn’t alone). It was so propagandistic that it could have been made in the 1950s, and you wouldn’t have had to change much. Meanwhile, the art itself takes a back seat (often literally, there are many scenes of crated art being pushed onto trucks), so the characters have to airily expound about the importance of art without, you know, showing people why it’s so important.
I bring this up because I believe most thinking Christians going to see “Son Of God,” currently in theaters, would feel much as I felt leaving that film. Because when you already believe in something, you become immune from many of the tricks of art used to get people to identify with a character or cause. You recognize it as a tool of evangelization, and you leave disappointed that you weren’t surprised, challenged, or shown some new way of seeing something you know intimately. As one secular critic put it, it’s a film about Jesus that makes you almost long for the over-the-top horror-show that was “Passion of the Christ.”
“Gibson’s barking mad Passion of the Christ at least had vigor, vision, madness — something to say, even if that thing was just “more wounds!” and “Jews!” Son of God is a narrative shambles, more thudding than thunderous, shot with no spirit or distinction, always feeling like a sprawling TV miniseries cut up to fit into theatrical running time. That’s no surprise, considering this is a distillation of The Bible, the basic-cable event from 2013. At the opening we see flashbacks, with voiceover, to the stories of Noah, Moses, and Abraham — surely the first time that the New Testament has kicked off with a ‘previously on . . .’”
Truly good religious films are difficult, because they are usually made by believers. Believers want to be accurate, they want to be true to the text, they want their protagonists (largely) unsullied and the villains clearly evil. That’s great when you’re making films about comic book characters, but it’s terrible when you want to strike for something deeper. Films about religion, by their very nature, promise to strike at something deeper. So when a film like this, quote, “treats the audience like first-timers, all but having a pastor step on screen to explain the meaning of every re-created parable — and the smugness of a parent serving broccoli” you know you’re making a disposable product (albeit one that will no doubt make a lot of money thanks to the millions of Christians in the United States).
All this said, I didn’t come here to pile on about the badness of “Son Of God,” but to serve a warning: A Pagan equivalent will no doubt be just as bad. Such a film, let’s call it “Horns Of Pan,” would no doubt fall into the same trap. Now, Pagans and polytheists have seen a growing number of fantasy films and television series that allude to gods, the occult, or religion in the ancient world, and there are more coming (at least if you believe Neil Gaiman). Eventually, enough points will converge, and a “real” Pagan film will roll into production. Will it be Starhawk’s “The Fifth Sacred Thing”? Or perhaps an adaptation of one of the many Pagan-themed novels that have done moderately well? I can’t say, but I feel fairly confident in my ability to predict its reception outside our interconnected communities (unless something truly remarkable happens).
Two of my favorite films about religion weren’t made for true believers: Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” and Robin Hardy/Anthony Shaffer’s “The Wicker Man” (though I love both for very different reasons). If either of these much-lauded classics had to run a gauntlet of pleasing a religious community, they would have either never been made, or would have turned out so different as to be unrecognizable. They certainly wouldn’t be picked up by new generations of film-lovers and held up for their artistry or ability to move us. So, as much as I love my religious community, I fear the day I have to watch and review a film of “ours” that’s “made it” to wide distribution.
For every good religious film, and I’ll leave you to make your own list, there are countless pious messes. When film stops being an artistic medium guided by visionaries, and instead starts serving a cause, you end up with movie goers attending out of duty, to prove some point instead of holding up excellence (or even entertainment).
“Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church is one of many religious leaders urging churchgoers to become moviegoers. ‘In fact, I told my church, ‘If you have to choose between church and movie, go see the movie this weekend,” he told CBS News’ John Blackstone. ‘Let’s send a message to Hollywood,” he said. ‘Not every movie has to be a Bible movie, but when they do come out, let’s support that, for sure.’”
That isn’t art. That’s activists mobilizing their purchasing power to enshrine a cultural product that doesn’t deserve it, and ten years from now, no one will be singing this work’s praises. No matter how rich the producers of “Son Of God” get off of Christian dollars, it won’t make much of a difference in the world of film, or in the world of Christianity. So I urge Pagans to be careful what they wish for, and what they work for. Let Pagan filmmakers craft their own visions, and if their work rises up to the mainstream on merit, then celebrate it. But let’s not fall into the “Son Of God” trap, because nobody wants to see “Horns Of Pan,” no matter how great the special effects are. I don’t want “Pagan” films, I want good films, great films.