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Hollywood’s Greatest Masterpieces Get Religion, Unlike Schlocky Biblical Dramas

Forget ‘Noah’ or ‘Son of God’; to engage religious viewers, Hollywood should make more films like ‘Groundhog Day’ or ‘2001’

Liel Leibovitz
February 28, 2014
(Collage Tablet Magazine; Noah poster Paramount Pictures, Groundhog Day still Sony Pictures Home Entertainment via IMDb.)
(Collage Tablet Magazine; Noah poster Paramount Pictures, Groundhog Day still Sony Pictures Home Entertainment via IMDb.)

Although it doesn’t open for another month, you can already tell that Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s action-packed account of the Bible’s original beastmaster, is going to be harrowing, and not only because it features an 11-foot wingless fallen angel voiced by Nick Nolte: Without a single screening the film has unleashed a small torrent of articles asking the inevitable question, namely whether God could make it in Hollywood.

The Heavenly Father will certainly have his fair share of screen time this year, with Son of God, a biopic about you-know-who, opening this week, and Exodus, a Ridley Scott extravaganza with Christian Bale as Charlton Heston as Moses, coming in December. But, our pundits have already taken to asking, is Hollywood capable of spinning a good religious yarn? Or is it too greedy, too shallow, and too impious to make anything that appeals to the faithful?

As is often the case when we strive to talk seriously about popular entertainment, we’re asking all the wrong questions. Rather than fretting about whether Hollywood gets religion—it does, gloriously so, and to great effect—we should wonder why, given its stratospheric success with religious-themed films, is Hollywood so reluctant to give its audiences what they so clearly desire.

This, first and foremost, is a question of definitions. Who’s a religious person? And what kind of film might he like? To hear marketers, in Hollywood and beyond, tell it, a religious person is someone whose cultural horizon begins with Genesis and ends with Revelation, some sort of sniggering simpleton who grows suspicious unless his entertainment features swords, sandals, and the heroes he’d read about in Sunday School. This lazy and skewed approach is no less offensive than the efforts to market products to women simply by slapping on pink packaging, and no less ineffective: Women, like religious people and members of minority groups and the young and the old and people with terrible nut allergies and anyone else who was blessed with the breath of life, are complex and nuanced people whose tastes and predilections run far deeper than a single, simple note.

What, then, do religious people want? To the extent that the question is even answerable, we’d do well to look for clues beyond the obvious reverence for the Good Book. We may safely assume, for example, that religious people believe in God; that they adhere to a few theological precepts they hold sacred; that these precepts regulate behavior here on earth but look heavenward for authority, for reassurance, and for comfort; and that given the wild gap between heaven and earth, religious people struggle mightily to understand the nature of their relationship with God, a tricky proposition given that the Creator is ultimately unknowable. Not all religious people share this foundation, but a foundation nonetheless it is, and it is more likely than not to influence all aspects of a person’s life.

Like his or her taste in movies: Given the definition above, what kind of movie might a religious person love?

That’s a much better question to ask, and a much easier one to answer. How about, for example, a movie about a heartbroken man who must, at times of great upheaval, choose between his own narrow interests and his commitment, badly shaken but never shattered, to helping defeat evil and repair the world? It’s the sort of conflict, after all, every person of faith acutely feels at one point or another, that heady mixture of cynicism and despair and hurt that makes holding on to one’s values direly difficult. And yet we rise to the occasion, as did Rick Blaine, making Casablanca not only a cinematic masterpiece but also a paragon of religious art, no less evocative and instructive than, say, Rembrandt’s portraits of Christ, his gaze downturned, his head filled with doubt, his spirit struggling to overcome.

The list goes on: There’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—the “God concept,” Kubrick told an interviewer, was at the heart of his film; Groundhog Day, whose brilliant treatment of free will has won it the admiration of clergy of all stripes; even Fight Club, that slick and sexy telling of man’s quest for meaning in a soulless corporate wasteland. All these movies did very well in the box office, and all have inspired a genuine discussion about morality, spirituality, and the kind of life worth living. When’s the last time you felt this moved in shul or in church?

Given this stellar track record, then, it’s dispiriting to see Hollywood revert back to the notion that the faithful will only flock to the multiplex to see Moses, Jesus, Noah, and the gang. It’s even more dispiriting to read some critics hail Quo Vadis? and The Ten Commandments as the sole examples, more or less, of Hollywood going religious, or see others deride the film industry for being constitutionally incapable of anything meaningful or profound. Let’s give tinseltown the credit it deserves: The best films it produces are often just the sort of morally serious stuff that we believers crave. If only it gave us more Bill Murray sitting in a diner and telling Andie MacDowell he’s immortal and less Russell Crowe in robes on an ark summoning animals, Hollywood would truly be a more pious, not to mention profitable, place.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.