Since 1895, the magnification of the human image and the exaltation of human experience for the purposes of cinema have influenced how people see themselves, define relationships, conduct behavior, kiss, walk, act cool and perceive their place in the universe.
This image is not always elevating, of course. Many examples of human behavior in the movies are negative. But there is no escaping that the moviegoer can develop an intimate connection with the screen. Inhibitions are dissolved. Bonds are formed. Souls are silently bared, which explains the fury with which some people react to intrusions into their movie-induced cocoons brought on by ringing cellphones, yammering voices and the truculent light of texting, all of which burn a hole in the velvety darkness of a theater (as if someone barged into the confessional selling life insurance).
Under ideal moviegoing conditions, the viewer surrounded by others still inhabits his or her own womblike space and occupies as receptive a state regarding matters spiritual as he or she is likely to do in the course of an otherwise secular day.
This year, there has been no shortage of relevant stimuli at the multiplex, though some of it has come from the oddest places. “Cowboys & Aliens,” for instance, which probably grossed $100 million or so less than Universal would have liked, proclaimed a rather cogent message about the “fraternity of man”: When faced with a common enemy, even cowboys, Indians and bad guys can come together to save the world from evil, gooey space aliens—unlikely allies indeed, but created in God’s image nonetheless. Who created the evil, gooey space aliens? That was not a theological question the movie cared to investigate. But “Cowboys” was not a serious movie, certainly not about the nature of the universe, any more than the grotesquely profitable “Breaking Dawn” (or any other vampire movie) is a serious consideration of life after death. (One would be better off watching “Walking Dead” on AMC.) The exploitation of religion, whether implied or explicit, has always been part of the movies, the aim being a borrowed credibility meant to validate the most outlandish concept.
This year, the exploitation tactic seemed on its way to becoming entrenched and intractable.
Among those entertainments that might be termed “biblical burlesque” was “11-11-11,” released, naturally, on Nov. 11, 2011, involving false prophets, the Beast, the Man of Sin and very little that was revelatory. Close on its heels was the exhausting “Immortals,” a hodgepodge of Greek and Roman mythology, excessive violence, lazy history and deities as martial artists; it was enough to give polytheism a bad name. These are ludicrous examples of a trend that elsewhere, however, found movies with genuine spiritual intentions (some realized, some not). Often these were endowed with a sense of aspiration that was inspirational.
Chief among them (reviewed in America on June 6, 2011) was “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s polarizing meditation on everything from the director’s own upbringing in 1950s suburban Texas to the Creation itself. No one seemed indifferent to what Malick was doing. Responses ranged from exhilaration to outright hostility. (In Connecticut, an art-house theater operator had to post a sign at his box office, warning that there would be no refunds for “The Tree of Life.” Proceed at your own risk.) What seemed more important to this viewer was Malick’s reach, whether or not it exceeded his grasp. Striving for euphoria is itself euphoric. To critique this movie for an opaque storyline would be like deriding an artist-of-epiphanies like Mark Rothko for not making representational paintings or snarking at William Faulkner for using long sentences. You would simply be missing the point.
Unlike Malick’s oblique approach to the divine, several other movies this past year took a head-on approach to spirituality, which, as every savvy filmgoer knows, or should, is precisely not how it’s done. You do not make a movie about hubris by telling a story about hubris. You do it by telling the story of a newspaper tycoon named Kane. You do not create a timeless classic about undying devotion by putting two mooncalf teenagers together on a beach; you do it through a cynical bar owner and his lost lover in wartime Casablanca. It is very unlikely that you can make a convincing movie about a spiritual journey by making a movie about—literally—a spiritual journey. That is what Emilio Estevez did this year with “The Way,” a well-intentioned train-wreck of religious cinema.
Instead, you do it with a movie like “Of Gods and Men” (rev. 2/21/11), as ennobling a story about faith as has ever been made, precisely because it was about men questioning their faith.
Directed by the Frenchman Xavier Beauvois and based on a true-crime story about the abduction and beheading of seven Cistercian monks by Islamic extremists in Algeria in the mid-’90s, “Of Gods and Men” was suspenseful, entertaining and profound. The hard-working Trappists at hand, threatened with real and unimaginable violence by Islamic fundamentalists, are forced to confront the meaning of their lives, their vocations, their beliefs, their purpose. The specter of death, no longer an abstract construct, haunts their existence. The very concrete collision of faith and mortality makes for the most stirringly religious movie of this year, or any year in recent memory.
Why was “Of Gods and Men” such a rare gem? Because the movies are a mass medium devoted to sating the appetites of viewers accustomed to predigested concepts and uncomplicated thought.
Most of the movies this year that used Christian imagery or beliefs generally did so to either ham-handed or facetious effect. “Soul Surfer,” the oh-so-deliberately “inspirational” story of a young athlete whose arm is bitten off by a shark yet who makes a spiritual and professional recovery, was so obvious that even some of those inclined to buy its message were turned off by its tactics. At the other end of the spectrum is “Red State,” by Kevin Smith, a comic-book entrepreneur, provocateur and practicing Catholic. Smith imagined an apocalyptic Christian sect so satirically evil that viewers had to take it as a joke or else take offense, not because the characters were implausible but because they were so clumsily constructed.
The execution of movie art, regardless of content or context, can have an exalting effect on the viewer, especially when his or her best instincts are addressed. “Melancholia,” an end-of-the-world movie by that problematically great Dane, Lars von Trier, did not delve into any questions of literal immortality, but the humanity of the film’s characters possessed a divine spark. So did the documentary “My Reincarnation,” by Jennifer Fox, which took 20 years to make. Fox followed a Tibetan Buddhist teacher from callow youth, through the disavowal of his spiritual destiny to mature manhood reconciled with his mission on earth. One need not embrace these beliefs to appreciate the journey, because the story is transcendent—much like “The Tree of Life,” “Of Gods and Men” and other films this year that simply, sometimes eloquently, exceeded our expectations.