Hollywood's Religious Revival: Looking Back at 2014

Two worthwhile movies available on Netflix and DVD/Blue-Ray this month represent the tail end of Hollywood’s recent religious craze. 

“St. Vincent” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” found their way to theaters late last year at the close of an unexpected revival of religious films. Earlier movies in theaters last year included “Son of God,” “Noah,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Heaven is for Real,” “God’s Not Dead,” “Calvary,” "Saving Christmas" and the “Left Behind” remake.

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While the quality of these movies varied widely, with none of them standing out as Oscar contenders, their healthy box office draw proved the viability of religious projects in Hollywood.

For my money, “St. Vincent” (a limited release last October that made $54 million) and “Exodus” (a major release that made $267 million) are among the better films of this bunch.

'St. Vincent'

In the dramatic comedy “St. Vincent,” Bill Murray plays a Vietnam veteran and antisocial Irish-American who gets unintentionally involved with neighbor Melissa McCarthy (a single mom) when she needs an emergency babysitter for her 11-year-old son. (See America's review here.)

In working-class Sheepshead Bay neighborhood in Brookyln, N.Y., Murray’s character “Vin” is an unreconstructed alcoholic and lowlife (his favored prostitute is played by Naomi Watts) whose influence on the boy is rarely noble. With the tagline “love thy neighbor,” the film constitutes a limit case for the second great commandment of Jesus, asking the question of whether it’s really possible to love someone who is as relentlessly unlovable as Vincent.

Although told through the eyes of the young boy whose Catholic schoolteacher (Chris O’Dowd as a religious brother) asks students to give a presentation on a modern-day saint, “St. Vincent” is consistently authentic and unromantic, surprising viewers with its tough refusal to let Vincent undergo any sort of conversion.

Perhaps the best Murray vehicle in years, “St. Vincent” feels designed as a semi-autobiographical showpiece for its star, allowing Murray to essentially play an older and uglier version of the loveable slob character he perfected in his early films. In an interview with The Guardian of London last November, Murray—who dropped out of Jesuit-run Regis University to pursue acting, only to receive an honorary degree from the school in 2007—discussed his Catholic faith and favorite saints. Among other little-known facts, the comedian's sister is a Dominican nun.

'Exodus: Gods and Kings'

Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a retelling of the Moses story released last December (reviewed by John Anderson for Americahere), is a very different sort of film from “St. Vincent.”

Starring Christian Bale, “Exodus” represents Scott’s agnostic take on the Moses story, but with a historical verisimilitude that attempts to present the story as something that might have occurred in real history. It distinguishes itself as the only movie, as far as I know, to depict all 10 of the plagues which God visits on Pharaoh—and it does so in a spectacular fashion that redeems for me some of the film’s earlier sluggish and bland stretches.

If Scott takes liberties with the Moses story, “Exodus” is still a generally respectful treatment of the material, seeking naturalistic explanations for miracles which don’t rule out the possibility of their divine origin.

Some Judeo-Christian filmgoers disliked “Exodus” for allowing God to speak with Moses through a snarky little boy angel, and for suggesting that God’s miraculous plagues might be exceptional events within the laws of nature, rather than supernatural or magical interventions which transcend nature. But Scott’s approach also wearied some non-religious viewers who found that his historical approach drained the Biblical story of its flavor. 

While the television miniseries “Moses” (1995, TNT Bible Series) with Ben Kingsley remains my favorite depiction of the story for its humanizing mixture of entertainment and dramatic fidelity to the Biblical text, I found “Exodus” to be a valid and entertaining alternative.

As 2015 progresses, we’ll have to see if last year’s religious films inspire similar productions. With decent box office receipts and generally mixed critical receptions, last year’s religious movies were hardly unqualified successes in the fashion of “The Passion of the Christ” or “Ben-Hur.”

'Son of God' and 'Noah'

In an article for America last July 2, I described 2014 as the “year of faith-based movies,” but noted the uneven quality of the productions.

Last year’s first major releases were "Son of God" and "Noah,” both of which garnered respectable box office receipts and wide critical attention during their late February and early March releases.

The former, a repackaging of “The Bible” television miniseries from 2013, represented a blend of Catholic (Roma Downey) and evangelical Protestant (Mark Burnett) sensibilities. A respectable PG-13 synthesis of the Jesus story told in the Gospels, “Son of God” was knocked by critics for being a re-edited cut of footage from the acclaimed miniseries, but made more than $67 million dollars for Fox on a small budget. It also prefigured the upcoming “A.D. — The Bible Continues” miniseries that the same producers will air on NBC this Easter.

Adopting an action-packed contemporary take on the gospels, "Son of God" presented Jesus as a blockbuster hero in a rousing and sometimes stirring way. Personally, I enjoyed the film and found it ideal for teaching purposes, especially with teenagers who might be distracted by the violence of Mel Gibson's film. While it lacks the realism of Pasolini's "The Gospel According to Matthew" and Visual Bible's "The Gospel of John," it's a good updating.

Meanwhile, Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” made more than $362 million worldwide and gained some critical recognition, but its presentation of Russell Crowe’s protagonist as a mythical action hero alienated many religious and non-religious viewers alike. When Crowe and his talking rock monster allies took on a bazooka-wielding villain in a battle for the ark, some Judeo-Christian believers felt cheated while some non-believers found themselves watching a so-so action movie geared toward agnostics.

Similar to “Exodus” in the agnosticism of its director and outlook, “Noah” nevertheless makes the critical mistake of presenting the Biblical tale as taking place in a “Lord of the Rings” fantasy world, where magic rocks and fiery swords are depicted literally. By following the style of Jewish gnostic writings rather than the milieu of the Jewish Torah, where colorful metaphors like “sons of God” disguise the fact that the stories take place in our actual world, “Noah” denies the possibility that the Biblical story took place in our historical universe. It thus sacrifices Biblical symbolism and modern-day scholarship in favor of a wide-eyed supernaturalism that undermines the story more profoundly than Scott’s film. It might be artistically superior to “Exodus” in some ways, and it’s got some good moments, but for me “Noah” is a painful viewing experience.

Independent Christian Films

On a smaller scale, several independent Christian movies found niche markets last year. “Gimme Shelter,” an underrated Catholic teen pregnancy drama starring Vanessa Hudgens and James Earl Jones, was my favorite of these efforts despite barely touching down in theaters last January to make $1.3 million. Based on a true story, it’s the grittiest pro-life drama I’ve seen since “Dead Man Walking.”

Also last spring, the artistically weaker Protestant evangelical dramas "Heaven is For Real" and "God's Not Dead" managed to make $62 million and $101 million respectively, despite being savaged by critics as poorly filmed offenses to good taste.

Another evangelical and apologetic Protestant effort, the “Left Behind” remake starring Nicholas Cage, earned just under $20 million after its release last November. A commercial and critical failure, it was declared by many critics to be the worst film of the year. Based on the “Left Behind” book series that created an evangelical craze for the “rapture” in the early 2000s, it’s only distinction is that it makes the original Kirk Cameron film of the same name (2000) look like Shakespeare.

Nominated for three Razzies for Worst Screenplay and Picture and Actor, last year’s “Left Behind” lost all three categories to Cameron’s evangelical drama “Saving Christmas,” another colossal bomb that still managed to make $2.2 million. Cameron's cinematic effort to "put Christ back in Christmas," winner of four Razzies at the Golden Raspberry Awards, was initially ranked by critics and users at Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB as the worst film in human history.

Finally, last year’s award-winning “Calvary” starring Brendan Gleeson earned the most critical acclaim of all these films, despite being a limited release that made only $12 million. A difficult Irish drama that centers on a revenge-motivated plot against an innocent Catholic priest fueled by anger over clergy sexual abuse, it won over Catholic viewers despite its more violent take on the theme explored earlier by the acclaimed “Doubt” (2008) with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not being a huge fan of disturbing films, I’ve avoided this title so far, but I may see it eventually. (Ronan McCoy reviewed the film for America.)

So the question remains: As we look back on an unusually big year for Jewish and Christian film releases, will 2015 offer further proof of religion’s staying power in Hollywood? Perhaps the best answer at this point is “God only knows.” With such a wide range of quality and box office receipts, last year’s religious revival hardly seems to confirm a new era of faith-based movies in America, but it doesn’t preclude further major studio releases either.

While we haven’t gone back to the golden age of “Ben-Hur” and DeMille’s “Ten Commandments,” we’re a long way from Veggie Tales.

Sean Salai, S.J., serves as contributing writer at America.

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