From Sausage Party to Silence, it was a banner year for religion onscreen.
I started 2016 as chief film critic at Christianity Today and ended it on staff here at Vox. Religion and pop culture has been my beat for a long while. So it’s not surprising I spot it around every corner.
But even by my heightened radar’s standards, 2016 feels like a banner year for onscreen treatments of religion. I don’t mean what we’ve come to consider “Christian movies,” though there were a few of those, most notably the moderately commercially successful God’s Not Dead 2 and the crashing box office failure Ben-Hur (executive produced, by the way, by Mark Burnett of The Apprentice). “Christian films” are made for a sizable but still niche market and bent to the tastes of that segment: biblical or inspirational tales, or (in the case of the God’s Not Dead franchise) legends of the culture wars. They’re meant to preach to — or shore up — the choir.
“Christian movies” had their most recent heyday in 2014 and 2015 and seem to be tapering off, at least in terms of box office returns. But 2016 belonged to a different kind of onscreen religion, aimed at mainstream audiences. In 2016, films and TV shows that portrayed religion — organized or not — were less interested in preaching or caricaturing and more in exploring how faith and (especially) doubt fit into the frameworks of people’s lives today.
Religion showed up onscreen in everything from dark, gritty dramas to dirty animated fables
2016 started with the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar, a comedy about competing ideologies (Hollywood capitalism, Marxism, and Christian faith) that is explicitly modeled on a passion play.
And now the year is ending with Martin Scorsese’s Silence, perhaps the most stirring, perceptive film about belief and doubt in decades.
The months between yielded movies about pluralism and agnosticism (Sausage Party), the mysterious, doubtable supernatural (Midnight Special), and entering and escaping cults (Holy Hell). In The Birth of a Nation, the Bible acts as impetus for violent action in pursuit of justice; in Hacksaw Ridge, it motivates nonviolence and heroism.
In A Quiet Passion (which played at festivals in 2016 and will open in theaters next year), Terence Davies uses Emily Dickinson’s life to plumb the space that might best be described as believing unbelief. The Witch artfully poses a conflict between stringent Puritan faith and witchcraft in colonial New England. Knight of Cups positioned its narrator on the road to faith (modeled explicitly on both tarot and Pilgrim’s Progress). The documentary The Illinois Parables reads the complicated matter of religion and historical conflict into the landscape of Illinois. In Queen of Katwe, a Christian missionary brings opportunity to illiterate children in the slums he came from.
Beyoncé’s magnum opus Lemonade explicitly drew on religious imagery in its proclamation of freedom for its creator and women like her. The Innocents, like Silence, grapples with faith cracked by doubt in the face of unthinkable violence to the bodies of the devout — in this case, the brutal rape of nuns.
That Christianity is the organized belief system of interest in most of these projects isn’t surprising. They’re mostly American productions, and Christianity is still the dominant religion practiced in America — though I suspect that onscreen organized religion will expand in the next few years to include a higher number of serious treatments of Judaism, Islam, and other religions.
Still, attentive moviegoers could have caught Under the Shadow, a stellar Iranian political horror film, which borrows on concepts from Islamic folklore to explore the fallout from the Iran-Iraq War. And Tikkun, an Israeli horror film, navigated the complexities of bodies and souls in contemporary Orthodox Judaism.
Meanwhile, on TV, Rectify (about guilt, forgiveness, and redemption in small-town America) and The Americans (about religion as a competitor to nationalist ideologies) topped critics’ lists, while The Path and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looked at the complicated reasons people enter, leave, remain in, and recover from oppressive systems of belief.
For a pretty goofy show, Lucifer featured a surprisingly nuanced account of evil and fate, while on Daredevil, Matt Murdock’s Catholicism is a central part of his character. Preachertook as its starting point the conflation of pastorly authority and possession by something evil. On both Jane the Virgin and The Jim Gaffigan Show, Catholic faith is also part of characters’ identities and influences the decisions they make.
While Black-ish usually treats Grandma Ruby’s (Jenifer Lewis) outspoken religion as just one of her wacky character details, it nonetheless has aired several episodes dealing with the role of church and belief in God in its larger exploration of black identity in America. The Night Of portrays American Muslims whose character arcs aren’t just a vehicle for a story about terrorism or war. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) regularly consults his friend, the cool, collar-wearing minister Father Brah (Rene Gube). And Transparent — which has been called “the most Jewish show on television” — features a rabbi among its main cast.
This isn’t even an exhaustive list — that would be impossible to compile — and leaves out a lot of what’s happening in genres like horror and in independent and niche film. But as close watchers of the industry can attest, these certainly constitute an observable uptick in religiously oriented content for mainstream audiences.
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