Like a prodigal son, Hollywood is again returning to religion.
Since the 1980s, Hollywood has been criticized (with justification) for depicting any religious believer as mindless, evil or both. Filmmakers this year treat them with respect.
“Silence” and “Hacksaw Ridge” daringly center around devout Christians. Religious beliefs have a positive effect on the lead characters in other 2016 films, including “Fences,” “ ,” “Jackie,” “Mr. Church,” even “The Conjuring 2.”
Studios have their own belief system, and it’s based on recent hits. Hollywood loves stories about an individual whose principles are challenged, but usually the protagonist is a superhero, cop or animated creature.
“Silence” depicts the culture clash of Western Christians with Japanese. The long legacy of the “white savior” is turned upside down, and the film raises issues of faith, doubt, personal integrity, and the fine line between belief and stubborn pride. To its credit, “Silence” raises questions that audience members must answer.
The subject matter and treatment of its themes are out of sync with most current movies; this daring approach is so startling that the movie seems hip. Kudos to Paramount and the backers.
In the Lionsgate-Summit “Hacksaw Ridge,” Desmond Doss’ actions are driven by his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs. His WWII actions would be unbelievable if they weren’t true. His religion gives him personal strength, and it drives him to help others; he makes the world a better place.
An audience member doesn’t need to be Christian to appreciate the values depicted. These are universal stories about the human condition. And both films are examples of great storytelling (from Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson, respectively), with terrific work above and below the line. The movies have something else in common: Andrew Garfield gives his two best performances.
In Fox’s “Hidden Figures,” the heroines (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae) are churchgoers. That fact alone is a statement: Religious beliefs are depicted as an important part of daily life.
Similarly, church provides comfort from personal anguish to Viola Davis in Par’s “Fences.”
In Searchlight’s “Jackie,” Jacqueline Kennedy is lost in grief after the 1963 assassination of her husband. She consults with a priest (John Hurt) and when audiences see the clerical garb and hear the Irish accent, they may brace themselves for a comical character. But in fact, he turns out to be genuinely helpful and insightful — though not in an expected way, which is one of the strengths of the movie.
This year’s films offer a good alternative to Hollywood’s recent trend of contempt for organized religion, as exemplified by “The Da Vinci Code” and last year’s best-picture Oscar winner “Spotlight.”
In the latter, every priest onscreen is a child molester, and every child molester is a priest. The film offers damning statistics and anecdotes, mostly true. But there is no balance, no mention of the fact that child molesters lurk in virtually every profession.
Nobody acknowledges that the vast majority of priests do good work. Though “Spotlight” is well-crafted, it’s impossible to exit the theater with any positive feelings about religion (especially Catholicism) or believers.
The 2016 crop is a good antidote. Hollywood is clearly trying to make films that better represent the world population, so this is a positive step. Next: Maybe positive depictions of Hindu or Muslim believers?
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