Religious Essay, Research Paper

In this study, the use of "religious" as a film genre is meant to denote 1) dramatizations of characters and events from the holy books of world religions; 2) biographies of saints and clergy; 3) films in which the principal characters are members of the clergy; and 4) films that deal directly with spiritual questions and beliefs. The religious film is one of the oldest of all genres, starting in 1897 with The Passion Play, an American filming of the annual production in Horwitz, Bohemia. Other films quickly followed, including Louis Lumiere's The Life And Passion Of Jesus Christ (1897, aka The Passion) and The Passion Play Of Oberammergau (1898), which was actually staged in New York City. Along with his numerous trick-photography fantasies, George Melies also made Le Christ Marchant Sur Les Flots (1899) and Jeanne D'Arc (1900), an elaborate 12-scene drama with hundreds of extras. American one-reel films included a 1907 version of Ben-Hur and a 1908 version of Salome. Films about Jesus continued to be made, with such French productions as The Life Of Christ (1906), The Life Of Jesus (1907), The Birth Of Jesus (1909), and The Kiss Of Judas (1909). An elaborate three-reeler from France, The Life And Passion Of Jesus Christ (1908), achieved wide popularity and was re-released in 1914 in an expanded, hand-tinted version called The Life Of Our Savior (and reissued again in 1921as Behold The Man!, with a modern, framing story). A series of theatrical tableaux in the tradition of Melies, the film effectively employed its new colors, elaborating them into flamelike waves for the angel that protects Mary and Joseph during their flight to Egypt, while shrewdly keeping Christ's robes in unadulterated white, making him stand out in such colorful crowd scenes as his entrance into Jerusalem or his appearance before Pontius Pilate. A greater sophistication defined religious films by the teens. Sidney Olcott, who had co-directed the 1907 Ben-Hur, journeyed to Egypt for location sequences in his handsome account of the life of Christ, From The Manger To The Cross (1913). Italy's Enrico Guazzoni directed Quo Vadis? (1913), an eight-reel adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel about Nero's persecution of the early Christians. The international success of this epic inspired D.W. Griffith to make his first feature-length film, the stirring Judith Of Bethulia (1914), in which Blanche Sweet played the Old Testament heroine who decapitates the invading warlord Holofernes. Among the four narratives of Griffith's masterpiece Intolerance (1916) was the life of Christ, and these Judean scenes, rich in detail and naturally staged, rank among Griffith's finest work. Howard Gaye, who movingly portrayed Jesus in Intolerance, went on to repeat the role under his own direction in Restitution (1918), in which Christ battles Satan and his latest ally, Kaiser Wilhelm. Thomas H. Ince's pacifist allegory Civilization (1916) featured Jesus preaching peace as two great nations ready for war; after America entered World War I, he re-edited his film to support the war effort. In Joan The Woman (1916), director Cecil B. De Mille and writer Jeanie Macpherson combined the life of Joan of Arc with a patriotic account of a soldier fighting in World War I. Other modern dramas that employed religious visions were Light At Dusk (1916), The Unbeliever (1918), and The Eternal Magdalene (1919). American dramatizations of biblical characters included Mary Magdalene (1914), Samson (1914), and Theda Bara as Salome (1918). The 1920s saw several landmark religious films. Carl Dreyer's Leaves From Satan's Book (1921) depicted the life of Christ as one of its four stories. Robert Wiene's account of Jesus, I.N.R.I. (1923), included scenes filmed in Palestine; director Errett LeRoy Kenepp also journeyed to the Holy Land for his The Man Nobody Knows (1925). Cecil B. De Mille again combined historical and contemporary narratives with his popular epic The Ten Commandments (1923). Alla Nazimova starred as Salome (1923) in a stylish, provocative adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play. A ten-reel Italian remake of Quo Vadis? (1925), directed by Arturo Ambrosio and starring Emil Jannings as Nero, failed to capture the enthusiasm that greeted its predecessor; the twelve-reel American Ben-Hur (1926), however, proved to be a rousing success, thrilling audiences with its elaborate sea battle and chariot race. Fred Niblo directed this lavish adaptation of Lew Wallace's novel about a Jewish slave whose path intersects Christ's. That same year, director Raoul Walsh dramatized the Old Testament story of the Prodigal Son with The Wanderer (1926). The very end of the silent era saw two classics of the religious film. The King Of Kings (1927), directed by De Mille and written by Jeanie Macpherson, starred H.B. Warner in a nuanced and moving performance as Jesus. Arguably DeMille's finest film, the director easily moved from simple and intimate scenes, such as Christ first being glimpsed by a blind girl he has healed, to spectacular representations of the crucifixion and resurrection (the latter filmed in two-strip Technicolor). Carl Dreyer's La Passion De Jeanne D'Arc (1928) was a stunning account of Joan of Arc's trial and execution. Working with a relentless series of realistic close-ups, Dreyer gave the film an almost newsreel sense of immediacy. In her only film appearance, Maria Falconetti was unforgettable as Joan, bringing to life both the humanity and the spirituality of this visionary young Frenchwoman who was martyred for adhering to the role ordained for her by the spirit voices that had led her to victory on the battlefield. Perhaps because of the greater realism created by sound, the early talkies marked an initial decline in religious films. Noah's Ark (1929), a partial-silent directed by Michael Curtiz, repeated De Mille's formula from Joan The Woman and used religious sequences — here, the Old-Testament account of the flood — alongside a modern story of World War One. Two popular historical tales contrasted pagan debauchery with the nobility of the early Christians: The Sign Of The Cross (1932), directed by De Mille, featuring Charles Laughton as a surprisingly uncloseted Nero, and The Last Days Of Pompeii (1935), directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and produced by Merian C. Cooper, with Basil Rathbone as a guilt-haunted Pontius Pilate. Julian Duvivier wrote and produced Golgotha (1935, aka Ecce Homo), with Robert Le Vignan as Christ and Jean Gabin as Pilate. More unusual religious-themed films of the period include the unexpectedly homo- (and hetero-) erotic experimental short Lot In Sodom (1933) by James Watson and Melville Webber, and The Green Pastures (1936), an adaptation of Marc Connelly's hit play, co-directed by William Keighley and Connelly; an all-black cast starred in this account of Heaven combined with several Old Testament stories, all related in the idiom of rural African-Americans. The 1940s saw several unusual dramas based on religious themes. Susan And God (1940), directed by George Cukor, starred Joan Crawford as a woman whose religious fervor alienates her family; Anita Loos adapted the Rachel Crothers play. The Razor's Edge (1946), directed by Edmond Goulding, adapted Somerset Maugham's novel of a young man's search for spiritual meaning. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) was a stylish psychodrama of Anglican nuns in an isolated convent in the Himalayas. The Fugitive (1947), directed by John Ford and adapted by Dudley Nichols from Graham Greene's novel The Power And The Glory, starred Henry Fonda as a priest battling anti-Catholic repression in Mexico. Roberto Rossellini's The Miracle, the second episode of his two-part L'Amore (1948), was denounced at the time as blasphemous, but is actually a sensitive and spiritual tale of a simple-minded Italian peasant woman, played by Anna Magnani, who believes she is carrying the Christ child after she's made pregnant by a silent wanderer whom she's taken to be St. Joseph; Federico Fellini wrote the scenario and played the mysterious "saint." More conventional postwar religious films include director Victor Fleming's final effort, Joan Of Arc (1948), starring Ingrid Bergman; De Mille's Samson And Delilah (1949), with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr; and The Lawton Story (1949), a filming of the annual Passion Play held in Lawton, Oklahoma, directed by William Beaudine and Harold Daniels and produced by exploitation king Kroger Babb. Rossellini made one of the finest religious films of the 1950s with Francesco — Giullare Di Dio (1950, aka The Flowers Of St. Francis). Again writing with Fellini, Rossellini brought reverence, humor, and imagination to his tale of St. Francis of Assisi. With his then-wife Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini also filmed the Arthur Honegger oratorio Joan Of Arc At The Stake (1954). Robert Bresson's Diary Of A Country Priest (1951), an adaptation of the Georges Bernanos novel, was a memorable account of a young priest's difficult ministry in rural France. Ordet (1955), Carl Dreyer's adaptation of Kaj Munk's play, stands as one of the decade's masterpieces, an account of religious intolerance in Denmark, which pivots on an insane man who believes he is Jesus. American films, more literal-minded, had God speaking directly to the world over the radio in The Next Voice You Hear (1950), directed by William A. Wellman; the Deity even eliminated Soviet communism in Red Planet Mars (1952). John Brahm directed a pious account of a 20th-century sighting of the Virgin Mary in The Miracle Of Our Lady Of Fatima (1952). Graham Greene adapted George Bernard Shaw's play for director Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1958), the film debut of Jean Seberg. Audrey Hepburn played a nun who ultimately leaves her convent to join Belgium's anti-Nazi underground in director Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story (1959). Otherwise, most American religious films of the '50s were big-budget epics, including director Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis (1951); David And Bathsheba (1951), directed by Henry King and starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward; Salome (1953), directed by William Dieterle, with Rita Hayworth dancing to save(!) John the Baptist from Charles Laughton's Herod; the first CinemaScope film, The Robe (1953), an adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas' novel, with Richard Burton as the Roman soldier who gained possession of Christ's robe after the crucifixion; The Robe's sequel, Demetrius And The Gladiators (1953), directed by Delmer Daves; and The Silver Chalice (1954), directed by Victor Saville, with Paul Newman in his film debut as a Greek sculptor who fashions the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Two major Hollywood directors ended their careers making religious films: King Vidor with Solomon And Sheba (1959), starring Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida, and Frank Borzage with The Big Fisherman (1959), an adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas' novel about Simon Peter, with Howard Keel playing to an offscreen Jesus. Two remakes, both starring Charlton Heston, stand as the decade's genre landmarks: De Mille's lavish, effects-laden The Ten Commandments (1956), and director William Wyler's equally opulent Ben-Hur (1959). The box-office success of these two extravaganzas assured that the biblical epic would lumber into the 1960s, even though the results were invariably critical and financial failures. The life of Jesus received two reverential, lengthy, big-budget, and star-crammed filmings: King Of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Jeffrey Hunter as a young and charismatic Christ, and George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), with Max von Sydow as a dignified, otherworldly Jesus. Director Robert Aldrich offered audiences a Sodom And Gomorrah (1963) more opulent but far tamer than Watson and Webber's. Barabbas (1961), directed by Richard Fleischer and adapted by Christopher Fry from Per Lagerkvist's novel, starred Anthony Quinn as the thief who was pardoned while Jesus was condemned to death. Fry also adapted the first 22 books of Genesis for director John Huston's The Bible (1966), a multi-episode film most successful in its delightful Noah's Ark sequence. Lower-budget, inevitably Italian-made efforts include Joan Collins and Richard Egan as Esther And The King (1960) for director Raoul Walsh, and John Drew Barrymore playing both Jesus and Judas in director Irving Rapper's Pontius Pilate (1962). Italy also produced a true classic of the genre: Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964, aka The Gospel According To Saint Matthew). Working in poor Southern Italian locations with a non-professional cast, Pasolini brought to life Matthew's Jesus as a revolutionary denouncing a spiritless consumer society. Other memorable foreign films of the '60s include Robert Bresson's The Trial Of Joan Of Arc (1962); Satyajit Ray's Devi (1960, aka The Goddess), in which a young woman is taken for the reincarnation of a Hindu goddess and is ultimately driven insane; and Roberto Rossellini's five-part Acts Of The Apostles (1968). Two popular historical dramas in which religious men are martyred for adhering to their faith against the politics of the court were director Peter Glenvile's Becket (1964), an adaptation of the Jean Anouilh play starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton, and A Man For All Seasons (1966), directed by Fred Zinnemann and adapted by Robert Bolt from his own play. Other dramas of the clergy included Jean-Pierre Melville's Leon Morin, Priest (1961), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo; Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Joan Of The Angels (1962); The Cardinal (1963), produced and directed by Otto Preminger; and La Religeuse (1965, aka The Nun), Jacques Rivette's adaptation of Denis Diderot's controversial 18th-century novel, with Anna Karina as the tormented heroine. Nearing the end of his career, Roberto Rossellini scrutinized the lives of two great Christian thinkers with Augustine Of Hippo (1972) and Blaise Pascal (1978); his final film was a thoughtful account of Jesus, The Messiah (1978). Franco Zeffirelli made a colorful but superficial biopic of St. Francis, Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1973). However, with Jesus Of Nazareth (1978), a life of Christ written with Anthony Burgess and Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Zeffirelli made one of the genre's best films, a handsome and absorbing narrative — for all its reverence, length, big budget, and penchant for famous guest stars — which boasts a dynamic performance from Robert Powell as Christ. Other '70s films about Jesus include The Gospel Road (1973), produced and written by singer Johnny Cash, with director Robert Elfstrom as Christ, and Jesus (1979), a dramatization of the St. Luke Gospel starring Brian Deacon. The Passover Plot (1976), an adaptation of Hugh J. Schonfield's controversial book, argued that the resurrection was a hoax plotted by Jesus and his disciples; Zalman King starred as Jesus (called by the Hebraic name Yeshua). The gospels were also filmed twice as musicals in contemporary settings: Stephen Schwartz's Godspell (1973), directed by David Greene, and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), directed by Norman Jewison. Wayward nuns gained popularity in the '70s, with Eriprando Visconti's The Lady Of Monza (1970, aka Una Storia Lombarda; The Nun Of Monza), starring Anne Heyward, and Ken Russell's phantasmagoric The Devils (1971), starring Vanessa Redgrave. Peter Brook looked at the life of theologian and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in Meetings With Remarkable Men (1979); Guy Green directed Luther (1974), an adaptation of John Osborne's play, with Stacy Keach as Martin Luther; Burt Lancaster starred as Moses — The Lawgiver (1975). Non-western religions were also represented in films of the '70s: Conrad Rooks went to India to film Siddhartha (1973), his adaptation of Herman Hesse's novel of a young Indian Brahmin's search for meaning; the origins of Islam were examined in Mohammad, Messenger Of God (1977, aka The Message), a film which met with protests and even terrorism from the faithful, despite its adherence to Islam's dictum against any visual representation of Mohammad. Comedies that poked fun at religion proliferated in the late '70s and early '80s. George Burns played God for directors Carl Reiner (Oh, God!, 1977), Gilbert Cates (Oh, God! Book II, 1980), and Paul Bogart (Oh, God! You Devil, 1984). Televangelists became ripe for satire in Marty Feldman's In God We Tru$t (1980) and Beth B's Salvation! (1987). But the classic was the hilarious and inspired Life Of Brian (1979), a New Testament send-up from England's Monty Python's Flying Circus. Almost as risible — albeit less intentionally — were Richard Gere cavorting as King David (1985) for director Bruce Beresford, and Bill Murray searching for the meaning of life in the second filming of The Razor's Edge (1984). More notable religious-themed films of the '80s include Salome's Last Dance (1988), Ken Russell's imaginative version of Oscar Wilde's play; Mickey Rourke as St. Francis of Assisi in Liliana Cavani's Francesco (1989); and director Peter Brook's epic account of the Hindu cosmos, The Mahabharata (1989). Fact-based accounts of priests martyred for their political activities included To Kill A Priest (1988), directed by Agnieska Holland, and Romero (1989), directed by John Duigan. Priests and nuns also continued to struggle unsuccessfully against temptation in such melodramas as Monsignor (1982), directed by Frank Perry, Luciano Odorisio's Sacrilege (1986), and Maurice Pialat's Under The Sun Of Satan (1987). The life of Jesus has continued to fascinate filmmakers. Ermanno Olmi made a charming and humorous re-enactment of the journey of the Magi with Camminacammina (1983); Franco Rossi speculated on Christ's boyhood in A Child Called Jesus (1989). In Search Of Historic Jesus (1980), a pseudo-documentary openly questioning Christ's divinity, met with little protests in an era of worldwide religious fanaticism. Two celebrated filmmakers, for all their genuine reverence, were far-less fortunate and provoked international controversy with their original reflections on Christ. Jean-Luc Godard's Je Vous Salue, Marie (1985, aka Hail, Mary) looked at the Holy Family as a contemporary mother, father, and child, and earned a denunciation from Pope John Paul II, who hadn't seen the film. The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988), directed by Martin Scorsese and adapted by Leonard Schrader from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, depicted Christ as a man confused and tormented by the holy mission set before him. This imaginative, deeply felt film met with protests throughout the United States and was quickly hounded out of American theaters. Recent films have regarded organized religion with suspicion. Two cautionary tales of the havoc wrought by missionaries appeared in 1991: At Play In The Fields Of The Lord (1991), director Hector Babenco's adaptation of the Peter Mathiessen novel, and Black Robe (1991), directed by Bruce Beresford. Spike Lee's biopic Malcolm X (1992) dramatized Malcolm's break with Elijah Muhammad's branch of Islam over issues of corruption. Steve Martin played a bogus evangelist in Leap Of Faith (1993). John N. Smith's The Boys Of St. Vincent (1994) depicted a true tale of physical and sexual abuse endured by boys at a Catholic orphanage in Canada. Yet religious narratives persist. The Hungarian film The Annunciation (1993) achieved uniqueness by retelling Christ's life with an all-child cast. Little Buddha (1994), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and written by Mark Peploe and Rudy Wurlitzer, returned to the De Mille formula of combining contemporary drama with period religious narrative, and intercut its account of the life of Siddhartha with a tale of American parents whose young son is declared the reincarnation of the Dali Lama by a group of Tibetan monks. Despite the occasional controversies they may excite, religious films in the 1990s are as permanent a fixture as they were in the 1890s.


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