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Religious films are dominating at movie theaters. This past weekend, “Heaven Is for Real” was number two at the box office, and “Noah,” “God’s Not Dead” and “Son of God” have also been doing well.
Is it the Passover and Easter season, or is something else going on here? Film critic Ty Burr, who wrote about the topic for The Boston Globe, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the religious films.
“I think we’ve seen in the past 10 years a growth in basic cottage industries of Christian film producers — small producers, some of which are aligned with the major studios, some of which are putting stuff out on their own, and they’ve been releasing their movies in small exhibition pattern,” Burr said. “But they’re also starting to get into multiplexes, because the multiplexes are trying to bring people back, and the major studios are starting to pay attention after the success of Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ.'”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Films of faith are boffo at the box office this spring. Last weekend, "Heaven is for Real" was the second highest grossing film. "Captain America" was first. As The New York Times put it, God could not beat a superhero, but he had other hits recently: "Noah" and "God's Not Dead." Is it just the effect of the Easter Passover season or something else going on here? Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr says religious films have long been popular. They used to be shown in revival tents back in the 1930s. And he joins us in the studio to talk about what else might be going on now. Ty, good to see you, as always.
TY BURR: Thanks, Robin. Good to be here.
YOUNG: And you wrote back in March a fascinating piece about the history of faith in films, sort of the ebb and flow. And you said while not yet a great cinematic great awakening, something is going on now at this intersection of film and faith. What is it?
BURR: Well, I think we've seen in the past 10 years a growth in basic cottage industries of Christian film producers, small producers, some of which are aligned with the major studios, some of which are putting stuff out on their own, and they've been releasing their movies in small exhibition patterns. But they're also starting to get into multiplexes because the multiplexes are trying to bring people back. And the major studios are starting to pay attention after the success of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ."
YOUNG: Well, that was too - as you wrote - many secular viewers kind of a blood bath. They were horrified. But to many devout Christians, it was the first accurate telling.
BURR: Right. And, you know, and it played well around the planet. And that is something that the film industry understands is...
YOUNG: Yeah. Made money.
BURR: Yeah. Box office success.
YOUNG: Yeah. And by the way, you mentioned the cottage industry. You and I have talked before about Kirk Cameron starred in a series of Christian films. I mean, there've been these little niche groups of films chugging along for a while.
BURR: Right. And they play very, very well to the faithful, to the evangelical audience. And now, they're starting to get into a larger exhibition pattern and reaching out to a broader audience.
YOUNG: And people are responding. "Heaven is for Real." It was based on the book by Pastor Todd Burpo whose son Colton said he had a religious experience during emergency surgery. Greg Kinnear plays the pastor, Connor Corum plays Colton. And let's listen to a scene early in the film where the pastor asks his son if after surgery he's scared of the hospital.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HEAVEN IS REAL")
CONNOR CORUM: (As Colton Burpo) No. That's where the angels sing to me.
GREG KINNEAR: (As Todd Burpo) The angels sang to you?
CORUM: (As Colton Burpo) Yes.
KINNEAR: (As Todd Burpo) When?
CORUM: (As Colton Burpo) During the operation when Mom was in one room talking on the phone and you were in another room yelling at God.
YOUNG: Mm-hmm. How does he know that, you know? And so this is what's gripping people. This is based on a real-life story.
BURR: It was based on Todd Burpo's account of what his son experienced.
What's interesting about this film is that it's not setting out to necessarily convert an unconverted audience. It's about the characters struggling with their faith to believe what this kid is saying. The struggle, really, the drama, the conflict is within the pastor, his wife, the other members of the church...
YOUNG: And you wrote surprisingly nuanced.
BURR: Yeah. I think for the Christian film audience, it's a worthy film that dramatizes, you know, real conflicts, real spiritual conflicts that the faithful go through. To a non-believing audience, they won't be as interested in it, but it plays very well to an audience that, you know, grapples with such issues.
YOUNG: Well, we're going to listen to other films that are doing that, but you say that's a key component of these films currently, that back in the day, when we had "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments," these were external conflicts...
YOUNG: ...fist racing against some external force, be it the seas or chariots. But this is internal.
BURR: Exactly. "The Ten Commandments," you know, the conflict is, to a certain extent, in Moses. But once he buys in, it's between, you know, Moses and Dathan and all the other characters and Moses leading them on. And when we see a new movie like "Noah," it really is about the struggle within the main character, Noah, to accept whether he should do what God seems to be telling him. And it's - there will be, actually, a new "Exodus" movie starring Christian Bale as Moses in theaters by the end of the year. And it will be very interesting to see how this compares to Cecil B. DeMille.
YOUNG: Oh, we'll look for that. But you mentioned Russell Crowe as Noah, another big studio film. There was a lot of criticism from some religious groups before it was released. They said the story was inaccurate. You just - well, we'll get to that in a second, but let's listen to a little of Russell Crowe's performance as Noah.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOAH")
RUSSELL CROWE: (As Noah) A great flood is coming. The waters of the heavens will meet the waters of the Earth. We'll build a vessel to survive the storm.
YOUNG: Ty Burr, a success in theaters, but it got some criticism from Christian groups. And I'm wondering, they're probably watching this a little thrilled - wow, these movies are doing well - and a little hesitant because it means there's more exposure.
BURR: Correct. And this is not a movie that came out of the Christian film niche network. It was made by a major Hollywood studio by a director, Darren Aronofsky, who is not, you know, part of the Christian film community, with a star who is a controversial star. And the script never says the word God. It speaks of the creator quite a bit, and it is about Noah's wrestling with what God's asking, the - what the creator is asking with - of him. And yet, it also delivers the old Cecil B. DeMille special effects. You know, it gives you all of that. And yet, the drama is still - is happening within.
I think the people who criticized it before they saw it were people who wanted a biblical literalism that's - for one thing, the Noah story in the Bible is very short and very spare and would probably make a 20-minute movie. You need to dramatize it. I think those criticisms were kind of beside the point.
YOUNG: Well - and this new movie, "Noah," comes at a time where you point out, back in the day when you had "Ten Commandments, "Ben-Hur," it was the '50s, it was more of a churchgoing nation.
YOUNG: And now, movie studios might have an ear towards the secular. And part of the change came when the '50s ran into the '60s.
BURR: Correct. Religious movies kind of went away during the counter-culture. It came back in the early '70s with "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," and you had this sort of hippie Jesus moment, then went away for a while and really started coming back only in the last 10 years.
YOUNG: Yeah. And here we are with these box office hits. Let's listen to "God's Not Dead." Shane Harper plays Josh Wheaton, a Christian college student who runs afoul an evil atheist professor played by Kevin Sorbo, who challenges Josh, the student, to a series of debates in front of the class. Let's listen to a little one.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GOD'S NOT DEAD")
SHANE HARPER: (As Josh Wheaton) So religion is like a disease?
KEVIN SORBO: (As Professor Jeffrey Radisson) Yes. Yes. It infects everything. It's the enemy of reason.
HARPER: Reason? Professor, you left reason a long time. What you're teaching here isn't philosophy. It's not even atheism anymore. What you're teaching is anti-atheism. It's not enough that you don't believe. You need all of us to not believe with you.
YOUNG: So what do you think this film is expressing?
BURR: This is something you see, I think, in a number of the films coming out of the Christian film circuit, which is this defensive fear about non-Christian characters. And I've noticed this, actually, in a number of movies. I can think of three off the top my head where a character will profess a lack of faith and will turn out that they've had a personal trauma, the death of a loved one, a husband - in the case of this professor, it turns out his wife has died that has made him, quote, "angry at God."
So there's never a character who comes by their atheism, honestly, if you will, or even their agnosticism. But that's what the, you know, these movies are preaching to the converted so they can't have that sort of nuance. They have to have a villain of a sort. And within the context of this film, he's a pretty two-dimensional villain but still a little more complicated than it might have been a couple of years ago.
YOUNG: Yeah. What do you think makes a good faith-based film now?
BURR: I think one that acknowledges that there are other viewpoints out there and shows the struggle to believe in a world that challenges that belief at every step of the way. I would actually like to see a lot of films of different faiths. I would like to see some of those flowers bloom. I'd like to see a film tackle the, quote, unquote, "faith of atheism or agnosticism." You know, let that argument happen in the theaters and, you know, on our home screen.
YOUNG: With a good - with a good story, yeah.
BURR: With good stories and characters that reflect the complexities that we all face when we're struggling with spiritual issues in the very many different ways that we did.
YOUNG: That's Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr on the growing popularity of faith-based films. Ty, thanks as always.
BURR: Thank you, Robin.
YOUNG: As we listen to Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" music. To read Ty's article, go to hereandnow.org. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.
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