How do you know someone’s an atheist? Don’t worry, they will tell you. And yes, I am an atheist, so you know, there you go. I also consider myself to be an avid follower of art. And though at some point I completely dismissed the concept of religion altogether, religion did not dismiss me completely. I encountered religion in my personal artistic endeavours quite frequently, and in fact, I have come to appreciate religion’s contribution to art throughout history by providing vast subject matter, especially in Judeo-Christianity.
My life would have missed something if I had not seen Velasquez’ captivating Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, or the Blue Mosque in my hometown of Istanbul. Religion has forced mankind to strive for greatness in all forms of art, mainly to obtain the appreciation of God first and foremost. Therefore, I see no problem in acknowledging and appreciating where religion thrives.
Film, however, is a form of art that is much, much too recent to develop around religious institutions. In terms of thematic structure, therefore, we end up with final products that usually are too complex in nature to be condensed into a religion-centered singularity. In consequence, one finds that no matter how accurate a biblical movie is, it is virtually impossible for it to capture each and every individual message believers internalize through Christianity. Take The Passion Of the Christ, for example. While it is one of the most successful and accurate religious movies (I mean, when the Vatican considers a biblical movie accurate, you know it’s accurate), it’s not a movie that works for everyone, even among Christian audiences, due to each and every individual’s unique set of interpretations and inferences from the Bible. Religion bears individuality, as individuals interpret these works on their own and apply their teachings to their lives accordingly. Taking the Bible, the most read, most sold, most shoplifted - you get the deal - book in existence, and turning it into a movie strips the original of all its potential individualization by others. This typically kicks the viewer “out of the zone” - how can one fully immerse himself in a movie that diverges from the idealized version of the Bible that each individual possesses?
However, interfering with the viewer’s individuality is not the only problem with film adaptations of religious stories. You may also end up with a product of low depth and artistic value. Enter Aronofsky’s Noah: Apart from rare triumphant visual moments, I have no idea what to do with the attempt to make a whitewashed CGI-fest out of a brief story in Genesis. Does it add something that the Bible misses out on? Does it make the viewer reflect on what the Bible aims to teach? Not really, I would say. Ergo, the final product is a movie that completely misses the mark on conveying a religious or moral message to the viewer by neither producing a story nor characters that the viewer can relate to, reducing the effect it has on the viewer drastically. Purely religious movies are very difficult to work with - mainly because the Bible is not your average Stephen King novel to be turned into a screenplay, and people can’t even get that right.
Therefore, in film, the concept of religion usually comes up as not the main subject matter, but either a tool of convenience, as in every Dan Brown adaptation ever, or in order to make the audience ponder on the metaphysical or on human nature - which usually renders a movie more intellectually stimulating. In these cases, religion is not a given answer, but rather a prompt.
An excellent example of a movie that does more than scratching the surface of biblical text, yet maintains the overall religious theme is John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. At first glance, it can be mistaken as a docudrama about sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, but instead ends up being a well-written character study that contemplates on certainty versus doubt, as the plot revolves around a three-way-standoff between a priest and two sisters in a Catholic school. The simple setting allows Shanley to develop the conflicts between the characters with great skill and depth, supported by truly stellar performances. You find yourself thinking from the first scene, and you don’t stop until the credits roll. How precious is that in a film!
Yet we can go subtler, to movies where the theme of religion is not the center of attention, but is rather blended in. Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal is an excellent example of this. The movie is very situational in progression and isn’t necessarily religious, but as Melvyn Bragg puts it, “the deepest questions of religion and the most mysterious revelation of simply being alive are both addressed”. Such movies are also commonly encountered in Hollywood, in fact - mainly because it allows the movies to ask subtle questions without causing much religious controversy. Think about it - Ridley Scott’s renowned Alien franchise asks plenty of decent questions regarding creationism, but in its core, is a slasher movie franchise that any 13-year-old could easily enjoy.
All religion, in its essence, is a collection of teachings told through stories sourced from religious texts. One might say this is an oversimplification, but if we look beyond the arguments on whether there is a god, the important point becomes that religion aims to teach humanity something through stories - and that’s where religion and film converge and occasionally intertwine as we discussed. What that something is is a question one should ask himself, regarding both religion and art. And as we all infer our own teachings from religion, then a similar approach can be applied to film. So the next time you go to a movie, try viewing it as you would read the Bible, minus the sanctity. Focus on the message and ask what that something is, analyze and question what is given. You’ll be amazed at where asking the right questions may take you.
Semih Cantürk is a rising senior from Turkey studying Systems Engineering in SEAS. In his spare time, he enjoys literature, arthouse film, painting, playing tennis and making life miserable for others around him.