by Robert Delany Jr.
Illustrations by Jillian Apatow
We need art. Not to power our cities. Not to heal the sick. Not to solve any sort of worldwide crisis. We need art to help us uncover who we are as a species. We need art to help us understand how we interact with ourselves, how we interact with each other, to help us understand the current condition of the human species and how we process all of this as we careen forward in time. Today, there is one aspect of humanity that is so pervasive that art has been digging at it for thousands upon thousands of years: religion.
Film is one of many art forms that tackle this issue. Films can be anything from manifestos relaying the filmmaker’s philosophy to the world; PSA’s educating the world about an important issue; or they can simply be fun, designed for the entertainment and appreciation of the audience. Film has the power to be so many things for so many people. It is expected, therefore, that this powerful medium would choose to feature religion as its subject, a subject that has been an important aspect of the human experience for several thousand years. The ways in which religion is interpreted, however, differs greatly among filmmakers depending on the religion and the message they intend to discuss.
Filmmakers have approached religion from almost every angle, whether it be reverential or historical. Some filmmakers are trying to spread their own faith while others wish to discuss religious anecdotes they find intriguing. Others still are trying to make a statement about or shed light on the mystery of the human condition through religion.
By examining three drastically different films, I hope to showcase the extent to which a singular subject matter can be shaped by directorial perspective.
First is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The 1956 film follows the biblical story of Moses. One of the most successful films of all time, it grossed 122.7 million dollars upon its first release. For 1956, that is an incredible amount and today would be the equivalent of almost a billion dollars. The film is a typical DeMille work: epic and lavish. Filmed in Egypt, the local scenery was complimented by incredibly detailed sets. It was a landmark work for the time and was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Today it is still considered to be one of the cornerstones of the epic film genre.
DeMille’s perspective is one of personal experience complimented by history. During production he utilized numerous sources, including the Quran, to get the fullest picture of Moses’ life as possible. DeMille, on the tail of the Second World War, wanted to showcase the story of early Christianity and Judaism to the world. The story’s epic scale is indicative both of DeMille as an artist and of the importance of the subject matter to him. DeMille is less concerned with deeper religious truths, as many critics noted he actually diverged from the Bible, and is more concerned with showcasing the roots of this movement.
Next is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Released in 2004, the film follows Jesus Christ as he is first captured by the Romans, then crucified in Jerusalem and finally resurrected. The dialogue of the film is in reconstructed Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin, as the filmmakers tried to be as true to the time period as possible. The film earned a staggering 612 million dollars upon its theatrical release and garnered three Academy Award nominations.
Gibson is most concerned with showing every detail of the historical context down to the minutiae. Both the dialogue and the dress are extremely authentic, and the sets, unlike DeMille’s, are reflective of the reality of the time period rather than a cinematic take on it. It all culminates in a design that immerses his audience in Jesus’s reality. While DeMille focused on telling the story of Moses, Gibson invests his effort in portraying the historical origins of Christianity.
Finally, with a film that provides the least conventional perspective on religion, is Kevin Smith’s Dogma. Released in 1999, Dogma follows two fallen angels, played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as they try and make their way back into heaven. If they can make it back, their goal is to prove that God is fallible, therefore triggering the end of existence. Finding it irreverent to the point of blasphemy, the Catholic Church banned it upon its release.
While many found it offensive, Dogma presents an alternative perspective on religion that is nothing like those presented in The Ten Commandments or The Passion of the Christ. Kevin Smith, the writer-director of the film, approached the holy subject matter and wanted to make a comedy. The inspiration came from Smith’s own experiences as a former Catholic whose beliefs evolved as he grew older. Smith wanted his audience to feel lighthearted and laugh, but he also hoped to get people thinking Catholicism in a different way than DeMille or Gibson.
Through comedy, Smith wants people to reflect on religion, to truly think about this worldwide phenomenon and how it affects us. The film is so interesting, because it combines the fundamental knowledge that comes with a Catholic upbringing with the hindsight of a semi-lapsed Catholic comedian. Smith wanted this film to be a source of self-reflection for Catholics, practicing, lapsed or otherwise, around the world. The blasphemy is just a byproduct of Smith’s comedic perspective on the subject.
Altogether, these three examples show just how differently religion can be observed through the same medium. The Ten Commandments is completely focused on conveying the story of ancient Christianity by amplifying that story to DeMillian heights. The Passion of the Christ is meant to be as authentic as possible; an attempt to immerse the audience in the world of the film through carefully crafted environments. Dogma is meant to be a conduit of self-reflection and a work that gives you permission to laugh at even the most delicate of subject matters.
By watching these films, a viewer can experience completely different philosophies surrounding the exact same subject and marvel at the scope and potential of film.