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Celluloid Saints

by Ron Reed

It's become a truism that Christians get the short end of the cultural stick on our multiplex screens. Future archaeologists, looking back at our culture through the lens of our movies, would conclude that Christianity was some sort of judgemental, repressive religious sect whose adherents (and leadership) consisted primarily of liars, thieves, megalomaniacs, sex abusers and violent, deranged killers.

This galls me. I've been a Christian for going on thirty years, and in that time I've met a whole lot of other Christians. Granted, I've come across a reasonable share of hypocritical or emotionally troubled believers – no surprise there, since this is one club that'll take anybody as a member. (Indeed, our founder kind of preferred sinners, so we come by this honestly.) Still, for all that, the vast majority of Christians I've gotten to know are pretty darn decent – nary an axe-murderer among them. By and large, they're just plain folks, most of whom are pretty sure they're not perfect, and by and large are committed to at least trying to do right by other people. It's like it's part of their religion, or something.

Even so, at the movies you can pretty much count on any character who's identified as being a Christian to be either seriously messed up or someone you're not meant to take seriously.

Or can you? A decade and a half ago, I would have said that without hesitation. But the fact is, I can't be quite so glib about that now. See, I've started to notice something.

I go to a lot of movies. And as the years go by, it seems to me there are less and less occasions when I leave the theatre feeling slandered. And more and more, I come up with movies that include Christian characters who are recognizable to me: relatively positive, often pretty nuanced portrayals of, well, real human beings.

The first on my list is a character who, oddly enough, others don't even seem to consider a Christian – Billy Kwan, brilliantly portrayed by Linda Hunt in The Year Of Living Dangerously, a marginal character whose preoccupation with the crowd's question to John The Baptist ("What then must we do?") leads to his quiet sacrificial support of an impoverished woman and her child, his efforts to awaken the Mel Gibson character to the spiritual realities which cast their shadows on the material world like characters in a Javanese wayang puppet play, and his final choice to take action in the face of political turmoil during the Suharto coup. Excluded from privilege because of his dwarfism and mixed race, he lives an examined life, treasuring friendships to the point of obsession – or are the files he keeps an act of oblation, something closer to divine love? A man of obedience, of conscience, spiritually quickened - one of "the least" who, in the upside-down Kingdom of God, is counted greatest.

My mind also turns to another character whose faith is often overlooked, brought to the fore by Brooke Smith's stunning performance of Sonya in Vanya On 42nd Street. It seems every other director of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" treats this character's Christianity with anything from irony to contempt, dismissing it (and the character) as sadly naive and ineffectual. But director Andre Gregory, whose work is preoccupied with spiritual exploration (My Dinner With Andre), gives full weight to this young woman's beliefs and the integrity of her life, in clear contrast to the lives of indulgence and ennui around her – and in so doing, finds a fresh power and emotional centre in the play that lifts it above the oppressive pessimism which usually permeates. There is a simple quality of goodness, a directness and lack of jadedness or artifice which rings through in this actress's embodiment of the character and makes her final scene about the value of work and the hope of heaven deeply moving and memorable.

When Flashdance appeared in theatres in the mid-Eighties, it was condescended to by critics as a shallow wish-fulfillment story in a way that didn't account for the film's power, not only at the box office but also in my own experience as an oh-so-sophisticated theatre student. But an NPR commentator put the film in perspective for me: he commented that if he'd seen this film as a teenager, it would undoubtedly been The Film of his life – a defining, inspiring, art-affirming, body-affirming story that would provide a compelling myth for his emergence into adulthood. I mention this not to claim that Jennifer Beals's character was somehow a believer (though I do seem to remember a visit to a church, and a Catholic grandmother, that seemed to suggest certain themes of vocation?), but rather to suggest that we can discover the virtues of a film we might otherwise dismiss by looking at it through the right set of eyes – more exactly, through eyes of the right age. I was blessed to sit with my sixteen-year-old daughter to watch what was then her favourite film – one which I probably never would have seen otherwise, knowing in advance it must be nothing but a sentimental romance, A Walk To Remember. But sharing in my teenager's exhilaration about this story, seeing it through her eyes, I got to see the movie from the right vantage point. Mandy Moore plays a bright, self-possessed high school girl completely unconcerned with the preoccupations of other girls her age, appearance and popularity. Instead, she is living life on her own terms, working through a checklist of experiences she is determined to have before she dies. She is unapologetic about her life, about herself, and indeed about her Christian faith: and the constrained, anxious lives of those around her are weighed and found wanting when contrasted to hers. The judgement is not hers – as no-nonsense as this character is about character, consequence and betrayal of trust, she is not judgemental. She's got her life to live, and nothing keeps her from it. Roger Ebert shared my unabashed enthusiasm for this movie, and this character; "She's a smart, nice girl, a reminder that one of the pleasures of the movies is to meet good people." While it's easy to dismiss this movie as sentimental, this character as "too good to be true," I have to wonder – didn't you know anybody like this in high school? Preternaturally self-possessed, full of grace and optimism, and quite probably a Christian? I did. They inspired me. And it was a gift to see such a person on the big screen, thirty years later, and to be inspired all over again.

This film, interestingly, also included "the other kind" of Christian character – the young woman's father, a standard-issue pastor/dad, harshly controlling and mistrustful. Fair enough, the guy has his reasons for being that way, and there are basic dramaturgical reasons why he was probably drawn that way, but Peter Coyote's performance played as one- or two-note caricature to me, pulled from the same bag of cliches as so many other ministerial monster parents – my mind turns immediately to the dance-o-phobic Reverend Shaw Moore in that other mid-Eighties teen flick, Footloose.

There are a lot of reasons why Magnolia has a particular appeal to Christians, but one of the most significant for me was John C. Reilly's cliché-defying embodiment of an almost comically idealistic, inexperienced, unsure, naive, compassionate cop – this guy is part of the same police force as that dude in Training Day? The first time we see him, he is at the wheel of his squad car carrying on an animated conversation with someone we don't see – who turns out in fact to be Someone Unseen, God Himself. The attraction-of-opposites romance that plays out between this naive, praying policeman and the strung out junky-in-need-of-redemption he meets on a routine noise disturbance call is not only hilarious but touching, and never does the film condescend to this endearing man or his faith.

For many Christians, Babette's Feast is the quintessential "Christian-positive" film, a celebration of the via positiva over a soul-destroying, relationship-withering strain of asensual pietism. I find it ironic (and significant) that non-Christians read this film very differently, seeing in it the triumph of good old hedonism over life-denying Christianity. The former view Babette, with her artist's affirmation of the senses and communal celebration, as inherently Christian, making much of the subtle suggestions that the character is a Catholic believer: the latter simply assume that nothing this luxurious and tasty could ever come out of our rule-bound, heavenly-minded religion, and identify Babette as One Of Their Own. Are the strict, ascetic townspeople caricatures of pietistic Christians? I don't think so – there's something about the climate, the landscape, and the history of these Northern believers that can too readily shrink and harden a soul, and to my eyes this is a pretty apt picture. Is Babette the embodiment of God's response to His own creation, the ringing great "Behold, it is good!" of the Genesis creation account? I think so – but I don't know if Isak Dinesen would see it that way or not.

There are other remarkable, truthful portrayals of Christians in film that come to mind. One of my absolute Meryl Streep roles, a wonderful just-plain-folks contrast to her many thoroughbred aristocrats, the grieving Seventh Day Adventist mother in the heart-rending Australian story A Cry In The Dark. Then there's Mac Sledge, Robert Duvall's masterpiece of understatement, the country singer in Tender Mercies who fights to recover his life and dignity after hitting an ugly, alcoholic bottom in an anything-but-God-forsaken motel in the flat heart of Texas – and indeed the woman of quiet faith who plays the central role in his potential redemption, a gorgeous exercise in simplicity by Tess Harper. Is Carrie Watts, the central character in screenwriter Horton Foote's other mid-Eighties masterpiece Trip To Bountiful, a Christian? Is her journey home, sloughing off the scales of petty bickering and bitterness, also a journey back to a clean and pure childhood faith, as we sense not only from the movie's title but also by the glorious rendition of "Softly And Tenderly" which plays over the closing credits? And then there's the O'Connor-esque "Sonny" Dewey, another Duvall creation, that deeply flawed southern preacher whose God-haunted story illustrates another Apostle's assertion that "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance" – and that grace abounds, even to the chief of sinners.

Which puts me in mind of several other professional Christians whose movie representations are something other than caricature. It seems to me that the early Eighties saw a cultural shift which meant that there began to be authentic Christians showing up here and there in films, after decades of believers who were either avuncular priests and well-intentioned nuns or else lying, thieving, fornicating, violent, abusive Believers (of both True and false varieties) – many of them pastors or evangelists, none of them recognizable among the thousands of Christians I have known in a lifetime of knowing Christians. But recent years have given us any number of sympathetic characters with real humanity who are also people of faith – even ministers of one kind or another! Wonders never cease. The lonely, grieving Lutheran pastor in Italian For Beginners; the compassionate, somewhat unpredictable, doing-the-best-he-can clergyman in You Can Count On Me; the extraordinary Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking; Ed Harris's broken-faithed priest in The Third Miracle; both Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro in The Mission, men of faith who must agonize over the question whether or not to live by the sword. Rather less successful (but still not condescending) were Mel Gibson's faith-frozen Episcopal (or was he Catholic? or did the director even know?) priest in Signs, who seemed more a cluster of screenwriterly character traits than a fully-realized human soul, or Edward Norton's "I'll take the love of Jenna Elfman over the love of God any day" hip and trendy priest in Keeping The Faith. (Actually, I'm being glib in this last case: the movie did a pretty good job of portraying the struggles of a man whose vow of celibacy is called into question when he finds himself falling in love with an undeniably adorable no-longer-childhood friend. And it was particularly strong in the scenes with Milos Forman playing the older counsellor-priest: these sections wrestled through these very real questions with an authenticity that was astonishing in the very same movie that turned an utterly tone-deaf ear to the inappropriateness of a certain rabbi's sexual escapades.)

There's been a batch of European films, lately, that give immense respect to the Christians at the heart of their story, including the droll Finnish comedy The Man Without A Past and a touchingly beautiful, quirkily comic Italian film Not Of This World, which deals searchingly with questions of faith, vocation and love. Even blockbustery comic-derived fare like X2: X-Men United and Daredevil seems willing to include Christian faith as a legitimate character attribute.

If there was a movie that heralded the change from stereotype and condescension to at least occasional respect and recognizeability, it was the 1981 hit Chariots Of Fire, where audiences rooted for an unabashedly evangelical Christian, even cheering him on as he took a moral stand they would never themselves consider – somehow, by some cinematic alchemy, Your Average Theatregoer perceived Eric Lidell to be a hero for refusing to run an Olympic race on the Lord's Day, and believing Christians sitting in those crowded movie houses, braced for the usual mockery of conservative Christian practices, experienced an intoxicating thrill as their values and standards were celebrated instead. Though it must be said that historical figures had long been allowed to be both Christian and honourable – it was acceptable for Richard Burton to defend the honour of God in the 1964 filmization of Jean Anouilh's Becket, or for Paul Scofield to take a similar stand two years later when Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons hit the silver screen, for example. Still, when the Chariots rolled it had been a decade and a half since Christians had been allowed to be Good Guys, and we were only protected from the Sprinting Scotsman and his gospel faith by decades rather than centuries – it was electric to hear this man tell his missionary sister (in what must surely be the line of dialogue most-quoted among Christian artists of a certain generation), "God made me for China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure." The runner's pleasure in the God who made him? Yes. The Creator's pleasure in His child, and in the gift being expressed? Yes.

Other historical stories have been graced by masterful screen interpretations. Hard on the heels of definitive performances as Hannibal Lecter and the butler Stevens (in Remains Of The Day), Antony Hopkins gave us a memorable Jack Lewis in Shadowlands. Opposite Hopkins' Dr Treves in The Elephant Man, John Hurt was astonishing as John Merrick – can you believe he did that WITHOUT MAKE-UP?! – and while the character's Christianity wasn't the main theme of David Lynch's powerful black and white evocation of industrial 19th century London, it played out in pivotal events and metaphors, as Merrick's humanity and artistic soul is revealed through his private, prayerful recitation of the 23rd Psalm or his painstaking construction of a model of Saint Paul's cathedral. Other notable portrayals of historical Christians include Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon (a Saint-Francis-as-proto-hippy 1972 flick which gives the lie to my Chariots Of Fire theory – oh well...), and a curiously restrained portrayal of soon-to-be-sainted Father Damien in Paul Cox's 1999 Molokai – David Wenham's gentle, patient, stolid characterization seems at odds with the historical accounts of the fiery Belgian priest whose passion and pig-headedness put him in constant conflict with pretty much everyone he came in contact with, but it does embody a wonderful stubborn undeterability, and a compassion which was certainly at the core of this remarkable man of faith.

This survey wouldn't be complete without mention of three other significant (but less-than-ideal) Christian characters. George C. Scott's portrayal of a "Hardcore" Dutch Calvinist evokes memories of John Ford's archetypal "searcher," probing the darkest recesses of hell (which is to say, the wild west coast pornography industry) for his daughter in a performance that is as unsympathetic as it is indelibly memorable: when a spiritually lost young hooker, aiding him in his search, expresses curiousity about his religious beliefs, Jake Van Dorn trots out his catechismal "TULIP" formula (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement...), and she responds "You're more fucked up than I am." And we can only agree – particularly as we sit numbly and watch the unfolding of the film's final scenes, and see a man gain his daughter but lose his soul. This character study is not unrealistic – writer/director Paul Schrader knows the worlds he describes, as evidenced by the deadly accurate (and funny, and sadly oppressive) opening sequence in the Van Dorn home in Grand Rapids at Christmas – but it is harsh and unsympathetic, fulfilling our culture's stereotypical expectations about the inhumanity of the fundamentalist conservative believer.

Another clearly Christian character portrayed in a less-than-flattering light is the young and untested Bob in the Kevin Spacey – Danny Devito vehicle, The Big Kahuna. Peter Facinelli admirably holds his own in this heavy-weight cast, playing the thankless role of a naive young fundamentalist whose decision to place his calling to preach the gospel above his assignment to sell industrial lubricants earns him the contempt not only of the other two characters but also the playwright, and thence the audience. For many viewers, whether Christian or not, this character embodies all that is wrong-headed and offensive about Christian efforts at "witnessing." But I found this portrayal one-sided and misleading. We are set up to perceive DeVito's character as the wise, caring and truly spiritual one, seasoned by the mundane and all-but-inescapable suffering, shame and quiet desperation that seem almost inevitable by-products of so many ordinary lives: divorce and alienation, disillusionment and just plain tiredness. And this character, given moral weight and authority not only by the fact of his experience of suffering and relative compassion, but also by a magnificently centred DeVito performance, prounounces Bob's evangelistic efforts meaningless, his face and soul "characterless," his burgeoning friendship with Dick Fuller (the "big kahuna" himself) manipulative and empty simply because the young man talked with him about Jesus, and then found himself reluctant to push his company's product for fear it would cheapen a personal and spiritual conversation. Clearly, we are expected to "buy" the older salesman's perception of the situation: we nod in knowing agreement when Phil corrects Bob for his hypocrisy; "If you really cared about the guy, you'd ask him about his family, about his life: but as soon as you lay your hands on the conversation to steer it, you're nothing but a salesman." We conveniently forget – as does Phil, and apparently the playwright – that Bob's first (lengthy) conversation with Fuller came about because the younger man was curious about the details of his life, such as the man's feelings about the death of any number of family pets! If Fuller was put off by the young man's ham-fisted and inappropriate evangelistic zeal, we get no evidence of that: at the end of that inital conversation, the older man invites Bob to join him later at a private party to continue their heart to heart talk. We're expected to accept Phil's judgement of the young Christian as being shallow, manipulative and insincere, and we walk right down that garden path: but I wonder what The Big Kahuna himself would have to say about DeVito's judgement if the playwright had the integrity to give him some stage time. I think he would have found he had nothing to say to Phil and Larry, whose only interest was to use him to benefit their company: and I think the judgement he would render of his spiritually-minded, listening young friend might be very different from that of the playwight, the other characters and, ultimately, the all-too-manipulable audience.

Another gruelling "mean streets" film with spiritual concerns is Abel Ferrera's almost unwatchable (but I think profound) 1992 film featuring Harvey Keitel in a quintessential performance as a Bad Lieutenant on the NYPD. A vice cop utterly addicted to cocaine and violence and power, this lapsed-as-can-be-imagined Catholic is "snatched as a brand from the burning" when supernatural visions (or are they the drug-induced manifestations of a not-quite-seared guilty soul?) follow his investigation of a nun's vicious rape. Keitel is unflinching in his embodiment of a man utterly given over to carnality – who is nonetheless pursued by the hound of heaven, snapping relentlessly at his heels.

So. Christians abound, at long last. Bad Christians, accurately portrayed. Good Christians, badly portrayed. No surprise there. But what is truly surprising, as well as deeply gratifying, are all those good Christians, well portrayed. For every cliched film rendition of an axe-wielding, Bible-quoting psychopath or a standard issue missionary monster, there's another that features – can you believe! – a recognizable human being, whose flaws are nothing more or less than part of their palpable humanity. Who also happens to follow Jesus.

Kind of like the Christians I know. Kind of like me.

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