Is cinema becoming more Christian? It’s easy to dismiss that one as a Qwtain (a question to which the answer is no) straight off the bat, what with the cinematic universe being so dominated by superheroes and Star Wars. Yet, from the Cannes Film Festival to your local multiplex, it appears there is a growing trend for films with faith at their heart.
Cannes comes to an end for another year this weekend, and Catholics may have noticed that one of the major films on show was a documentary about Pope Francis. German director Wim Wenders sat down for four interviews with the Pontiff, with the completed film, Pope Francis: A Man of his Word, sure to get a wider release in the year ahead. Meanwhile, in America, I Can Only Imagine, which tells the true story of a Christian rock band finding mainstream success, has proved a huge hit. More films in which Christianity plays a leading role are on the way this year, from modern-set dramas such as An Interview with God and God Bless the Broken Road to Bible stories, including Paul, Apostle of Christ.
Speaking to the LA Times in March, Rich Peluso, head of Sony Pictures’ faith-based division Affirm Films, confirmed that the trend is real. “There’s been significantly more films trying to compete for oxygen,” he said, albeit adding that “a lot of them failed financially”. I’m guessing that he had the dire 2017 efforts, Mary Magdalene and The Promise, a romantic drama set amid the Armenian genocide, in mind here.
Of course, Christian films (either ones featuring biblical figures or those wrestling with religious themes) are nothing new. From old-school Hollywood epics to modern art-house pictures, there have been scores of them, and in the last decade alone plenty are worthy of mention. The highlights include Of Gods and Men, the 2010 Cannes Grand Prix winner about the martyred monks of Tibhirine; Ida, Paweł Pawlikowski’s stunning film about a young Polish nun; and The Club, a brutal assessment of the abuse crisis from Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín. Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills and John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary are also worthy of mention. Mainstream hits have included The Shack, based on W Paul Young’s Evangelical bestseller, which brought in just shy of $100 million dollars last year, while, going back further, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ grossed $370 million in the US alone – and much of its success was down to the way it pushed itself out to Christian communities. This has served as a model for the trend that followed in its wake.
Gibson’s film showed Hollywood money-men the value in targeting Christians, particularly in the US (needless to say, a sequel is in the works). Meanwhile, Christian-orientated PR firms have also sprouted up. While it’s true that advertising has always been aimed at a particular audience, in the digital age the stakes have been raised considerably. As any regular Facebook user will know, businesses have never before been able to flog us stuff with such precision. It’s no surprise, then, that such a clearly defined group as Christians is having a load of films – and all the associated spam that comes with them – pushed their way. The tricky part is seeking out the decent movies amid the inevitable mass of rubbish being churned out to make a fast buck.