Faith-based Optimism, by Bob Connally

10 May

Why are Christian movies so terrible? That’s a question many of us have been asking now for decades. The answer is simple really. Low production values, inexperienced actors, inexperienced directors, but most of all, cringe-inducing screenplays that lead with their message. They become films designed to be sermons more than movies. In his new documentary, Reel Redemption: The Rise of Christian Cinema, Tyler Smith of course examines those aspects of Christian filmmaking but he also goes much deeper into the relationship between Christianity and Hollywood over the past century.

Smith opens his film with a clip from the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! A scene set in the 1950s in which the head of a Hollywood studio has a meeting with four clergymen to discuss if his latest film’s “depiction of Christ Jesus cuts the mustard.” This scene might seem outlandish but at that time Hollywood productions still adhered to the Motion Picture Production Code (mainly remembered today as the Hays Code). Implemented in 1930, the Code was created as a means for Hollywood to police itself, morally speaking. For the better part of the next four decades, Hollywood rarely broke the rules it had agreed to with a code written in part by a Jesuit priest. Smith covers this period with enough detail for us to understand the situation while keeping his film moving forward. He maintains this sense of pacing throughout his look at this era, going into greater detail in the post-Code period, particularly regarding the polar opposite reactions of the faithful to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004. He mainly keeps his focus on American films and moviegoers as Monty Python’s Life of Brian, released in 1979 is never mentioned.

Reel Redemption is strong as a look at the history of the film industry’s relationship with the church but Smith’s real focus in the movie’s second half is, as the title states, the rise of Christian cinema. As anyone who has regularly listened to Tyler Smith on this site’s podcast can tell you, Smith has long been extremely critical of Christian films, with only a few such as Woodlawn and Believe Me (a movie I am a fan of myself) really being reviewed favorably. While Smith (along with many of the rest of us who view films as artistic endeavors as opposed to thinly veiled sermons) certainly believes that Christian film has a long way to go before it achieves true artistic credibility on a consistent basis, he does make a strong argument for Christian cinema becoming a genre with recognizable traits. He also makes a compelling case for the commercial viability of Christian movies based on the box-office success of the films of Alex Kendrick in particular, but it’s the genre argument that is the most intriguing. It also ties into one of his other central points, that faithful Christians really do love movies but they have only truly started to embrace film again, and even now with some hesitance.

I feel a sense of frustration at the slow progress Christian movies seem to be making, which is only exacerbated by the indifference that greets the better Christian films that do get produced. Still, Smith shows that there may be hope yet. There might be reason to believe that the day isn’t that far off when a truly great, finely crafted, and maybe even challenging Christian movie is not only made but achieves critical acclaim and incredible box-office success. Hopefully that day will come sooner than we think.

Full disclosure: Unsolicited, I told Tyler how much I enjoyed his documentary so he asked me if I would be alright with writing a review of it.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply