A strange feeling rose up in me while I was watching the latest trailer for Priest. No, it was not the feeling that this was going to be a banal, humorless rehash of countless other films, blatantly ripping off the same dark noir future as Blade Runner, though that certainly crossed my mind. But seeing Paul Bettany go into a cyberpunk confession booth, starting off with “Forgive me father,” before cutting to non-stop action and carnage, along with shurikens shaped like crucifixes and stoic, leather clad warriors with a cross tattooed on their foreheads made me uneasy.
For those who are unaware, Priest is the new pseudo-western thriller opening this week from director Scott Stewart. The story takes place in a future where mankind has just finished a centuries-long war with vampires. The last remaining humans reside in a walled-off city run by the Church and protected by a cabal of super warriors called priests…and this is where I started to feel uncomfortable. Yes, this is an alternate world, and yes it’s pretty obvious that the Church serves as an antagonist and will probably have some redundant lesson on the Dangers Of Blind Faith. But Stewart is still drawing parallels and invoking imagery to modern-day Christianity in its eponymous hero to make him more “badass,” is he not? Is this…okay with Christians?
I should confess, in the interest of full disclosure, that I do not personally subscribe to Christianity or any religion for that matter. I have been an atheist for almost eight years, and in that time I have understood the appeal of organized religion less and less. But that doesn’t mean that I am totally ignorant of what it’s supposed to advocate. All that stuff about “love thy neighbor” and “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” still apply, right?
Priest certainly isn’t the first film to refashion the Christian religion as a theme for action vehicles. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, many of the older religious films were either cheesy-fun harmless epics like The Ten Commandments or highly reverent classics like The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Especially in the case of the latter, these films seemed to take the positive aspects of Christian faith and applied them not only in their stories, but in their technique.
Perhaps no other filmmaker consistently embodied this ascetic style than Robert Bresson. The man only made thirteen films in his fifty-year career, yet created numerous spiritually powerful, meticulously crafted films that were clearly informed by his Catholic upbringing. Like the best filmmakers, he saw the elements of cinema as a language, especially cinematography. He used this unique language to explore the ideas of salvation and redemption, finding beauty in a godless world, and spirituality. A Man Escaped uses a relatively simple prisoner-of-war story as a parable for a man’s spiritual rebirth. Fontaine’s cell was not just a cell; it represented every wall keeping him from spiritual salvation. Au Hasard Balthazar is the heartbreaking tale of a donkey bearing the burdens of cruel men. Pickpocket is a genuinely subtle and unsettling exploration of guilt. Diary of a Country Priest, arguably his masterpiece, uses almost unmatched skill with visual and sound compositions to convey one man’s crisis of faith in pursuit of his holy duties.
It’s unfair to demand that every film on Christianity has to be on the same level as Bresson (or any film, for that matter), but is it too much to ask that they try to emulate his sentiments? His honesty? Or how about just basic competence in filmmaking? The FoxFaith studio films are perhaps the only major ones catering to a Christian audience these days without resorting to over-the-top action violence and nearly all of them are laughably inept.
Hell, I wouldn’t mind at all if Hollywood simply went with the cheesy-fun epic route. Earlier I mentioned The Ten Commandments, which is hardly great cinema, but does not have the troubling elements of a film like Priest. It was later kinda-sorta remade as The Prince of Egypt. Terribly inaccurate theology, I admit, but it’s a beautifully animated and powerful drama that remains one of the better films from DreamWorks Animation. Although I have not seen this film yet, I have heard similar things about The Nativity Story.
I am also well aware that there are plenty of amazing movies over the last few years that subtly invoke Christian themes. But Children of Men, Dancer in the Dark, The Wrestler, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy do not put them front-and-center, nor do they invoke overtly Christian imagery.
But Priest is a different, special breed of film starring ass-kickers for Christ. The Book of Eli, Legion (also from Stewart), Salvation, Constantine, Solomon Kane, The Order, The Boondock Saints and End of Days are just a few examples of action heroes fighting evil with the Bible in one hand and a sword (or usually something like an Uzi) in the other. Sometimes violent spectacles just sort of evolve into rallying points for believers. I still remember the local pastor of my town’s church (this was back when I lived in Arizona) championing 300’s “traditional Judeo-Christian American values.”
And then there’s The Passion of Christ, which I’m sure you were all wondering when I was going to get to. I don’t need to remind anyone that this was a massive box office success and was (along with Fahrenheit 9/11) THE cultural phenomenon of 2004. Whatever your personal feelings on the film itself, it’s almost indisputable that Gibson’s film is a complete 180° from the carefully considered technique and quietly powerful emotions of Bresson. The Passion conveys its emotions through histrionics and brutality, barely making time for any of Christ’s life, insights or teachings in favor of drawing out purely visceral reactions from his gruesome torture and execution. There are no internal developments in Gibson’s film, no thinking personalities. Just blunt force trauma with all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Mel Gibson certainly has the artistic right to convey his faith in such a way, and the film’s refusal to go any other way is somewhat interesting and even admirable. But what does it mean when literally millions of American Christians rally behind this rendition of their savior over the dozens of other more tender and thoughtful versions of the story of Christ? If The Gospel According to St. Matthew were released today, would it be even a fraction as successful, and if it wasn’t, would that be because it isn’t as in-your-face violent?
Perhaps I should give The Passion more credit in this context, because it least it uses its brutality to say something, which I respect. Priest, and every film like it, appears to have no actual feelings one way or the other towards faith and spirituality. It’s all shallow aesthetics, using well-known symbols and motifs to give their heroes some sort of identity beyond “wears leather and has lots of guns.” What does this mean for Christianity in cinema? Is anyone else as unnerved by this seemingly new genre as I am?