Representing Religion in World Cinema book review

(This review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News in April 2004.)

Until February 2004, I had assumed that an academic book with the title Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making would have been of limited interest to the general public. But Mel Gibson’s highly controversial film The Passion of Christ – released on February 25, 2004 – passed $350 million in the US box office, and over $15 million here in Australia. This has reportedly incited a regular flurry of interest in similar projects, with film and television series versions including The Da Vinci Code, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Crusades and Revelations.

Thus it is with a different eye that we examine Representing Religion in World Cinema, which is a collected edited by S. Brent Plate, who teaches religion and the visual arts at Texas Christian University (and in fact also edited a later book on Gibson’s Passion film, entitled Reviewing the Passion:  Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics, also published Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).  Plate opens his introductory chapter with the following sentence:  “In the 2001 Australian national census, over 70,000 people marked ‘Jedi’ as their religion”.  Although this sounds like a demographer’s old wive’s tale, if even slightly true, it sure puts Judaism – with somewhere under 100,000 adherents in Australia – into perspective.  Plate also refers to how thousands of dressed-up movie-goers across America still gather at midnight on Saturday to watch and recite the lines to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  A chapter by Philip Lutgendorf describes in detail how a low-budget 1975 Indian film about the Hindu goddess Satoshi Maa was responsible for a massive outbreak of devotion to this previously obscure figure.

The point of these and other stories is that cinema-going has not only become a religious experience, but that films are creating their own “religion”, reinforcing existing trends or tapping into unlikely new ones.  Remember that only a couple of short months ago, most Hollywood insiders thought that Mel Gibson was absolutely mad spending upwards of $30 million of his own money on his Jesus project.  And when Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List (admittedly not really a “religious” project, per se), he only expected a limited art house audience, and was as surprised as anyone that the film took off with mainstream audiences. 

Plate has put together a determinedly international and multi-religious selection of topics, maintaining that current scholarship in this area is “beleaguered by both a Christian emphasis and a Hollywood emphasis – and it is not coincidental that these emphases go hand in hand”.  Judaism is represented in Paul Nathanson’s chapter “Between Time and Eternity:  Theological Notes on Shadows and Fog“.  Although I strongly disagree with Nathanson’s belief that this 1992 film is one of Woody Allen’s best films, this unique article dissects the religious significance of the film in a depth I have not read before and is an important addition of the literature on Allen’s cinematic repertoire.  Nathanson maintains that Shadows and Fog is most unusual in that it “rejects cynicism … without succumbing to naivete”, fosters compassion, and represents a characteristically “Jewish way of thinking” based on religious tradition, not simply ethnic identification.

Janet Wilson’s discussion on religion in New Zealand films looks at The Piano, Heavenly Creatures, Once Were Warriors and Broken English.  Other chapters include Judith Weisenfeld’s on the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust by African-American director Julie Dash, Linda Ehrlich’s examination of various cinematic adaptations of the Orpheus myth, Buddhism and Korean films, Pentecostalism and popular cinema in Ghana, a delicately observed piece on Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, religion, and evangelism and the films of D.W. Griffith.

Although there is the (too frequent for my taste) lapse into incomprehensible academic terminology, this is a surprisingly accessible and stimulating collection for someone with a serious interest in film.  Interspersed throughout Representing Religion in World Cinema are extensive insights that will help the reader to understand what is certain to be the next tidal wave of big Hollywood – and less-accessible non-English language – films that incorporate overt religious beliefs, figures and events as their main theme.

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