When it comes to Catholic and Christian characters and imagery in contemporary Hollywood films, the negative side of the ledger is pretty bleak: Catholic or Christian faith and images, including crosses, crucifixes, and rosaries, are often linked to villainous, murderous, depraved characters.
What about the other side of the ledger: positive portrayals of Christian characters and iconography?
For at least the last 15 years, positive depictions tend to be limited to two categories: a) indie and foreign films, i.e., films made outside the Hollywood mainstream; and b) supernatural horror films.
Examples of the first sort include Catholic filmmaker Theodore Melfi’s indie comedy St. Vincent (2014), starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy; John Michael McDonagh’s Irish black comedy Calvary (2014), starring Brendan Gleeson; and Xavier Beauvois’ transcendent drama Of Gods and Men (2010).
Examples of the second sort include this summer’s The Conjuring 2 and its 2011 predecessor; The Rite (2011), starring Anthony Hopkins; and Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil (2014) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). When the enemy is literally the devil, Catholic characters make a much better showing.
In a similar vein, Constantine (2005) and the first Hellboy (2004) offer a comic-book twist on the demonic-evil genre. Neither film features a pious Catholic hero, but Catholic sacramentals — crucifixes, holy water — retains their traditional role and power.
A more recent comic-book movie, this summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, fleetingly acknowledges the Catholic identity of the mutant hero Nightcrawler; he crosses himself and prays, though his piety isn’t a theme here as it was in the original X-Men (2000).
Here is a sobering question: Has there been a single substantial, positive depiction of Catholic faith or identity in a major Hollywood non-horror film in the last 10 or 15 years?
This year’s Coen brothers comedy Hail, Caesar! stars Josh Brolin as scrupulous but sympathetically portrayed Catholic who confesses his sins daily. The A-list cast — George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum — belies the $22 million budget and quirky Coen sensibility; Hail, Caesar! is about mainstream, big-budget Hollywood moviemaking (circa 1952), but it’s far from an example of it.
Catholic priests, nuns, and even an Orthodox bishop appear as minor positive characters in Selma (2014). The bishop gets about a dozen words of dialogue; the others none at all. Selma’s budget was $20 million.
Catholic director Tom Shadyac offered fuzzily pro-faith spirituality in Dragonfly (2002), Bruce Almighty (2003) and Evan Almighty (2007). Mel Gibson starred in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) as an Episcopalian priest who rediscovers his faith.
Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) presents a mixed portrait of good and bad religion too complex to characterize in a nutshell. It’s a problematic picture at best, but at least there’s an effort to engage the Christian tradition in a respectful way in a Hollywood film.
Depressingly, the last Hollywood film I can think of in which Catholic identity and spirituality play a substantial, positive role is Bonnie Hunt’s Return to Me (2000), starring David Duchovny and Minnie Driver. Though modestly budgeted at $24 million, it’s a mainstream romantic comedy produced and distributed by MGM, with the Catholic themes flowing naturally from the characters and their milieu.
Going further back, the original Banderas/Zeta-Jones The Mask of Zorro (1998) is rather Catholic-positive. More substantially, Susan Sarandon played real-life nun and anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking (1995).
Overall, it seems fair to say that contemporary Hollywood is far more likely to ascribe Catholic identity to murderous villains than to positive characters, particularly in non-horror films.
This negative bias isn’t necessarily as indicative of active hostility or anti-Christian animus as some conservatives may suspect — any more than Hollywood’s ongoing diversity issues around race and gender are evidence of active hostility toward women and minorities.
It’s worth noting that Christians aren’t the only population disproportionately connected with villainy in Hollywood films. For example, Hollywood villains are also disproportionately likely to be explicitly or implicitly gay.
Take the sidekick of Crowe’s 3:10 to Yuma villain: Ben Foster’s psychotic Charlie Prince, whose devotion to Crowe’s character is so pronounced that a defiant victim calls him “Charlie Princess.” Other recent films with gay villains include Skyfall (2012), Lawless (2012), and 300 (2006).
Christoph Waltz’s character in The Legend of Tarzan was almost gay as well as Catholic; a scene of him kissing an unconscious Tarzan was cut from the final film. (A positive same-sex kiss was also cut from another tentpole picture this summer: The much-discussed reinterpretation of John Cho’s Sulu as gay in Star Trek Beyond came down to a muted, wordless five-second reunion without the kiss shot for the scene.)
Hollywood films have long been criticized for poor depictions of LGBT characters. In its latest annual report, GLAAD argued that Hollywood depictions of LGBT characters actually got worse in 2015.
And yet, as characters in Hollywood films, LBGT individuals are far better represented than Christians, despite being a tiny fraction of the population in comparison.
In 2015, of 126 major movies surveyed, GLAAD found 22 films with identifiable LGBT characters, and eight films with notable LGBT characters that were developed as characters and that mattered to the story.
Only eight such films was a recent low by GLAAD’s reckoning. If contemporary Hollywood ever released as many as eight major films in a single year with developed Christian characters that mattered to the story, it would be unanimously proclaimed the Hollywood Year of the Christian.
This year, Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Silence depicts the persecution of Portuguese Jesuit priests and Japanese Christians in 17th-century Japan, while Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is a Seventh-Day Adventist and conscientious objector who served in the U.S. Army during WWII. Along with The Conjuring 2 and X-Men: Apocalypse, that’s four. (Of these, Hacksaw Ridge has Hollywood talent attached, but no big-studio involvement.)
There might be a few others. Considering 83% of Americans identify as Christian, a number in the single digits is absurdly low. The biggest issue with how Hollywood portrays people of faith today is simply that it overwhelmingly doesn’t. Religion is basically ignored — even where it would be reasonable to expect it.
Take Steven Soderburgh’s Contagion (2011), a remarkably well-constructed pandemic thriller that explores almost every aspect of how such a crisis might unfold and how people would respond, except for the role that religious traditions and organizations play in any major crisis.
Or compare this summer’s Ghostbusters remake to the original.
While hardly a pious film, the original Ghostbusters repeatedly touches on religion. Ernie Hudson’s character asks Dan Aykroyd if he believes in God, and talks about loving “Jesus’ style.” Hudson goes on to reference the Bible, quoting the book of Revelation (accurately, though he gets the chapter number wrong), and wonders whether Judgment Day is upon them.
The archbishop of New York shows up at the mayor’s office (the mayor even kisses his ring) and says that while the Church has no official position on the ghostly phenomena affecting the city, his off-the-record opinion is that it’s a sign from God. At the denouement, priests are doling out blessings.
While the 2016 remake faithfully follows the original in many things, the religiosity has been jettisoned. No one mentions the Bible or talks about God or Jesus. The scene in the mayor’s office is still there, but the archbishop no longer appears, nor do the priests at the end.
The new Ghostbusters may go some way toward redressing Hollywood’s ongoing issues with gender representation, but when it comes to the portrayal and non-portrayal of religion, it’s a symptom of the problem — a problem no one is talking about.
One area of representation is disproportionately ignored: how Hollywood deals with religious belief and identity.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.