No other religion has received an equal amount of criticism and inspection than Christianity for the basic reason that a large number of powerful filmmakers came from Christian backgrounds.
To understand the influence of Christianity and the Catholic Church over the American film industry, one has to observe the creation of censorship and the authority Catholic pressure groups enjoyed in the US and other parts of the western world.
The Presbyterian Will Hays, former US postmaster general, was appointed the head of the first proper film regulatory body called the Motion Pictures Producers and Distribution of America, Inc (MPPDA) in the 30s. The system this body created stressed a self-regulation type of censorship that eroded when Paramount studios released sultry Mae West s highly sexualized She Done Him Wrong in 1933.
The film was preceded by three equally controversial hits released in 1932: Cecil B. DeMille s The Signs of the Cross, with its infamous scene of Claudette Colbert bathing in asses milk; Howard Hawks Scarface, which featured a sympathetic portrayal of a violent criminal; and Jean Harlow starring in Red-Headed Woman, which was lambasted for presenting an Machiavellian woman who gets away with her actions.
Consequently, the Catholic Legion of Decency (LOD) emerged in 1934, quickly becoming one of the most influential pressure groups in America. Under Hays’ instructions, the edicts of the Production Code Administration, the official film censorship body, were complied by two Catholics, a Jesuit and Layman.
Under the new laws, sex became a taboo, marriage was to be respected, criminal behavior could not be portrayed as acceptable and pointed profanity – that places the words God, Lord and Jesus Christ among others in an improper context – was forbidden.
Numerous films such as Ernst Lubitsch s Trouble in Paradise, the James Cagney starring The Public Enemy, Hedy Lamarr s Ecstasy, and plenty of Marlene Dietrich fronted pictures were banned for nearly two decades in the US.
The LOD s power eventually waned by the sexual revolution of the mid-60s and the production code was dismantled the same decade. Meanwhile, Christian groups continued to influence popular filmmaking, albeit in a more tolerant fashion.
Because of the Production Code, Christianity was treated in a positive approach in American cinema until the 60s. In Europe though, the continent s foremost filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel had other ideas.
Bergman s celebrated cinematic oeuvre represented a long inspection of the existence of God. The son of a Lutheran pastor didn t write off the existence of God, rather dreaded his silence while questioning the vitality of faith in a world God seems to have abandoned.
Buñuel, on the other hand, bluntly attacked the Catholic Church with his original, cynical and scolding works. His films contained some of the most offensive Christian images in history such as the recreation of Da Vinci s Last Supper in Viridiana, among many others.
He rejected the role of the Catholic Church as a political and social institution. His main emphasis was the futility of faith in a faithless, nihilistic world. Consider his 1959 s Nazarín for example. The film revolves around an early 20th century humble, loving priest who s faced with unjustified abhorrence and distrust from the residents of his small village. As they continue to torment him he begins to doubt the import of his vocation.
Buñuel s concept for Nazarín was constantly employed, albeit with polar-opposite outcome, in the works of the great French auteur Robert Bresson.
Bresson s Catholic upbringing and principles were evident in the greater part of his work like A Man Escaped and Trial of Joan of Arc.
His 1950 s Diary of a Country Priest and 1959 s Pickpocket perfectly embody his Jansenist beliefs. The former tells the tragic story of an ailing young, idealistic priest also faced by scorn and polite apathy of his new countryside parish. Like Nazarin, the young priest experiences moments of doubt and his physical malady symbolizes his spiritual decline. Yet, and unlike Nazarin, the priest s pain, alienation and suffering are finally transcended.
Pickpocket is Bresson s best film about redemption. The protagonist of the film is a thief with a compulsion towards stealing. Salvation comes in the form of the forgiving and non-judgmental Jeanne whose love signifies the only earthly form of possible salvation.
Éric Rohmer, the last of the French New Wave directors, was often dubbed the “romantic and the most catholic of the bunch.
Rohmer s Catholicism shaped the core of his films, which were grouped in series such as Six Moral Tales and Comedies and Proverbs. The majority of his stories revolve around religion-abiding characters faced with the temptation. His characters perseverance in films such as My Night at Maude and Summer and patience for meaningful, long-lasting relationships were always rewarded at the end. Rohmer s splendid romantic realism, witty dialogue and endearing characters overshadowed his subtle Catholic subtext.
Films that had a go at either the Christian establishment or doctrine are endless. Dogma, Quills, Priest, “The Magdalene Sisters and The Da Vinci Code are among the dozens of films that condemn the church for a variety of reasons. Recent films Priest and Delver Us From Evil focused on the new breed of homosexual priests, which emerged in a series of scandals that hit the Catholic church in the past decade and a half.
Ken Russell s 1971 s The Devils remains the most disturbing, blasphemous and distressing attack against the church to date. Based on the true story about the darkest chapter in church history, the film charts a catholic cardinal s successful scheme to overtake control of France after destroying a rival priest by putting him in charge of devil-possessed nunnery. The nunnery’s mother superior is obsessed with him.
Russell invented several scenes – that didn t actually take place back then – that were cut from the theatrical version and later restored. Despite the basic, scandalous outline the film adheres to, Russell s blunt overtones and affection for shocking distracted the audience.
On the other hand, scathing reactions met films like Life of Brian and Martin Scorsese s Last Temptation of the Christ illustrated the wave of intolerance infecting all forms of religion today.
Monty Python s Brian is a hilarious comedy about Jesus neighbor who s constantly mistaken as the Christ. The film does not attack the Church, the figure of the Christ or the disciples. Yet, taking the crucifixion lightly and the film s setting banned it from release in Norway, Ireland and several other nations.
Last Temptation, on the other hand, is a serious and deeply flawed film that was severely attacked for debatable reasons. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis s controversial 1951 novel, the film examines the human side of the Christ: His temptations, doubts and desires.
The film is fictionalized account of what a human Jesus would ve been like. Theologically, nothing in the film is correct and the Gospels made it clear that Jesus was no mere human with lusts and transgressions. His confusion about his nature and the depiction of heroic Judas are difficult to accept. The notorious scene where a human Jesus makes love with Mary Magdalene is as blasphemous as any of the images incorporated in The Devils.
Nevertheless, the film is essentially an intellectual experience meant to ponder the second nature of the Christ. Despite its shaky foundations and many misgivings, the film means no disrespect for Christians or the message of Jesus; and it never claims to be anything but absolute fiction.
Temptation was one of countless cinematic adoptions that explored the different characteristics of the Christ and portrayed him in diverse manners. The most acclaimed among the group are the Franco Zeffirelli s mini-series Jesus of Nazareth and Pier Paolo Pasolini s naturalistic The Gospel According to St. Matthew, whic
h depicted Jesus as a revolutionary whose message was out of line with his society.
The films of Catholic filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese, Abel Ferrara and the Dardenne brothers – whose current films are ranked among the best Christian-themed films – were forever haunted by their religious beliefs in the form of Catholic guilt, the meaning of salvation and the dread of the ramifications of sins.
In the long history of the medium, one film stood out as the quintessential and greatest Christian story to date. Carl Theodor Dreyer s 1955 Ordet (The Word) remains nothing short of pure epiphany even 57 years after its release. The Word is a tale of a family torn between the madness of the older son believing that he s Jesus Christ and their rejection of the younger son s religiously fundamental wife-to-be.
The film gradually evolves into a series of faith-testing sequences for both the family and the viewers. What ultimately unfolds is a deeply compassionate picture about the nature of faith, its significance and unrealized power. It s a stab against radicalism, a visual essay that asserts personal faith over hollow rituals.
The ending remains one of the most cathartic and awe-inspiring in film history. Very few films were able to surpass Ordet s vigor, command and unconditional faith in God.