While I appreciate the film ministry of David A. R. White (co-founder of Pure Flix Entertainment), his latest effort, Faith of Our Fathers, disappointed me. As one who analyzes moves for a living, I found this one tedious, clunky, and predictable. And to be honest, I find most low-budgeted faith-based film efforts to be tedious, clunky, and predictable. Understand, I want to be supportive. I want to find merit in every film I critique, especially those proclaiming Jesus as our Savior. But I’m hard to please when it comes to movies about faith. While old-style, straightforward, altar-call-ending cinema dramas now seem dated and stilted, some faith-based studio upstarts have tried to capture for Christ a new audience by incorporating the gospel within genres such as action/adventure (Rumors of Wars), sci-fi (My Name is Paul), thrillers (Dangerous Calling), and – cringe – comedies (this one). They usually leave me cold, as well.
Why is it so hard to make a good movie about our need to accept Jesus Christ as our Savior?
Try though they may to appeal to younger audiences, old and new filmmakers often fall flat, both artistically and theme-wise. Certainly, a lack of money has a lot to do with their failings. If wannabe movie-evangelists want to impress today’s teenagers with sci-fi adventures for example, they better have a big, big budget.
It’s magic when a film comes together for anyone, but when artists attempt a spiritual theme, it’s a downright miracle. It takes a delicate, subtle touch when telling any story on film. Most message films lack that gentle touch. As an actor, I did twelve films for the church market in my youth, and, as I recall, the producers of those productions wanted as much gospel-saving for their buck as they could get. (BTW, Mr. White and most everyone now under my scrutiny are far more talented than I ever was in front of the camera.)
‘Bout now, you’re saying, “I’ve liked certain Christ-centered movies.” Well, so have I, but when analyzing their construction as an art form, they usually lack what makes a film memorable. My question: Why?
“You can’t compare a faith-based movie with a secular movie.” If that’s your chastisement, I must respond with, “If I made tables for a living, okay, I’d agree. But I review movies for my living and I don’t know how to critique a Christian movie any different from a secular one.” Come to think of it, when you buy a table made by a Christian, don’t you expect it to have four legs and hold things? Why not the same scrutiny for a movie you’re going to spend money on, Bible-based or not?
This raises the question, what is the purpose of a Christian filmmaker? To bring people to Jesus, right? Sounds reasonable. But is that really the purpose of the cinematic art form? Herein lies the rub.
The Tree of Life from 2011 was a visual and viscerally emotional feast sparked by exquisite imagery that was imaginative and profound, intimate and epic. The filmmaker fearlessly examined ethereal questions with a spirituality that is neither pious nor prejudiced. Understand, that film didn’t proselytize a certain religion. It did, however, what so few films do: it suggested that we become aware of spiritual matters and rely on faith when the conundrums of the day overwhelm.
Like any artist attempting profundity, director Terrance Malick provided an atmosphere and set a mood suitable for examining our beliefs, thus giving the viewer a renewed desire to share them with others. The Tree of Life was a somewhat confounding film experience. When leaving the theater, most of us asked, “What was that all about?” But as many pondered the film’s visuals and its intent, we came to the joyous revelation that we’d just had an insightful motion picture experience. Theologians may counter with the perspective that Mr. Malick’s lofty resonance was in actuality little more than an arty and incoherent introspection. But detractors cannot deny the film’s ability to cause discussion. Mr. Malick did more than awe us with his narrative; he tapped into our subconscious, delving into spiritual and life-altering subjects.
Like The Tree of Life, Life of Pi from 2012 bedazzled with CGI visuals that added to and supported the film’s emotional impact. This also wasn’t a film designed to proclaim John 3:16. It was not the intent of the filmmaker to debate our spiritual journey’s road, but merely to remind moviegoers that there is one.
Of course, great art is many things to many viewers. Those who only focus on the mental and physical aspects of their existence may not have appreciated or gotten the spiritual complexities being laid before them in films like The Tree of Life or Life of Pi. But for some, upon reflection and discussion, certain elements did cause inner examination. I get excited about such films because they cause one to ponder that which will last.
Now, am I saying filmmakers have never successfully addressed the issue of Jesus being the Son of God and our Savior? Of course not. Jesus of Nazareth springs to mind. But then, it was directed by Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Tea with Mussolini, The Taming of the Shrew). He knew how to make movies. And then there is the masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s brutal yet undeniably artistic rendering of the final hours of Christ’s life. Aided by superb cinematography, lighting, music, some dynamic special effects and Jim Caviezel’s sincere and muted performance, director Mel Gibson brought a mood and sensitivity never before captured when telling the story of the Christ. The Passion of the Christ is meant to shock, unnerve, and clarify the ordeal of Christ’s sacrifice. But Mel’s film, while showing the physical horrors Christ endured, is not so much about what mankind did to Him, as it is about what He did for us.
These are great filmmakers who were supported by big-budgeted studios. It helps to be a great filmmaker backed by a big-budgeted studio. But to have an impact on our inner being, there is one more ingredient over which neither studio nor filmmaker has complete control. I speak of the Holy Spirit.
I’ll just give one example, there are many. Church leaders Alex and Stephen Kendrick began their filmmaking ministry much like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did in their films, where the “kids” decided to do a Broadway show with little more than a barn and lots and lots of optimism. The Kindricks’ first endeavor was Facing the Giants, a sports allegory with a solid Christian message. Oh, there were the usual filmmatic shortcomings, especially in the opening scenes, where both actors and introductory dialogue were clumsy and forced. I actually uttered, “Uh-oh,” when the first attempt at humor deflated like an airless football. But within minutes, something special began to happen. First, the story kicked in. Second, the film took on a sincere life, one that seemed to comfort while extolling biblical principles. Suddenly (and this is the key point) I felt the Holy Spirit’s presence. It was as if He was showering spiritual knowledge and blessing upon that project, and upon this viewer.
So, how can I advise those who wish to witness God’s greatest gift via the motion picture? Well…I can’t. It’s not just magic. It’s not just a miracle. The ultimate success of an art form meant to draw people to God relies on His Holy Spirit. The one whose life has changed for the spiritual better after the viewing of Jesus of Nazareth…or, Faith of Our Fathers, may forever look upon that production with fondness. For him, it may have the same significance as Casablanca has in the secular world.
This is something that those of us who examine movies must contend with. The Holy Spirit is not limited by man’s shortcomings. It’s a mystery we will only know in the by-and-by, how and when it pleases our Heavenly Father to intervene in the efforts of His children. (Don’t think that doesn’t keep this reviewer awake when I compare movies.)