Why Is It So Hard to Make a Good Movie About God?

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the film Room

Why Is It So Hard to Make a Good Movie About God?

Why is it so hard to make a good movie about the life of Christ, or the life of a saint? Why do the films usually seem so saccharine and stiff, as though holiness were a kind of shrink-wrap wound round the saint, keeping out the dirt, yes, but also the air and the light.

I remember when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” made the rounds one Easter. My oldest son called it, “Braveheart Goes to Jerusalem,” and he said he was sure the scourged and bound Christ was going to rare back on his cross, straining against the nails while screaming, “Freee-dom!”

Jesus of Nazareth, the William Wallace of the Jews.

Someone this spring will suggest a seasonal viewing of some gore-soaked movie of Christ’s passion.

It’s not that there aren’t good movies exploring religion. “Babette’s Feast” is, I think, and many others will agree, one of the finest movies about faith ever made. (Pope Francis has said that it’s his favorite.) Most of the action takes place in a kitchen, and we never learn if the cook, Babette, is a regular communicant.

I’m thinking about this because I’m studying with my goddaughter, Juliet, as she prefers for confirmation in the spring. We’re looking carefully and closely at the Nicene Creed, article by article. I told her I thought it would be appropriate for us to look at the creed she was given at her baptism, to once again walk the way of traditiosymboli and reddito symboli.

We’re discussing the difficulties of talking about God at all, the fallible speaking of the perfect, the mortal speaking of the divine. We’re thinking about Thomas Aquinas’ three-step rule for talking about God — the way of negation, the way of affirmation and the way of eminence.

Aquinas has been helpful, but what has been most helpful is to read scripture and see the way scripture follows in its descriptions of God, which is the way of analogy. We began with Jesus’ own analogies in Matthew 13. The kingdom of heaven is like an unweeded field. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Or yeast. Or a pearl. It’s also like a buried treasure or a net filled with fish. The kingdom of heaven is, of course, none of those things. It is like those things. We’re guessing most of Jesus’ listeners could identify with at least one of the examples, and understand how the kingdom of heaven, which “costs not less than everything,” is worth it.

And it strikes us that Jesus, who is surely qualified — indeed, alone qualified — to describe the kingdom in the most literal terms, chooses the way of analogy. God is like a mother bird, like a storm that strips the cedars of Jerusalem, like a warrior shouting as he goes into battle, like a woman crying out as she labors to give birth.

Analogy takes the common aspects of human life — a lost coin, a rebellious son — aspects common to life across centuries and cultures and countries and tribes and asks us to use them as the lens through which we glimpse the eternal and the divine. Who hasn’t rummaged through the sofa cushions (with “sofa cushions” adjusted to fit the time and place in question) searching for lost change? An analogy doesn’t assume that our eyes or our experiences are those of God. We see, we experience, we understand as humans, and analogy is always on the human level, rooted in the human story.

Someone this spring will suggest a seasonal viewing of some gore-soaked movie that tries to be a blow-by-blow, reportorial account of Christ’s passion. Suggest instead the way of analogy. Get together and watch “Room,” the movie based on Emma Donoghue’s novel and directed by the self-declared atheist Lenny Abrahamson. Try this analogy: The Savior of the World is like a little boy named Jack, who comes into the suffering and fear that is the room where Joy is trapped, unable to live free. She has been stolen from her true life and enslaved by a man who cares only for the ways she can satisfy his hungers. She has been alone, until Jack is born. Then, though she still lives in the room, it, and she, is transformed by her relationship with Jack. She is no longer alone. In Joy’s own words, Jack’s coming into the cold, lightless room, his birth, and his life, “changes everything.”

– Melissa Musick