Celebrity sightings and up-and-coming indie flicks are a
given at the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, but this year something
else is drawing attraction on the red carpet: faith on film.
A small but noticeable number of films at Sundance — where crossover
movies like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Little Miss Sunshine” broke into the
mainstream — tackle issues of religion, spirituality and faith.
Out of 120 Sundance features scheduled to show at the Jan.
20-30 festival, 12 are overt stories about religion, or chronicle protagonists largely
defined by faith, says John Nein, senior programmer for the festival.
“There are definitely more films (exploring spirituality)
that ended up in the program this year than in years past,” he said, noting an uptick
in the number of submissions that touch on religious themes.
Christianity is a central theme in most of the films, from
the star-studded satire “Salvation Boulevard,” featuring Pierce Brosnan as a popular
preacher who frames a born-again Christian follower for a crime, to the
riveting documentary “The Redemption of General Butt Naked,” about a Liberian
warlord-turned-preacher facing the loved ones of people he killed.
The Italian film “Lost Kisses” centers around a Sicilian
community’s reaction to a 13-year-old girl who may perform miracles. Two films explore
Christianity and Islam, with “Kinyarwanda” set during the 1994 genocide in
Rwanda, and the documentary “Position Among The Stars” tracing the lives of an
impoverished family in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The Japanese “Abraxas” focuses on a depressed Zen monk who reconnects
with punk rock, while the bizarre American comedy “The Catechism Cataclysm”
centers on a priest who loves heavy metal music. Three American narrative
features — “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Kevin Smith’s horror film “Red State”
and Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut “Higher Ground” — are concerned with cults
and religious sects on the fringe.
Religion, of course, isn’t totally new territory for
Sundance — previous fest fare included “Saved!,” “Jesus Camp” and “Shape of the
Moon,” a precursor to this year’s “Position Among The Stars.”
Most Sundance religious fare tended to be satirical or
derisive — with “Saved!” a prime example — said Dick Staub, author of The Culturally
Savvy Christian and a columnist for Religion News Service, who has participated
in the Windrider Film Forums around Sundance that bring together directors and
audiences to talk about faith on film.
William L. Blizek, founding editor of the Journal of
Religion and Film and professor of philosophy and religion at the University of
Nebraska at Omaha, said religion may have a higher profile at Sundance this
year because “religion has become a much more visible part of our culture.”
“Now that you’ve got a culture that is more open to the
discussion of religion, you get more movies (exploring religion),” he says,
citing Mitt Romney, President Obama and others who are defined in the public’s eye
by their faith.
With more openness toward religion, there is more freedom to
make movies about it, some Sundance filmmakers say.
“Position” director Leonard Retel Helmrich says he tried
pitching documentaries dealing with religious themes in the ’80s and’90s in his
native Netherlands but could not get financing until recently. Flash forward to
2010 and “Catechism” director Todd Rohal said there were no concerns from
funders that his film had a priest for a protagonist or a “ridiculous”
Sundance’s Nein said this year’s selections “indicate a wide
array of approaches” toward religion, including politics and current events, blatant
inspiration (“Salvation” and “Red State”) and more personal stories of
redemption and soul-searching (“Tyrannosaur,” about a Christian charity worker,
and “The Ledge,” a thriller where a woman wrestles with her personal faith).
Some films highlight the connection between religion and
society while still telling personal stories.
Helmrich, whose family has ties to Indonesia and both Islam
and Christianity, was drawn to making a documentary about the lives of a Muslim
family with a Christian matriarch in the nation’s most populous Islamic
“Butt Naked” is a personal story of a man seeking redemption
after a 14-year civil war had killed 250,000 Liberians. Several scenes show the
allegedly reformed warlord face-to-face with relatives of his victims, but why
and how they forgive is left to the viewer to speculate, along with the
question of whether such a sinner can truly be redeemed.
“We were interested in knowing if somebody made a
transformation this extreme, what would it look like?” said co-director Daniele
Anastasion. “… How much do you have to do to balance the scales? Is it even possible
to balance the scales?”
The Films At Sundance
Following is a brief synopsis of the major films dealing
with faith, religion or spirituality at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival:
- “Abraxas” — A depressed Buddhist monk tries to reconnect
with his punk rock past.
- “The Catechism Cataclysm” — A young priest who’s lost touch
with his flock reconnects with a high school acquaintance for a canoe trip.
- “Higher Ground” — Vera Farmiga, the Oscar-nominated actress
from “Up In The Air,” directs and stars in this movie about a woman seeking answers
from a fundamentalist Christian community.
- “Kinyarwanda” — The first dramatic feature film produced by Rwandans
intertwines six accounts of survival during the Rwandan genocide, including
stories about a priest and an imam.
- “The Ledge” — An atheist says he must leap off a building by
noon in a thriller that also examines the life of a woman seeking spiritual redemption.
- “Lost Kisses” — Residents in a Sicilian community suspect a 13-year-old
girl has a miraculous vision.
- “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — A woman who fled a dangerous
cult tries to return to a life of normalcy.
- “Position Among The Stars” — The final installment of a
documentary trilogy that follows the life of a Christian matriarch living with
her Muslim sons in Jakarta, Indonesia.
- “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” — A former Liberian
warlord who’s responsible for the murder of thousands seeks salvation and forgiveness
as an evangelical preacher in this documentary.
- “Red State” — Kevin Smith, who caused controversy with his
scathing comedy “Dogma,” tries out horror with this film about dangerous Christian
- “Salvation Boulevard” — George Ratliff, director of the
documentary “Hell House” about a church-run haunted house, directs this satire
of megachurch culture. Starring Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly,
Marisa Tomei and Ed Harris.
- “Tyrannosaur” — Actor Paddy Considine (“In America”) makes
his directorial debut with this story of a self-destructive man who seeks redemption
with help from a Christian charity worker.
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