From Sausage Party to Silence, it was a banner year for religion onscreen.
by Alissa Wilkinson in Vox @email@example.com
I started 2016 as chief film critic at Christianity Today and ended it on staff here at Vox. Religion and pop culture has been my beat for a long while. So it’s not surprising I spot it around every corner.
But even by my heightened radar’s standards, 2016 feels like a banner year for onscreen treatments of religion. I don’t mean what we’ve come to consider “Christian movies,” though there were a few of those, most notably the moderately commercially successful God’s Not Dead 2 and the crashing box office failure Ben-Hur (executive produced, by the way, by Mark Burnett of The Apprentice). “Christian films” are made for a sizable but still niche market and bent to the tastes of that segment: biblical or inspirational tales, or (in the case of the God’s Not Dead franchise) legends of the culture wars. They’re meant to preach to — or shore up — the choir.
“Christian movies” had their most recent heyday in 2014 and 2015 and seem to be tapering off, at least in terms of box office returns. But 2016 belonged to a different kind of onscreen religion, aimed at mainstream audiences. In 2016, films and TV shows that portrayed religion — organized or not — were less interested in preaching or caricaturing and more in exploring how faith and (especially) doubt fit into the frameworks of people’s lives today.
Religion showed up onscreen in everything from dark, gritty dramas to dirty animated fables
2016 started with the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar, a comedy about competing ideologies (Hollywood capitalism, Marxism, and Christian faith) that is explicitly modeled on a passion play.
And now the year is ending with Martin Scorsese’s Silence, perhaps the most stirring, perceptive film about belief and doubt in decades.
The months between yielded movies about pluralism and agnosticism (Sausage Party), the mysterious, doubtable supernatural (Midnight Special), and entering and escaping cults (Holy Hell). In The Birth of a Nation, the Bible acts as impetus for violent action in pursuit of justice; in Hacksaw Ridge, it motivates nonviolence and heroism.
In A Quiet Passion (which played at festivals in 2016 and will open in theaters next year), Terence Davies uses Emily Dickinson’s life to plumb the space that might best be described as believing unbelief. The Witch artfully poses a conflict between stringent Puritan faith and witchcraft in colonial New England. Knight of Cups positioned its narrator on the road to faith (modeled explicitly on both tarot and Pilgrim’s Progress). The documentary The Illinois Parables reads the complicated matter of religion and historical conflict into the landscape of Illinois. In Queen of Katwe, a Christian missionary brings opportunity to illiterate children in the slums he came from.
Beyoncé’s magnum opus Lemonade explicitly drew on religious imagery in its proclamation of freedom for its creator and women like her. The Innocents, like Silence, grapples with faith cracked by doubt in the face of unthinkable violence to the bodies of the devout — in this case, the brutal rape of nuns.
That Christianity is the organized belief system of interest in most of these projects isn’t surprising. They’re mostly American productions, and Christianity is still the dominant religion practiced in America — though I suspect that onscreen organized religion will expand in the next few years to include a higher number of serious treatments of Judaism, Islam, and other religions.
Still, attentive moviegoers could have caught Under the Shadow, a stellar Iranian political horror film, which borrows on concepts from Islamic folklore to explore the fallout from the Iran-Iraq War. And Tikkun, an Israeli horror film, navigated the complexities of bodies and souls in contemporary Orthodox Judaism.
Meanwhile, on TV, Rectify (about guilt, forgiveness, and redemption in small-town America) and The Americans (about religion as a competitor to nationalist ideologies) topped critics’ lists, while The Path and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looked at the complicated reasons people enter, leave, remain in, and recover from oppressive systems of belief.
For a pretty goofy show, Lucifer featured a surprisingly nuanced account of evil and fate, while on Daredevil, Matt Murdock’s Catholicism is a central part of his character. Preacher took as its starting point the conflation of pastorly authority and possession by something evil. On both Jane the Virgin and The Jim Gaffigan Show, Catholic faith is also part of characters’ identities and influences the decisions they make.
While Black-ish usually treats Grandma Ruby’s (Jenifer Lewis) outspoken religion as just one of her wacky character details, it nonetheless has aired several episodes dealing with the role of church and belief in God in its larger exploration of black identity in America. The Night Of portrays American Muslims whose character arcs aren’t just a vehicle for a story about terrorism or war. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) regularly consults his friend, the cool, collar-wearing minister Father Brah (Rene Gube). And Transparent — which has been called “the most Jewish show on television” — features a rabbi among its main cast.
This isn’t even an exhaustive list — that would be impossible to compile — and leaves out a lot of what’s happening in genres like horror and in independent and niche film. But as close watchers of the industry can attest, these certainly constitute an observable uptick in religiously oriented content for mainstream audiences.
Religion is part of characters’ identities in 2016, but not their only defining feature
It’s too early in this groundswell to sort out exactly why or how this happened in 2016. It can’t really be attributed to the US election — most of these movies and shows were finished or in development before the race even took shape. But there are some commonalities worth noting.
One notable trend is a growing interest in taking religious belief to be part of, but not the entirety of, a character’s identity. In other words, religious characters are growing more complex.
Religion has at times operated as a negative character-defining trait in onscreen stories: Sometimes the religious character’s faith is played off as just a quirk or an outright flaw, a writing shorthand for being bad, weak, hypocritical, or strange. (Think of Angela in the early seasons of The Office, Shirley Bennett on Community, or Vice President Sally Langston on Scandal.) But Rectify, The Americans, Daredevil, Jane the Virgin, The Night Of, Transparent, and The Jim Gaffigan Show, among others, all have characters who are religious, but who say and do lots of things that aren’t explicitly tied to their faith. They aren’t trotted on to be the token clergy or judgy friend; they’re just people who go to church and believe in God, and also have other interests, views, and friends. Their faith is one among many defining traits, but one that is ever-present (as opposed to, for instance, Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files, whose Catholicism seemed to crop up only when it suited the story).
These sorts of characters can be hard to write for a mainstream audience, because fleshing them out often requires personal experience that busts up easy stereotypes. A sort of prototypical religious character, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s Harriet Hayes, was based on creator Aaron Sorkin’s real-life ex-girlfriend, the outspoken Christian Kristin Chenoweth; another Sorkin character, the very Catholic President Jed Bartlet from West Wing, also belongs to this category. We especially see this in TV — most writers’ rooms aren’t noted for their diversity, and sometimes religion has been pretty one-note on screen. And flatly written secondary characters have a way of standing out more starkly in TV’s longform storytelling.
But perhaps recognizing that a myopic view of religious people results in underwritten characters, many shows have developed the sense that, as with gender or race, a character’s religion is part of their identity, one in a series of overlapping layers. A white Southerner’s Christianity looks different from that of a Catholic comedian living in New York City or a black marketing executive in Southern California. Not all Muslims look like they do on Homeland. Religious people look, sound, and act differently from one another. Their political and social views may differ. Even if they belong to an organized religion, the way they express and live that faith is unique.
In her film The Innocents, French director Anne Fontaine elected to dramatize a spectrum of faith in characters that on first blush look very much alike: a group of Polish nuns who, during World War II, are raped by a group of passing Russian soldiers. When the film begins, a French Red Cross doctor (who is an avowed atheist, a fact that does not change throughout the film) is called to the convent, where she discovers that many of the nuns are in advanced stages of pregnancy.
It’s tempting to see a convent full of nuns as a homogeneous group: all Polish women, living together, having taken the same vows, following the same rituals together every day, professing the same belief, experiencing the same violence. But The Innocents recognizes that women have individual responses to severe trauma, and their responses are complex and different from one another. It’s a remarkable exploration of shades of belief and doubt rooted in the different ways that different people internalize and express faith.
Some religious storylines incorporate the supernatural, to great effect
Another striking trend in onscreen religion showed up in two places in 2016: Jeff Nichols’s film Midnight Special and the Hulu TV series The Path, something echoed in the HBO drama The Leftovers (which aired the final episodes of its second season in December 2015 and will premiere its third season in 2017)…