Is Hollywood, long an incubator for sex, thrills and general godlessness, a new outpost of the Bible Belt?
A look at a handful of the biggest blockbusters on tap this year and next says maybe.
Major studio films currently in the works include “Mary, Mother of Christ,” starring Israeli-born Odeya Rush in the title role and featuring Ben Kingsley as King Herod and Julia Ormond as Mary’s cousin Elizabeth; “Noah,” a CGI-packed bonanza of a blockbuster with Russell Crowe as the title role and an estimated budget of $150 million (Emma Watson and Anthony Hopkins will also get top billing); and “Exodus,” a titanic retelling of the Passover story from Sir Ridley Scott with none other than Christian Bale splitting the Red Sea. Sigourney Weaver and “Breaking Bad” badboy Aaron Paul will also get plenty of screen time.
Add to that mix a biblical saga called “Gods and Kings,” helmed by “Life of Pi” director and Oscar-winner Ang Lee; “Son of God,” a feature-length epic about the Nazareth carpenter with Portuguese heartthrob Diogo Morgado donning the crown of thorns; and “Resurrection,” a Kevin Reynolds-helmed look at the 40 days following crucifixion. Will Smith has been given the green light by Sony Pictures to make a Cain and Abel film, with — get this — the not-so-biblically-accurate addition of Canaanite vampires; and Warner Bros. has taken on a project focused on the character of Pontius Pilate, with rumors swirling that Brad Pitt is attached to the title role.
It’s a lot of apostolic energy from Tinseltown, which is better known for worshipping dollars and democracy than any sort of deity. But to take a line from Ecclesiastes, everything has a season. Or as Dan Chyutin, a lecturer on Israeli cinema who is writing his PhD thesis on the intersection of religion and Israeli cinema, sees it, everything may have a second season.
“The last time we really had this sort of influx of biblical epics was the 1950s, which is very different from this day and age, yet you do see some similarities between then and now and what’s going on in cinema,” Chyutin said. In 1950s America, he points out, 3-D was suddenly all the rage and film studios were struggling to prove to audiences that they could provide a true alternative to television. So studios thought big — earth and heavens big — and tapped the Bible to give them a string of big-dollar biblical sagas.
It all started with 1949’s “Samson and Delilah,” which was such a runaway success that it was quickly followed up with a string of biblical stories, most notably Charlton Heston’s twin boffo epics, 1956 “The Ten Commandments” and 1959’s “Ben Hur.”
In the second decade of the 21st century, with its post-“Avatar” 3-D obsession and the unprecedented scope of its AMC, Netflix and HBO television dramas, the stakes are suddenly quite similar. And once again, Chyutin said, Hollywood is setting its sights on the pockets of the religious right.
“Certainly in the ‘50s there was an attempt by Hollywood to capitalize on the religious, and at the same time, the church wanted to capitalize on that outreach,” he said. “And I think it’s a similar case here. There has been a religious revival again in the U.S. … and slowly but surely Hollywood is recognizing again, sort of like groundhog day, the buying power of this audience.”
Justin Chang, chief film critic for entertainment industry mag Variety (full disclosure: this writer is a regular Variety contributor), was more hesitant to declare that Hollywood is once again in a Testament tizzy.
“I wouldn’t read too much into this a trend — it strikes me as one of those curious coincidences, no more explicable, really, than when two different films about Alfred Hitchcock or Truman Capote come out within months of each other,” Chang said. He is quick to point out, however, that Mel Gibson’s 2004 “Passion of the Christ” taught Hollywood to quit ignoring faith-based audiences, and also that the biblical epics of this decade have little in common with those Technicolor tales of the 1950s.
“We don’t need more safe, earnest, didactic, life-affirming faith-based movies. We need bold, idiosyncratic filmmakers who are not afraid to offend, or to imprint their own personal stamp on even the most revered source material,” he said. “For that reason, I was pretty excited when I heard that Darren Aronofsky would be directing “Noah”; his best films, including “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream,” have a go-for-broke craziness and intensity that I would love to see applied to a big, epic religio-canvas.”
Regardless of the political leanings of those who pull Hollywood’s strings, Chang added, good stories make for good movies, and the Bible offers a wealth of captivating tales.
“The Bible remains an inexhaustible source of drama and spectacle, and so it’s no real surprise that Hollywood, which likes to trumpet its progressive liberalism but also its ability to bring dreams and miracles to life, returns to this particular well every so often,” he said. “It’s worth noting, too, that one needn’t be a true believer to appreciate these movies — or, for that matter, to make these movies.”