Can the biblical epic be Risen?

ponders on the relationship between Christianity and Hollywood, then and now

risen joseph fiennes Remember when Hollywood was obsessed with the Holy Bible? Probably not. If there’s one myth that has persisted over the last few decades of popular cinema’s relationship with the spiritual, it is the claim that Hollywood hates religious films. On a mere surface level, the statement is erroneous, but the idea of Hollywood as some insidious den of iniquity and liberal atheism maintains. So persistent is this myth that whenever a Christian film premieres (even if specifically Christian), observers and critics are thrown into a frenzy. “Since when has Hollywood been interested in God?” they wonder.

But God has never been persona non grata in the movies. In fact, one of the greatest filmic paradoxes of Hollywood’s history centres on their unlikely relationship with Christianity. In particular, the decadent fifties stand out. Our immediate thoughts are of the goblets overflowing with bubbling champagne, the post-war sexual revolution, and general decadence. Except it was during these same decadent fifties that Hollywood was making millions of dollars (and that’s not even adjusting for inflation) from the thing you might be least likely to expect – God.

God, and the Bible, have been a constant of cinema since the silent era but the interest turned into potent fervour in the fifties. The lavish costumes, the casts of thousands, the gargantuan sets – in typical form Hollywood was using whatever material available from the Bible to reiterate their point: good triumphs over evil. By the seventies the trend was waning, not necessarily because Hollywood had lost God. They had just moved on to different tools.

In mid February, Risen premiered to modest critical and commercial responses. Kevin Reynolds (most notable for Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves) directed the story of a Roman tribunal investigating the rumours of the allegedly risen Jewish Messiah. It could not be mere happenstance that Risen bore a curious resemblance to Richard Burton in The Robe, a classic example of Biblical era melodrama gone wild. Was religion in the water again? God, again?

To be clear, Risen does not really signal a new beginning of faux-religious epics – we’ve had Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus, Noah and they have all done reasonably well, but none of them gained even a third of the commercial and critical acclaim of the epics of old. But the reason for that is more nuanced than “new movies are terrible and old ones are better”. And, neither is the explanation to be found in the much ballyhooed claim that movies can never do justice to religious texts because they only care about the money. Cecil B. DeMille, at the helm of the impressive The Ten Commandments owes much of his legendary prowess and success to his ability to mix the fervently religious with the popular. But can that old fifties magic be struck again?

The geopolitical issues of the Cold War era have not dissipated; they have only mutated. Amid new global crises, Hollywood’s own America has its political issues to deal with. In this vein, then, it is not unsurprising that filmmakers might be falling back (albeit lazily) on religion to epitomise the good vs bad struggle. Still, to consider the 21st century’s take makes me wonder if this is a legitimate desire to replicate the bygone era. If they are intent on Biblical era films, they can do – and have done – much worse than the glorious spectacle of the epics of the 1950s.

The bizarre, alluring dance between true religiosity, delicious melodrama and wondrous fantasy was something to behold. The Ten Commandments in 1956 is the quintessential one to pick, and in the long line of religious epics rises to the top as the easy favourite. It’s a marvel of filmmaking in its own right, from its opening where Cecil B. DeMille emerges on screen to introduce the film as velvet curtains part to reveal the screen. The communal experience of DeMille at his glorious, shticky best is unparalleled. And it does seem unlikely to happen in quite that way again.

The problem today is less that we live in a godless Hollywood than we live in an oddly reverent one. The culture war of the 21st century isn’t just a collegiate or social issue, it has seeped into pop culture. For the better in some cases, but for the worse in others. There are few things as frustrating in artistic renditions as solemn seriousness which veers into the humourless. It’s why the decadent fifties were such a great time for the Biblical era. They were willing to wallow in the ‘muchness’ of it all. They also understood that the Old Testament made for much more delicious drama than the New.

The question isn’t so much why religion seems to be back on screen. Art is cyclical. The bigger question is whether or not Hollywood can successfully harness religious threads to tell entertaining and popular films ever again.


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