Some of the best films address tricky societal themes, reflecting real life issues. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s hotly anticipated The Master, which hits theaters in limited release Sept. 14, is no exception.
The film tackles the issue of religion and documents Lancaster “The Master” Dodd’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) pursuit to spread his ever-growing faith-based organization “The Cause” with Navy veteran and new right-hand man Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) by his side.
Even with what’s supposed to be a fictional religious organization, The Master has sparked controversy with its allusions to Scientology as well as Dodd’s uncanny resemblance to Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. This controversy, in turn, has inspired a flurry of questions regarding spirituality in films. One prominent question: What do representations of religion in modern film say about the contemporary discourse surrounding the topic?
Answer: As it stands, they don’t say much at all. And the crux of the problem lies in that modern depictions of religion can be broken into three simplistic categories: overtly zealous, horror-based and satirical.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ stands apart as one of the most iconic and controversial religious films of our time, largely because of the film’s gruesome depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Additionally, the film found massive success at the box office, raking in a staggering $370.8 million in domestic gross to date. For comparison’s sake, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the epic finale of the popular trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic literary series, was released just a couple months before Passion and grossed $377.8 million domestically.
Though religion serves as a major cornerstone of American and worldwide culture, the ability of Passion to rival a huge action blockbuster’s lifetime domestic gross was unheard of. Box office figures can’t account for religious demographics, but the staggering success of such a devout work might just suggest that there is a more significant role for religion on and off the screen.
But is it really fair for us to say that a film like Passion creates the space for religious discourse when it really just puts Christianity on a pedestal for pre-existing followers? This isn’t necessarily an attack on Passion, mind you. It’s worth noting, however, that Passion’s overly zealous nature courted more media-frenzied controversy than thoughtful discussion, even though its success might’ve suggested otherwise.
Similarly, many horror films and comedies often include spiritual content without necessarily progressing discourse on religion, instead choosing to use spirituality as a plot device.
Creating the association between fear and religion inherently discourages open, balanced discussion of spirituality. This is particularly true with the horror subgenre of “possession” films, including The Exorcist, The Rite and, more recently, The Possession.
This isn’t to say that all films with religious content need to have a greater message about God or the afterlife. Still, a better balance could encourage people to realistically discuss religion without the fear of political correctness or taboo hanging over their heads.
Satirical comedies aren’t exactly doing the trick either. Featuring a ragtag group of Catholic girls led by Mandy Moore, 2004’s Saved parodies extremely devout teens who cannot accept homosexuality or pre-marital sex. The film developed a cult following, but once again, the issue here is not about the individual work. Instead, it hints at the larger collection of satirical films about religion — a collection that focuses on extremes rather than varied, well-rounded religious portrayals.
Both horror and satirical works bring religion into the public domain, but in a way that can turn viewers off from religion. Where are the representations of average, hardworking people who have strong roots in faith? Why are religious characters restricted to being possessed or “Jesus-freaks”? Why do characters’ religions have to define them in such over-the-top ways?
The issue here is not the quantity of religious depictions in film — it’s the quality. So it’s time that filmmakers take advantage of this creative platform to its full effect, using their creativity as a tool to better inform audiences and create a useful conversation about the role of religion in our lives.
The Master might just be a step in the right direction. Perhaps the film will prove to be more than just “the Scientology movie,” as it has been popularly dubbed, and instead get moviegoers thinking about deeper issues such as the nature of faith and trusting the word of a single religious leader or organization.
We know that religion holds a serious and important place in culture and society today — it’s about time that filmmakers took that to heart.
C. Molly Smith is a junior majoring in communication. Her column “Keepin’ It Reel” runs Wednesdays.