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July 21, 2009

The Top Faith-Offending Films

LA Times includes 'Passion,' 'Da Vinci Code,' 'Golden Compass' on list

The Los Angeles Times recently put together a feature called "Faith-Offending Films," starting, interestingly, with Falling, the latest film from Richard Dutcher, the former Mormon who had already alienated LDS fans with edgier and edgier movies. (LDS Review refused to review Falling because of its R rating, prompting quite a spirited debate in its comments.)

Included in the Times list was The Passion of The Christ . But why?

The Times wrote that it was offensive to Jews: "Its stark images of Jesus' crucifixion and the violence toward him, as well as villainous portrayals of many Jewish people, created a religious furor. Rabbis around the world said the film had the potential to transmit potent negative images, attitudes, stereotypes and caricatures about Jews and Judaism." (In an essay for CT, Jewish critic Michael Medved argued that it shouldn't have been offensive to Jews.)

Also on the Times list: Angels & Demons (for offensiveness to Catholics), The Golden Compass (Catholics), The Love Guru (Hindus), Submission (Muslims), and a few more. Curiously, the list also includes Team America: World Police, for its offensiveness to "lots of red-blooded Americans, least of all a certain Mr. Sean Penn," and Tropic Thunder, for offending "disability groups." What those two have to do with "faith" escapes me.

Meanwhile, the UK's Future Movies put together a list of The Top Ten Controversial Films, which includes Lars von Trier's upcoming Anti Christ (releasing in the US in October). Their reason? Because it "has achieved notoriety quickly by distinguishing itself from the current onslaught of ‘torture porn’ films with extensive visceral action. Outraged critics have responded badly to explicit scenes of genital mutilation, attempted murder, vigorous sex scenes and a graphic masturbation sequence." Yes, even normally open-minded critics are outraged. It does sound pretty outrageous.


No the Last Temptation of Christ?

I'm so tired of The Passion of the Christ being called offensive or controversial. JESUS was a Jew! Pilot was a Roman. It portrayed what happened; are films about Christ supposed to pretend that Jesus was turned on by the Egyptians or the Persians instead? This is like calling Schindler's List offensive to Germans because it showed what Germans actually did in WWII.

Expecting Hollywood to be sympathetic to Christian beliefs would be like expecting Hollywood to produce an honest film on the Palestinian issue, the horrific criminal invasion of Gaza earlier this year or even World War 2 for that matter. After all, as the academic Norman G Finkelstein of the City University of New York notes in his book 'The Holocaust Industry' published in the year 2000, 'The Israeli Prime Minister's office recently put the number of "living Holocaust survivors" at nearly a million' (p83). Winston Churchill in his 6-volume history The Second World War (final volume published in 1959) taking almost four and a half thousand pages, makes no mention of Nazi 'gas chambers', a 'genocide' of the Jews, or of 'six million' Jewish victims of the war.

I'm probably in the minority as a Christian who found The Passion of the Christ offensive only because it did what a movie should never do: presume that its audience knows the story, and therefore doesn't bother to introduce characters, situations, conflicts, or anything else. I didn't connect with any of the characters, including the actor playing Jesus, and I'm not afraid to admit that, mentally, I yawned through much of the movie--yes, even the crucifixion scene!

After seeing Passion of the Christ I thought a lot about the infamous "flaying" scene, and how long it lasted. But I think I understand why it was done that way: Gibson wanted the audience to push past the repetitive, brainless, emotionless violence of most films--action movies in particular--and actually feel the brutal ugliness of the moment while they watched it.

I suppose the question about "faith-offending" films is: offensive to whom? Frankly, a lot of the current crop of "approved Christian" films really put a burr under my saddle, for one simple reason: they have no ring of truth. Everything always ends up perfect, neatly wrapped, and no one is ever wounded in such a way that they can't be instantly, miraculously healed. One wonders what a current Christian filmmaker would do with the carnality of David's later life, or with Jacob as he limped away from the Angel.

When you watch an adaptation of Shakespeare, like Ian McKellan's Richard III or Julie Taymor's Titus, you can feel the depth of the themes seep into your soul. The images are difficult to watch at times, even grotesque, but you walk away at the end with a good story andsomething deep and satisfying to think about.

Directors like Neil LaBute (The Shape of Things, In The Company of Men) and Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dogville) aren't exactly creating "realistic" situations in their films, but they always challenge--often with brutal force--what you believe in a visceral way. Their films show you the limits of what belief can do, and demand you assess which side you're on.

Some of my favorite films of the last couple of decades, Children of Men, Tender Mercies, and The Apostle contain events that aren't pretty or bathed in that golden late-evening TV commercial glow, but they make me think deeply about Jesus, and my place in His world. I wish more "Christian" films had the guts to do that.

"I'm probably in the minority as a Christian who found The Passion of the Christ offensive only because it did what a movie should never do: presume that its audience knows the story, and therefore doesn't bother to introduce characters, situations, conflicts, or anything else."

Why should a movie never presume its audience knows the story? Why can't a filmmaker make a cinematic equivalent to the stations of the cross?

I know movies and iconography are different arts, but I don't see how anyone but the filmmaker can define the scope and presumptions of his film.