Religious cinema and the production of films with spiritual themes have always been of great value throughout the history of cinema.
IQNA reached out to Brent Rodriguez-Plate, a Professor of Religious Studies, to discuss the relations between religion and cinema.
Brent Rodriguez-Plate’s teaching and research explores how human sense perceptions affect ways of being religious, and how the operations of religious traditions impact our sensual encounters. Investigating the material cultures of religious traditions, Plate's work is interdisciplinary, moving between developments in cultural anthropology, art history, film studies, and cognitive science, along with religious studies.
His book-length publications include Blasphemy: Art that Offends (2006), Religion and Film (Wallflower Press, 2008), The Religion and Film Reader (2007), and A History of Religion in 5½ Objects (2014). He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of the AAR, and others.
IQNA: In recent years, it seems that the tendency towards spiritual and religious cinema has increased as in the early years of cinema. Do you agree with this opinion?
Rodriguez-Plate: I think it's always been there. It just takes on different forms. One has to be careful when evaluating films and looking at their spiritual or religious content. It's not always blatant images of Jesus that make a film "religious." Sometimes religion is there in the quest for characters to understand themselves better, the transformations that take place in communities, and the use of rituals even when those rituals are improvised.
My work over the past two decades (in books like Religion and Film) has constantly stressed the many ways religious life, spiritual symbols, and myths and rituals appear in film. But also, the ways films become religious by the way audiences become moved, inspired, and transformed through them.
IQNA: What do you think is the reason for religion's becoming such an important genre in the film industry?
Rodriguez-Plate: I would not call religion a "genre." Religion shows up in the genres of science fiction, romance, comedy, fantasy, and more. And religion is actually much more interesting in these types of films.
I think there is a genre we might call "bible films" (from Sidney Olcott's From the Manger to the Cross to Disney's The Prince of Egypt to the more recent low-budget Paul, The Apostle), but really these are more interesting within a genre I might call mythological films. This would include South Asian films like Jai Santoshi Maa to the South Korean Why Has the Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? as well as the Hollywood Legend of Bagger Vance. Thinking about the ways mythology works allows a much larger perspective on how and why ancient stories continue to be relevant in the contemporary age.
But even then, religious life and practice shows up in so many more places that it is ultimately uninteresting to separate certain movies out from the others.
IQNA: What do you think is the biggest challenge in making a religious film today?
Rodriguez-Plate: It depends on what is meant by a "religious film." If one is to be explicit about a religious tradition, whether that is Hinduism or Judaism or Christianity, there are dangers of offending people who might not agree with the representations. If one is depicting Jesus, or representing Mohammed in some way, or any other historical religious figure, one has to carefully walk a line between the interests of many religious groups. This begins with finding funding to produce a film all the way to the reception of the audience.
And it's bound up with politics. In the United States, conservatives protested Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ in the late 1980s, while liberals protested Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in the early 2000s. Both controversies entailed multiple elements of social life and showed why religion, culture, politics, and entertainment cannot easily be separated.
IQNA: Throughout the history of cinema, we have witnessed the making of many religious films. What do you think is the difference between religious films made in the film industry today and films made in the 1950s and 1960s, for example?
Rodriguez-Plate: Again, I'm not sure I'd call any these "religious films." In the 1950s and 1960s there were Hollywood films like The Ten Commandments that gave a particular slant on a story from the Jewish and Christian bible. But the filmmakers weren't really religious. They just saw the story as a great old story that could be updated. In India at the time there were what some critics have called "devotional films" that were popular and provoked religious expression from the viewers.
Similar things happen today. On one hand there are many thoughtful filmmakers who understand religion as an important part of life and so any film must include that dimension. One of my favorite recent examples is Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, which is a coming-of-age story about a young woman: she's on a quest to make sense of her life, and very subtly religious life is a part of it all. Or the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, which is full of Buddhist and Christian symbolism, mixed with some ancient Greek mythology. The Matrix is not generally thought of as "religious," but the film would not work without religion.
IQNA: Why the Hollywood does not make films about Islam despite other religions such as Christianity and Judaism give the fact that there have happened very cinematic events in the history of Islam?
Rodriguez-Plate: I think Hollywood is repenting for years of very bad portrayals of Islam, and Muslims more generally! Many critics have carefully outlined the ways Hollywood in the past portrayed Muslim people only as violent, and not to be trusted. The last two decades have seen some changes in these depictions, and these changes have come alongside larger social and political changes in the United States: significant levels of immigration to the United States by people who are Muslim; more and more conversions to Islam, especially among People of Color; and the related building of mosques in many cities and an increase in Muslims being elected to political offices. This is all connected to an increase of Muslims being portrayed, in more positive ways in the media. It is far from perfect, but I am optimistic that things are changing for the better.
IQNA: What do you know about Iranian cinema, especially Iranian religious cinema? What is your favorite Iranian film and filmmaker?
Rodriguez-Plate: Being from the West, in all honesty, I came to know Iranian cinema in the 1990s and 2000s through filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. More recently I've seen Asghar Farhadi's A Separation and Everybody Knows.
The films that have stuck with me for a long time are Majidi's Color of Paradise and Children of Heaven. These are both simple stories of family life and love, but that offer deeper insights into values like commitment, grieving, and love, and because of this they become deeply spiritual films.
Interview By Mohammad Hassan Goodarzi