I’m not a movie critic. Most of my cinematic commentary amounts to: “I am watching this. I really liked this. I didn’t like this.”
On the side of, “I don’t like this,” you can make a list of almost all the portrayals of Christianity in film.
Christianity in film appears predominately in one of two formats. First, there are “Christian” movies. These movies are frequently sentimental, emotionally gut-wrenching but surprisingly shallow in their supposed depth.
Here I’m thinking of 2019 movies like Breakthrough or Run the Race. These films wear their religiosity so obviously on their ideological sleeves as to serve more as propaganda than art, more sermon than winning entertainment.
On the other side, you have the stereotypical tropes of “Christians” in much of popular film. Here, Christians are portrayed as moralistic, better-than-thou, shallow, cloyingly clueless. These are more difficult to list, because often the portrayal of a Christian is ancillary and fleeting. So much of film is blessedly secular. But this makes the negative appearance of stereotypical tropes all the more jarring.
Here I’m thinking of the portrayal of the church in the recent His Dark Materials HBO mini-series, or such terrifying portrayals as the Christian in Shawshank Redemption.
What has appeared in 2019 are films that look at Christianity head-on, and get it surprisingly right. The two I have under consideration here are Dark Waters, Mark Ruffalo’s scathing critique of the environmental and criminal abuses of Dupont; and The Two Popes, an incredible biopic of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis at the moment of the transition between the first’s retirement and second’s surprising rise to the papacy.
Let’s take Dark Waters first. So I was a young Christian growing up on a farm in Eastern Iowa. When I was in third grade, Dupont flew our family to Washington D.C. for a photo shoot with the amount of food a farm family of four would eat in a year, comparing it with what the average farm family would produce in a year.
It was a remarkable, memorable trip. Honestly, I never really thought about corporate ethics or Christianity in relationship to social responsibility during any of that time.
Chemicals were just chemicals, something you used on the fields to help with crops.
Dark Waters helps anyone watching it to consider corporate ethics. But what it does with wonderful, prophetic clarity, is illustrate why a Christian couple might sacrifice so very much to oppose the abuses of a corporation like Dupont.
It’s not that Robert Billott (the lawyer who spent 20 years battling Dupont) walks around expressly connecting his Christian faith to his advocacy. The film leaves the brief articulations of this faith to his wife (played by Anne Hathaway). Although it is clearly hard on all of them, hard on their health, hard on their marriage, shattering in so many ways, she recognizes and articulates, “This is what a good Christian man does.”I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film portray simple Protestant fidelity to social justice so compellingly. There’s nothing fancy. Faith is hidden in the mess. But it sent me back to my childhood and helped me see in the present why I need to scrutinize the corporations who are so frequently harming individuals and communities, with little or no challenge from Christians or people of faith.
On the other hand, you have The Two Popes. Here you have Anthony Hopkins at the height of his powers, so also Jonathan Pryce. To a certain degree, the two portray the contrast of these two popes along the stereotypes into which they have been nested. But what the back-and-forth of their surprising relationship accomplishes is to leave neither stereotype secure.
If you’ve ever been curious how Roman Catholics think, in particular in the tension between their commitment to the doctrine handed down for centuries and sustained in the rich institutions that steward them, and the center of that faith, the impoverished and vulnerable Jesus, this is the film to watch.
That you also get to see these two actors in all their extraordinary powers is the added bonus. It’s great writing and great acting, and you’ll want to watch it more than once.
I love both of these films, and feel they offer us a way forward between the extremes of sentimentality and stereotype. Clearly those who have written these films have paid close enough attention to how the faith is practiced and lived in each community (in Dark Water, midwestern, southern Protestantism, in The Two Popes, Roman Catholicism) as to evoke empathy and understanding in the viewer.
Quite the opposite of propaganda, these films accomplish an opening. They tell the truth precisely in its paradoxical messiness.
I haven’t seen the film yet, but I understand Hidden Life from this past year accomplishes something similar in its faithful portrayal of the sacrifice implicit in Christian faith.
“Someone once said, ‘We can become so heavenly-focused that we are no earthly good,’” Pons notes. “I think what [these films show] us is how to exercise our heavenly faith in a way that allows us to be earthly good in the face of incredible adversity and despite our own flaws.””