Religion and Film: A Review

Religion and Film: A Review June 5, 2009

Don’t let the length fool you…S. Brent Plate‘s latest book, Religion and Film:  Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World, packs a serious punch.  It represents yet another accomplished work of religion and film scholarship that 1) moves beyond a narrative-centered approach to film studies and 2) reveals that an in-depth analysis of film has direct implications for our understanding and practice of religion.

From the start, Plate argues that film and religion share significant formal similarities.  Primarily, they both shape and are shaped by myth and ritual.  Since its beginnings in the late 1800s, film has borrowed from religion, and in the decades since, religion has returned the favor.  In the process, their myths and rituals re-create…re-frame…the worlds in which we live to either critique them or to help us make sense of them.  Unfortunately, sometimes film and religion simply mirror the corrupt worlds from which they emerge.

Plate divides his book into two parts, the first of which explores the relationship between theories of film and religion while the second part focuses on the ways in which films “affect viewers in bodily and ritualistic ways” (x).  While Plate’s book is highly academic, it is also extremely accessible.  Not only does it provide us with yet another example of the interdisciplinary nature of religion and film studies, it will also  introduce some readers to new conceptions of ritual and myth.

Plate’s engagement with film theories and religion theories are most helpful; however, the book’s payoff lies in the concluding chapters where he engages a variety of films and audience reactions to them to show their potential to affect our daily lives.  For example, Plate argues that in the United States, our experience of death has largely been pushed to the margins of human experience and, despite the blood and guts of slasher films, has been sanitized in mainstream Hollywood films as well.  However, film does have the potential to re-awaken our senses, and Plate turns to an avant-garde film, Stan Brakhage‘s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971), which gives a close-up view of autopsises, to illustrate his point.

His concluding chapter, “The Footprints of Film:  After-Images of Religion in Space and Time,” reveals how “film has stepped down from the screen to infiltrate political, social and religious lives,” even entering “the religious landscapes of present-day society and contemporary ritualising practices” (79).  Plate discusses the b’nai mitzvahs and weddings that have taken on Hollywood themes and the tendency of even the most conservative Christian churhces to employ Hollywood film clips during worship services.  He reveals that this is just the latest chapter in the process of re-ritualization:  “New media alter old rituals, but they also produce brand new rituals, in places and times the traditionally-minded religious person would not think to look” (85).

As part of Wallflower Press’s Short Cuts series of books about film, Plate’s contribution is a concise entry that transcends a simple introduction to or overview of the field of film and religion.  Plate raises and unpacks significant theoretical questions that plague both film and religion.  Throughout, he moves comfortably between analyses of both mainstream Hollywood films and avant-garde and independent films.  Few scholars in the field of film and religion are doing better work than Plate.

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