In dimmed surroundings where audiences sit in their pews facing the altar screen, ideological epic tales of love, manichean conflict, and redemption are silently absorbed. In his book on the secular religion of cinema, Conrad Ostwalt suggests that, ‘The movie theatre has acted like a secular religion, complete with the sacred space and rituals that mediate an experience of otherness.’
The line separating cinema and Christian places of worship has sometimes blurred: The showing of The Life and Passion of the Christ (1908) in a New York theatre was criticised by a priest for not being shown in church instead and critics suggested soothing organ music and incense burning in the theatre to accompany the film. Yet the cinema and the house of worship have often been uneasy bedfellows. In the past, cinemas have either been burned to the ground or, more mercifully, closed down for being places of moral decay. Where there has been compromise and heterosexist logic, female audiences have been made to sit apart in the darkened theatre from their male counterparts to circumvent ‘illicit’ behaviour between sexes.The birth of early silent cinema can be closely linked to narratives of gods and prophets. More as a footnote than a celebrated touchstone in the history of cinema, seventy films with biblical themes were made in the US and Europe before the First World War: The Passion Play of Oberammegau (1898) narrating the last days of Christ, by D.W. Griffith, a film-maker of biblical epics of the silent era, was convinced that, like the bible, film could be used as medium for moral instruction.
The famed film critic Andre Bazin’s oft-reproduced quote, ‘cinema was always interested in God’ , described the Catholicism of early cinema. Biblical cinema, however, was to become a wellspring for films made with other faiths in mind. The ‘Father of Indian cinema’, D.G. Dadasaheb was inspired by the life of Christ flickering across the screen:
‘While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya … Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen? ’
The product of Dadasaheb’s inspiration was the first Indian feature film, Raja Harischandra (1913), based on the Hindu Mahabharata. Film production practices of Hollywood biblical epics often expose the religious intentions of their film makers. In the shooting of Cecil B. DeMille King of Kings (1927), the mass is conducted by the Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord, who went on to write Hollywood’s 1930 Production codes. The actor who played Jesus was kept away from the rest of the cast during filming to add mystique to his role as the son of God, translating religious values into cinema practice.
Islam arrived in the world of cinema much later because of the restrictions on visual depictions of God, the prophet Muhammad and his family. Films with Islamic themes are rarely about divine beings, prophets or even stories from the Quranic texts. One of the world producers of Islamic cinema is Indonesia where the first (and only) Indonesian film to be taken from the Quran was produced; Kisah Anak-anak Adam (The Story of Adam’s children) (1988). Kisah Anak-anak Adam is the Islamic version of the story of Adam’s rival sons, Qabil and Habil, who fight over the hand of their sister, Iqlima, with tragic results. The director, Ali Shahab, would lead a prayer before the shooting of the film to bless the crew and film-making process. The prayers were supposed to add an aura of religiosity to the film-making experience. In its news print publicity, Kisah Anak-anak Adam is argued to be an alternative, more popular way of preaching to audiences who were more keen on going to the cinema than to the mosque.
The cinematic visualisation of religious stories made with the very intent of moral didactism goes to the heart of the belief that films can be educational, spiritual, and above all, a source of moral good to be absorbed by ‘the masses’. Film with religious messages routinely begin with excerpts from sacred texts, a sermon, or a statement, alluding that something highly moral is to be learned from watching the film. Defying all classical theories of secularisation and the retreat of religion to the private sphere, religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, repackaged in a more popular format (some say commodified) has found its way into public consciousness in a brighter, glossier way. With more films adapted from biblical texts still in the making in Hollywood, it seems as if the creative tension between cinemas and religion may never be resolved.
To what extent will the cinema remain a ritual in the 21st century? Cinema-going numbers have been dwindling since the rise of home-viewing, television, and the internet. The cinema is no longer the only place where one can gaze upon images of the spectacular and receive tales of moral heroism. What draws the loyal cinema-goer to the wide-screened altar? Like the stragglers of a long party, church and cinema-goers alike stick around for an experience quite profound and mysterious. In the cinema, there is a suspension of time and space, and an immediate connection is made between the viewer and the glowing purveyor of hopes and dreams.
Oswalt, Conrad, Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination (2003)
Smith, Jeffrey, Hollywood Theology: The Commodification of Religion in Twentieth-Century Films, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol 11 No. 2, pp.191-231. (2001)
Bazin, Andre, Cinema and Theology: The Case of ‘Heaven Over the Marshes’, Journal of Religion and Film, Vol 6 No. 2 (2002)
Dwyer, Rachel, Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema, (2006)