Martin Scorsese's Silence is in theaters now. Get your tickets here!
Despite the long-lasting claim that Hollywood is godless, no medium is more powerful in conveying faith than movies. The sheer visceral experience of watching larger than life images in a darkened theater makes it almost impossible not to relate to what's happening onscreen. The narrative of Christ's sacrifice--no matter how good the reading at a Good Friday service--pales in comparison to Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Yet, for all of the faith present in Scorsese's films, one would be hard-pressed to find his work in the Christian films section of any retailer.
Christians point to God's Not Dead, War Room, and Persecuted as successes for the genre, but those projects satisfy such a small segment of society that it's dubious to call their reception a victory. There are fewer examples of Christian dogma on display than the lecturing and belittling of the "other". God's Not Dead purports itself as a debate about the existence of God but only offers one answer. God gives a reporter of no affiliation cancer purely to convince her to convert and has an atheistic professor mowed down by an automobile to satisfy audience bloodlust. There are no offerings of inclusion, just scorn and drawing lines in the sand.
Alex Kendrick's War Room--which resists the temptation of inflicting violence on non-believers--offers a simplistic take on religion as nothing more than granting wishes and victim-blaming in the name of marriage counseling. In Persecution, director Daniel Lusko literally places evangelist John Luther (James Remar) in crosshairs. After refusing to support a Congressional reform bill, Luther is framed for murder and has to expose the anti-God government to save himself. It's a premise bound together by lunacy, sloppy screenwriting, and disdain for anyone who isn't part of the base already.
Instead of using their films to prop up baseless claims of being a persecuted minority (Christians make up 71% of the U.S.), Christian filmmakers should look outside the box. From a filmmaking perspective, it doesn't make sense to feature such one-dimensional characters and ham-fisted rhetoric. The perfect character cannot change nor can they improve. The static character doesn't make for compelling viewing and they leave audiences with little to think about afterward. Non-believers have even less to mull over when they're constantly told they are going to Hell.
Contrast these messages with The Vessel and Calvary in which the protagonists find their faith again after hardship instead of admonishing those who lack it. Both are powerful films that inspire no small amount of faith in those watching, yet Christian audiences didn't go out of their way to support either film. Short of a screening for Jesuit priests at the Vatican, it appears that Martin Scorsese’s Silence isn't going to receive the Christian backing God's Not Dead or War Room did.
Perhaps the reason why films like The Vessel or Cavalry aren't embraced is because they don't reinforce certain narratives, narratives directors Kendrick and Lusko push to keep their audience vigilant against: that they are underdogs keeping morality alive in the U.S. and any hint of doubt is a moral failing. Silence juxtaposes these battle lines with a sincere approach to looking at faith and doubt simultaneously. Martin Scorsese's foreword in Shūsaku Endō's novel explains his aim:
"How do you tell the story of Christian faith? The difficulty, the crisis, of believing? The voice that always urges the faithful--the questioning faithful--to adapt their beliefs to the world they inhabit, their culture. ... On the face of it: questioning and believing are antithetical. Yet I believe they go hand in hand."
And, perhaps, this is the reason why the Christian cinema community hasn't extended itself to Silence or films like it. Scorsese has no interest in demonizing the agnostic. He also sees no need to comfort those seeking identity reinforcement. Faith is something to be poked, prodded, and wrestled with. Faith in Martin Scorsese's world is too messy to just serve up what people want to hear, see, feel.
Doubt is human. Christian cinema should be nuanced enough to deal with that. Otherwise, the filmmakers need to address the disconnect between what Christian cinema claims to be and what it actually is: a pat on the back for turning away others. This starkly contrasts the teachings of Christ, of which this genre asserts itself as an expert.
Inclusion won't solve all of the problems with the othering of non-Christians, but until we learn to stop talking past each other, the power of movies is being wasted on telling people what they already want to hear.