Religious Films: Not All Created Equal
March 18, 2014

It's been called "the greatest story ever told," so it's not surprising that for more than a century Hollywood has turned to the Bible for inspiration. The trend of faith-based films remains strong with the movie industry producing 16 such films this year alone. Many of them may be forgotten just weeks after their release, while others could become huge blockbusters. So what makes religion-inspired movies successful?

Son of God, about the life of Jesus, opened recently and is doing very well at the box office. Churches around the country are renting movie theaters for their members to watch the film.

American University Philosophy professor Martyn Oliver says films that offer a popular depiction of Jesus target Christian audiences.

"There is not a singular or particular vision on the part of the filmmakers. That is, they are giving you what you already think you know," says he.

Professor Oliver says the filmmakers took few financial risks because the Christian market was tested in 2004 with The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson's controversial movie grossed over $1 billion dollars worldwide.

"He had an aggressive marketing campaign in Protestant and particulary large Evangelical churches prior to the release of The Passion of the Christ,” says he.

Gibson also had artistic vision, says Oliver. And his violent and polarizing portrayal of the Passion of Jesus mesmerized people the world over. Son of God is not on par with Gibson's film and its targeted audiences could be thinning out soon.

Unlike Son of God, a redemptive, friendly story about Jesus, Darren Aronofsky's Noah is a heavy, apocalyptic story about the end of the world.

"Aronofsky's decision to focus on the wrath of God, and that's a God we maybe don't want to think about. He's an unfriendly God, and in that sense his (Aronofsky's) reading of the Noah text is not a Christian Noah," says Oliver.

Professor Oliver says Aronofsky's Noah is more faithful to the Genesis story accepted by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. But the film may not become a hit. It got a lukewarm reception in Mexico from a mostly Catholic audience that found it too dark and not reverential to Noah's character. Many Muslims also oppose the film, because Islam prohibits visual depictions of their prophets.

However Noah may resonate with people who feel that its environmental message, "protect nature or perish by it," rings true in today's world. The fact that the film has impressive special effects does not hurt either.

Oliver notes that even for the best religious films, success is still elusive.

But if a film has artistic vision, a powerful message and a captivating story, watching it can be a feast for the eyes and soul.