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Hollywood vs. religion?

When films take on, mock or ignore faith and believers

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 11:59 p.m. MDT

Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce in Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce in "Amazing Grace." (Deseret News Archives)

PROVO — The two men sit across a desk from each other, one wearing a suit and a slight scowl and the other clad in the robes of a clergyman.

"The church owns 25 percent of a large corporation," says mafia head Don Michael Corleone. "You know the one I mean."

"The Corleones are prepared to deposit $500 million in the Vatican bank at such time as Mr. Corleone receives majority control," an assistant tells the Catholic archbishop. The man of the church considers this for a moment then responds,

"Six hundred million."

"The Godfather Part III's" blatant portrayal of Catholic leadership as deal-making, money-hungry, mafia affiliates is just one of the many jabs from Hollywood against Catholicism. But Catholics aren't alone.

Al Pacino stars in Al Pacino stars in "The Godfather III," a film that takes a jab at Catholicism. (Deseret News Archives)

Nearly every faith — even the idea of religion in general — has been painted in an unflattering or erroneous light by producers and directors who are admittedly less religious than the general population, Brett H. Latimer pointed out during BYU's recent Campus Education Week.

Even when a specific faith isn't mentioned, the religious character often turns out to be the bad guy, said Latimer, who teaches American Heritage at the BYU Salt Lake Center.

In "A Few Good Men," Kiefer Sutherland's character proclaims a belief in God, yet is involved in a murder. In the "Flight of Black Angel," a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot is seen reading a Bible, yet later tries to drop a nuclear bomb on Las Vegas to punish the wicked city. Even John Goodman, the eye-patch-wearing-Cyclops-parodying bad guy in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is a Bible salesman.

Paul Bettany plays a monk in Columbia Pictures' Paul Bettany plays a monk in Columbia Pictures' "The Da Vinci Code." (Simon Mein)

Hollywood also steps the other way by choosing to ignore religion entirely, like in "Cast Away," a movie that parallels Robinson Crusoe — an "emphatically religious" book, Latimer said.

"He's desperately lonely but he never looks up," he said of Tom Hanks' character who has been marooned on an island. "For those of us who think about film and religion and what would be natural to do, that's not natural."

Along with "The Godfather," more Catholic-specific jabs have come from movies like "The Pope Must Die," "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Three Musketeers," which show church leaders and nuns as incompetent, unattractive and even sexually unrestrained.

Born-again Christians are often pegged by Hollywood as "simple-minded dupes," manipulated by thieving "faith healers" like Steve Martin in "Leap of Faith."

Tom Hanks (l) and Audrey Tautou star in Columbia Pictures suspense thriller The Da Vinci Code. (Simon Mein) Tom Hanks (l) and Audrey Tautou star in Columbia Pictures suspense thriller The Da Vinci Code. (Simon Mein)

Mormons have often been portrayed as odd or dangerous fanatics — yet even if religion isn't specifically mentioned, merely linking a character to Utah — like the religious suicidal bomber in "Contact" — is enough to convince some viewers the person is LDS.

On the other side, if they're not dangerous fanatics, Latter-day Saints are often portrayed as nice, but na?e and incompetent, Latimer said, except for the Mormon twins in "Ocean's Eleven," starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.

"These guys are very competent," Latimer said. "They can make almost anything work. They're a jack-of-all-trades, including their own faith. They're Jack Mormons. To remind you of the plot, they're stealing. So it's OK to show them competent if they're doing the wrong thing."

These skewed depictions of religion are not only offensive to members of the particular folds, but they can also be dangerous, Latimer said, because they create "a culture that sees religion as scary, dangerous and problematic, instead of something that ennobles us."

Tom Hanks (l) and Audrey Tautou star in Columbia Pictures suspense thriller The Da Vinci Code. (Simon Mein, All) Tom Hanks (l) and Audrey Tautou star in Columbia Pictures suspense thriller The Da Vinci Code. (Simon Mein, All)

Even when families or individuals limit their exposure to such media, they will still "find (popular culture's) influence inescapable," radio personality and film critic Michael Medved said in a documentary on the topic of Hollywood and religion, of which Latimer showed clips. "You can avoid things, but they will still change your life through their influence on everyone else in society."

Yet despite an often frustrating past, movies have been getting a bit better since the mid-'90s, Latimer said.

He pointed to examples like "Sister Act" and "Rudy," which both had strong Catholic themes and enjoyed great success. "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Bruce Almighty," "Evan Almighty" and "Amazing Grace" were more recent movies with definite religious themes that were handled quite respectfully, albeit for some of them, comically.

And perhaps one of the most successful religious films in recent history was Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which was pitched to and pre-screened by religious groups and church congregations — a group often ignored by Hollywood.

The movie sparked a great deal of controversy due in part to its graphic depictions, but such was to be expected, said James Dobson after the film's release. Dobson founded Focus on the Family, a Christian organization dedicated to "Helping Families Thrive," whose website includes a very thorough movie-review section.

"We should not be surprised," Dobson said, "when the true story of Christ — whether depicted on film or declared from the pulpit — creates controversy."

Following Gibson's success, independent movie producers sprang up to produce content that would appeal to underserved religious audiences rather than traditional Hollywood viewers — a phenomenon also seen in the LDS culture through films like "The Best Two Years" and "The Work and the Glory" series.

"The fact that Hollywood now tests any family-friendly movie on Christian focus groups (shows that) in the current climate, Hollywood needs Christian audiences," said the narrator on a History.com video Latimer showed. "It remains to be seen whether Christian audiences still need Hollywood."

Email: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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