Religion in Hollywood? You're a lot more likely to find Jim Carrey reciting Shakespeare or Sony Pictures releasing a profitable film.
"A movie about faith" is as welcome a show-business phrase as "Something's terribly wrong with your BMW." And yet two new films with solid spiritual underpinnings -- one produced by Roman Catholic missionaries and one about a Roman Catholic missionary -- will debut within the next two months.
"The Spitfire Grill" and "Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story" are fully different films. Both nonetheless explore similar theological questions of redemption and selflessness.
Due partly to such "uncommercial" themes, the movies faced long odds -- neither was financed by the major studios, and "Dorothy Day" took more than a decade to make. Not surprisingly, both films were made on minuscule budgets of around $6 million.
The stories behind the two films dramatize Hollywood's queasiness over religion even as some moviegoers and political leaders say they want less violence and more kindness.
At the same time, "The Spitfire Grill" and "Dorothy Day" demonstrate that well-intentioned filmmakers can bypass the system and create movies focused more on prophecy than profits...
"Dorothy Day" comes from Paulist Productions, the makers of 1989's "Romero," about El Salvador's slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. The production company is headed by the Rev. Ellwood Kieser, a Paulist priest who presides over the Humanitas Prizes, cash awards given to television shows and movies celebrating positive human values.
Ms. Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker social action movement, died in 1980. The movie explores her unusual journey to feeding the hungry and challenging the church, an ultimately triumphant odyssey marked by personal challenges and self-doubt. The movie was funded by donors.
"It's not your typical studio film," says Moira Kelly ("Chaplin"), who stars as Dorothy Day. "There are no car chases or sex scenes. It's a film with a very strong message. But it's not a Catholic film. It's a film about being human."
In contemporary Hollywood thinking -- where guns and natural disasters typically trump ideals and character-driven fables -- Ms. Day's story is anathema. "It's just such a very different picture -- it's saying something the American public is not interested in hearing from the mass media," says Rev. Kieser, who won six Emmys for his old "Insight" daytime serial TV show.
"This picture says the meaning of life is in loving, sharing and giving to the point where it hurts," Rev. Kieser says.
"What motion picture can you name besides 'Dead Man Walking' whose main character transcends her ego in the loving service of another person?"
Rev. Kieser showed "Dorothy Day" to all of the major studios, and all passed because they didn't think it would make money. "The powers that be in Hollywood do not think spiritual enrichment can be entertaining for a mass audience," he says.
Disappointed but undefeated, Rev. Kieser decided to distribute the film himself, an arduous task that occasionally has succeeded in the past.
"Dorothy Day" was invited to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 8 and will debut in New York and Los Angeles theaters in late September or early October...