NEW YORK -- The newfound spirituality that Hollywood discovered in the wake of the astonishing success of The Passion of The Christ is about to have its baptism.
Two high-profile releases with Christian themes that were given the green light for production immediately after Mel Gibson's film pulled in $84-million (U.S.) at the box office on its opening weekend will open in the next few months, including this week's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is being hailed by some in the Christian community for its unskeptical treatment of devil possession.
The film adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which will open just in time for the Christmas season on Dec. 9, is based on the C. S. Lewis book that is greatly admired by Christians for its depiction of a messianic lion.
Walt Disney Co., which is releasing Narnia, has been cultivating Christian audiences through exclusive sneak previews of trailers and other material from the film. The Mission America Coalition, an organization that promotes proselytizing, is arranging sneak-preview events this fall in hopes that the film could provide opportunities for evangelism. On its website, the Coalition says the, "Chronicles of Narnia fantasy adventure series is just the right thing to penetrate today's culture in ways that more overt Christian films may not be able to do. We believe the release of this film is truly a unique opportunity that God has created. By clearly conveying the message of Christ and the Cross, it can serve as a powerful evangelistic tool."
Narnia had bounced around Hollywood for more than a decade before Disney announced a green light one week after The Passion opened on Feb. 25, 2004.
That same week, production executives at the Sony-owned Screen Gems green-lit The Exorcism of Emily Rose under the direction of Scott Derrickson, a well-known practising Christian.
Emily Rose, which crosses the courtroom-drama genre with horror, may seem an unlikely film for the Christian community, which conventional wisdom says prefers family-friendly fare. But Christian audiences flocked to Gibson's graphic Passion. Indeed, a study by MarketCast released at the beginning of the summer indicated that U.S. moviegoers who are strict about their religion are more likely to see movies rated R for their violent content than those who are less conservative.
Emily Rose is based on the true story of a 23-year-old devout German Catholic woman who, after years of behaviour that she and her family attributed to possession, died during an exorcism authorized by the Catholic Church. The film relocates the action and characters to America and imagines a courtroom drama in which two explanations for the woman's death -- science and faith -- battle for supremacy. Tom Wilkinson plays Father Moore, the priest who performed the exorcism and is now being tried for criminal negligence because medical experts believe Emily Rose was merely an epileptic suffering psychotic episodes. Laura Linney is the priest's ambitious lawyer who, recognizing that her best defence rests on the possibility that Emily was indeed possessed, begins to wonder if the Devil might actually exist.
The film itself is agnostic, which may be because it was co-written and directed by Derrickson, a devout Christian who says his first responsibility is to make an entertaining Hollywood movie. "It's been tough for me to feel so passionate about my faith and to care so much about it, to live my life within a religious community, and to be such a lover of cinema, and to have cinema be so void of good religious subject matter," said Derrickson during a recent interview. Derrickson is a Protestant who says he has a lot of affection for the Catholic Church, and jokes that he is, "one Chesterton book away from being Catholic.
"I think religion or spirituality in the modern era tends to be treated almost the way sex was treated in the 1950s: If you just watched our movies, you wouldn't even know it's part of our culture, and I wanted to write something that wasn't propaganda, wasn't trying to persuade people to think the way that I do, but to recognize the fundamental importance of those essential questions: Does the spiritual realm exist? Is there a Devil, and more importantly, Is there a God, and if so, what are the implications of that? I don't care what you believe, those are questions to be reckoned with."
Kenneth Morefield an assistant professor at the Christian liberal-arts college Campbell University, is encouraged by Hollywood's embrace of spiritual themes, but he's not sure a film as balanced as Emily Rose will grab the audience that flocked to The Passion. "I think the Christian audience is segmented enough and confirmed enough in their beliefs that the openness or ambiguity that the film tries to promote, so as not to put off secular audiences, will be one that Christian audiences won't be very quick to embrace," he said this week.
Morefield, who writes for Christian Spotlight on Entertainment, is one of about a dozen journalists flown to New York by Grace Hill Media, a public-relations firm that helps Hollywood studios market films to Christians, for a day of interviews with some of the talent behind Emily Rose, including Derrickson and his co-writer Paul Boardman, who is also a practising Christian. "I know from interacting with more conservative Christian viewers, the first thing they want to know is, what is the faith of the people involved in the film, so it's probably smart on Sony's part to try to push Scott and Paul to the forefront as a way of courting the Christian audiences," said Morefield.
"I think it's progress that a major studio might be thinking about spiritual themes," he added, though he believes other changes in the "post-9/11" culture may be making even secular audiences eager to explore, "questions like evil or God or the afterlife or death, and not just want entertainment that's going to be pure escapism."
But Morefield doesn't entirely blame Hollywood for the previous lack of such content in films. "I think if you go all the way back to Augustine via Plato, there's always been a sort of antipathy in the Church toward the arts, a fear or suspicion, and I think that much of the hostility between Hollywood and Christian audiences has been more on the side of Christian audiences than it has on Hollywood's."
The Christian Spotlight website carries a call for readers to pray for media-industry leaders to embrace God.
But Elisabeth Leitch, who writes for the website HollywoodJesus.com and was also flown to New York by Grace Hill Media, suggests that Christians don't need religious movies to get spiritual stimulation. "There are some really depressing movies that just get me thinking, 'Wow, that was really sad, there's got to be something more,' " said Leitch, citing last year's bleak anti-romance Closer as an example.
"A lot of Christians I know probably wouldn't really like that movie and would object to it," she said. "It was a very depressing movie and made you hurt for those people in it: That's how, so many times, we act toward each other, even if it's not that extreme. I believe that some films that are objectionable like that, I think those are still powerful."
Leitch also noted the heat endured last year by the sexually provocative film Kinsey, which also starred Laura Linney. "I don't think we should close ourselves off to certain movies just because on the surface they raise some issue we're not comfortable with, or we don't think is morally right," said Leitch. "A lot of times, they do have some very deep messages for us to ponder."