Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Book Review: Christians in the Movies by Peter E. Dans

Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners by Peter E. Dans

Peter Dans takes a personal look at the depiction of Christians throughout 110 years of cinematic history. His survey begins in the early 1900s with the old black and white silent films. The Bible was a frequent source for movie-making, being both popular and out of copyright. Filmmakers took Christianity seriously and depicted it sympathetically. Dans traces the generally positive view of Christians, and Catholics in particular, through the 1940s and 1950s. Priests and nuns were heroic people who helped out during World War II or in tough New York City neighborhoods. Bible stories were treated with reverence, occasionally to the point of corniness.

In the mid- to late-1960s a change came. The Hays Code, which regulated controversial content in movies prior to the late 1960s, was replaced with the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings system, which vaguely reports controversial content in movies. Also, the National Legion of Decency (created by Catholic bishops but also included Jewish and Protestant clergy) had originally forbade Catholics to see movies it rated as Condemned, an economic death sentence for many films. The Legion of Decency came to be ignored and the Catholic bishops established the National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures to provide a new rating system. Movies had gradually become more permissive in depicting sex, violence, and the mockery of religion. Things went from questionable (e.g. Godspell) to bad (e.g. Agnes of God) to worse (e.g. The Magdalene Sisters) as the decades went by. A shift did happen in 2004 when Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ showed that a serious film appealing to a Christian audience was economically viable, even in spite of the undeserved controversy around the film.

Dans hits all the highlights from the various eras with films like Going My Way or The Ten Commandments. He also discusses more obscure films that he managed to see on Turner Classic Movies and such sources. The movies are wide-ranging but not comprehensive (the book would probably be three times as long if he included every possible film with religious content). He cites critics like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, sometimes agreeing and sometimes disagreeing with them. His opinions are definitely his own and he's not above lambasting a movie he find particularly offensive or tasteless. Reading is always entertaining if not always scholarly. He has reviewed enough movies that readers who have seen a good portion of the movies will have a sense of where they agree and disagree about movies they haven't seen. I've certainly added some to my list of stuff I want to see and crossed some stuff off my list to see.


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