Friday, March 11, 2016

Religion and Reviews

Last night my parents and I went to a private screening of "The Young Messiah." While we all agreed that it was a good movie, there was much debate on the accuracy of the holy text and why certain known facts were changed when they didn't have to be (my mom took particular offense to James being a few years older than Jesus when they were the same age in the Bible).  She also mentioned that in the Bible Jesus didn't perform his first miracle until he was an adult and changed water into wine at a wedding (though, if you REALLY wanted to argue this point, I suppose you could say that was the first RECORDED miracle.... never mind, playing with fire on that one).  I commented that she was correct in this, but to make a movie about a young Jesus who didn't perform miracles wouldn't make for an interesting story.  Besides, the film was based on a novel from atheist-turned-Catholic Anne Rice, who is most famous for writing "The Vampire Chronicles" novels (which in turn inspired the short lived Elton John Broadway musical "Lestat"), so we should consider ourselves lucky it was as blasphemous as it could have been.

My family has civil conversations about these sort of things, but the bottom line is that when you go to see a religious movie - or, at the very least, a movie that uses religious writings as the foundation of the story - there is a good chance something is going to come into conflict with personal beliefs you may have.  As a Christian I am asked frequently (mostly by other church goers) whether or not I'm "writing reviews from a Christian standpoint or a secularist standpoint?" I admit to a certain extent I have no idea why this is even a question sometimes.  Critics are writing from their own standpoint.  They are writing the reviews how they view them, how the films affect them, and how they would discuss the film to the world.  Reviews are one of the most personal forms of journalism on the market.  Next to columnists, critics are the most personal writers in an industry that (in theory) largely distances personal feelings from the story at hand.

Critics have the wonderful freedom to say things like "I feel" and "this bothers me" and not get in trouble with the editors for using such terms.  If the critic is Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Atheist, or Jedi (a real religion by the way), then chances are their views will affect how they approach the film and what they take away from it.  If you need an example of this, look no further than the reviews for "The Passion of the Christ." Most people who had some belief or personal connection to the story found the movie to be deeply moving and spiritual.  Most people who had no personal connection with the story found the film to be nothing more than two hours of Jesus being tortured.  In some rare cases the feelings were reversed.  It was a great movie in my opinion, but one that was going to have to go through a filter between the person watching the film and what they believed or didn't believe.  Likewise, a movie like "American Beauty" was praised much more by people who weren't religious than by people who were.

Most of the time a critic will mention his religion (or lack therefor) when the time is appropriate.  Yes, you CAN put aside your beliefs and watch a movie about a religious subject as a way to be objective (and in cases like "Noah" it might be required), but most of the time the subject needs to be brought up so that the readers have an understanding of where you're coming from.  Obviously this doesn't mean that you need to be religious to enjoy a movie about Jesus or non-religious to enjoy a movie that is against the idea.  Certainly "Spotlight" proved that the believers and unbelievers can come together and agree that a good movie is a good movie regardless how sensitive the subject matter is.  As a critic it is best to bring up your personal views when it is appropriate.  Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize but only brought it up in his reviews when the subject called for it.  Likewise, if you are reviewing a movie like "The Young Messiah," then chances are you will at least note your belief system just so that your readers have a better idea of where you are coming from.

To answer the original question that was posed though, if you are a Christian or Atheist writing reviews, then yes, you will automatically be writing reviews from those perspectives.  Those beliefs have helped mold and define your points of view over the years on every facet of your life, and that includes what you take away from film.  To emphasize your beliefs occasionally will be helpful to the reader, but if you write your reviews with enough skill, bringing this information up on a daily basis will not be necessary.  Your readers will get a sense of who you are based on what you write, how you word things, and even be able to measure who you are based on how much or how little you curse.  Reviews are a personally reflection of yourself, and that includes any religious belief you may or may not have.


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