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Religious films arrive in troubled times

USA Today, via The Arizona Republic, USA
Aug. 20, 2003
Andy Seiler, USA Today • Wednesday August 20, 2003

Jesus is returning – to your local multiplex.

Twice, in fact, in differing adaptations of his life, one of them already controversial. Other films about the Bible and historical and fictional Christian figures will soon follow.

“More religious films tend to pop up in times of fear and uncertainty,” says Richard Lee, professor emeritus of humanities at Valparaiso University in Indiana. “Such as a time of terrorism at home, militant Islam abroad, job losses, a swelling national debt.”

Due in theaters:

The Passion, Mel Gibson’s story – told in Latin and Aramaic with no subtitles – about the last 12 hours of Christ before his crucifixion, hits screens next spring. The film has sparked controversy among some Jewish groups concerned that the movie will be anti-Semitic.

The Gospel of John, a word-for-word adaptation starring Christopher Plummer, opens Sept. 26.

Luther, an epic starring Joseph Fiennes as the charismatic Father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, who challenged the Vatican’s supreme authority, also will open Sept. 26.

“If we can’t find heroes in our own times – just think of all the corporate scandal – we will look for them elsewhere,” says psychologist Patricia A. Farrell, a former film critic. “Religion and religious figures have always provided a sense of comfort.”

But don’t expect mainstream Hollywood to be converted, says Gregg Dean Schmitz, upcoming movie tracker for Gregg’s Previews at Yahoo! Movies.

“The Passion and The Gospel of John are part of an ongoing wave of Christian-produced movies that have been growing in number and success in recent years,” Schmitz says. But The Passion, he says, “is not a Hollywood movie, since Mel Gibson is basically doing it on his own, outside the system.” That Gibson has incurred the wrath of some Jewish groups and journalists despite working with religious leaders indicates the pitfalls of exploiting the demand, Schmitz adds.

Though the filmmakers of The Gospel of John say they don’t expect controversy, they could face the same problems. Biblical scholar Raymond Brown has written that the Gospel of John is marked with “intense hostility” toward “the Jews.” Not a ringing endorsement for mainstream Hollywood.

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