Monday, March 24, 2014

American Religion in Film

This semester, as part of my Religion in American History course, my students will be writing a paper about the representation of American religion in film.  I've been compiling a long list of films, culled from around the web and from my own social networks.  (And I'll eagerly entertain suggestions!)  One of the delights of this project is that it gives me an opportunity to both revisit and discover all of the ways in which cinema has explored religious communities, individual faith journeys, questions of religious identity, and religious debates in American life and history.

Last week, in an introductory lesson on pentecostalism, we watched clips from The Apostle (1994).  Robert Duvall wrote, directed, and starred in the film, which tells of the downfall and redemption of a southern pentecostal preacher as he tries to outrun the law after murdering his wife's lover.
  He flees Texas, rebaptizes himself, and establishes a new church in Louisiana.  I won't tell you how it ends -- go and see for yourself.  We talked in class about how this film is portraying pentecostalism: its modes of worship, understanding of the supernatural in everyday life, notions of conversion and redemption, and model of religious community.

Robert Duvall starred in another film about religion and faith in Texas, Tender Mercies (1983).  My mother and I decided to watch the film over winter break without knowing anything about it.  I was surprised to discover a very quiet but rich story about redemption and forgiveness that also speaks to the texture of religion and community in sparsely populated rural areas in the South in the late 70s.  This film follows a country music singer who flees from heartbreak and fame into the arms of Vietnam war widow, who owns a gas station and motel in the middle of nowhere Texas.  She is also a member of a local Baptist congregation. The film chronicles the singer's struggle to make peace with his rocky past, reconcile with his ex-wife and daughter, and make a new future for himself.  He ultimately makes a life with this woman and her son, is baptized, and reconciles with his daughter.      

As a cultural historian, I'm interested in the capacity of the individual story to open up larger historical themes and issues.  Films, whether fictional or "based on true events," are a great way to start thinking about the rich texture of individual human experience (and the representation of that experience) before connecting it to larger historical patterns and processes.  And of course, it's important to think about how religion appears as a "character" in film.  Are there any consistent patterns in the way certain religious communities or questions are represented by Hollywood?  Are certain types of stories more common than others? ...

No comments:

Post a Comment