Journal of Religion and Film


Vol. 4, No. 2 October 2000


[1] During this past summer, Elyse D. Sara served as an intern for JR&F. Elyse is a film student at the University of Southern California who is interested in religion and religions. During her internship, Elyse improved the format of many articles and added information about movies that were discussed in Journal articles. We are grateful to Elyse for her tireless efforts and lasting contributions to the Journal. We hope that our readers find the improved format and consistency helpful.

[2] We have four fine articles on films in the current edition, in addition to ten valuable and brief film reviews.

[3] James Ford's article on The Matrix explores the concept of "myth" (Lauri Honko) in relation to film and myth's "world-building" role in society (Peter Berger). The film raises questions regarding the degree to which all of us are "trapped" in a new world of electronic mind-control. Amidst this entrapment, a myth emerges in typical dialectical process: the myth influences the culture, and the culture re-interprets the myth. The film tells the myth, which originally is a Christian-like story of messianic salvation. Yet the story is one without any (personal) God. In fact, the story has strong parallels with the fourth century C.E. "consciousness only" form of Buddhism, with its godless instructions of yogic (and counter-cultural) disciplines for achieving the bliss of "right mindedness". Ford points out that the myth is "new" in its skepticism regarding institutional (mind-) control, but is also "old" in continuing Hollywood's affirmation of cultural violence and male dominance.

[4] Christopher Deacy asks us to look more carefully for the real message of Little Voice. He argues against Roger Ebert, claiming it is not another film fantasy of easy deliverance from a sad, sordid, and impoverished world. Despite many parallels, then, it is quite different from the film to which it is often compared, The Full Monty, with its burlesque escape from poverty. It is more like Robert Jewett's theme in St. Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph over Shame (Eerdmans, 1999). Jewett attributes Paul's success in evangelizing to dealing with shame. The heroine, LV ("Little Voice"), is not "delivered" by "going public" with her gift for emulating the great singing voices of the past. More like Prince of Tides, LV is liberated and finds her own voice (identity) only when she faces up to the crippling secrets of her inherited shame.

[5] That brings us to a more careful look at Fargo, a film that first seems black comedy and not at all religious. Mary Ann Beavis, however, shows the film to be a morality play. It confronts biblical vice with biblical virtue. Marge Gunderson is the (female) God-figure and the summation of biblical virtues: Law, Wisdom, and Family (crucial scenes take place in bed with her husband). These moral virtues defeat the biblical vices summarized in other characters that represent Lawlessness, Foolishness, Greed and Betrayal of Family. When presented in this context, the morality-play claim is compelling.

[6] Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare argues that Magnolia is another morality play. It presents a new hope of liberation to people in the television industry who have been marginalized, oppressed, and tossed aside by the industry's ruling powers. The successful ones hoard their wealth and fame, making such success impossible for others. Magnolia, in some ways like Boogie Nights, however, is a story of revelations perceived in seven small stories, insights into the connections between people that bring wholeness and hope to life. People are called to stay close to the oppressed, we learn, and seek to bring them social justice. Death to one's false selves is the necessary path to one's deliverance and new life.

[7] S. Brent Plate, film review editor for the Journal, has himself done two of ten film reviews in this issue. The first is of Dancer in the Dark, the third in director Lars von Trier's "Gold Heart Trilogy" (with Breaking the Waves and The Idiots). His second review is of a film he gives the highest possible recommendation, Ghost Dog. John Pater tells us that another film, The Cell (Tarsem Singh), with Jennifer Lopez, is surprisingly theological. Next we hear of a film from Zion (Mormon) Films. James Delmont argues there is a universal message in the God's Army story of how faith, doubt, and certitude struggle in the mind of a young Mormon missionary in Los Angeles.

[8] Irena Makarushka, despite her great respect for director Jane Campion's work, proposes that Holy Smoke fails in balancing parody with serious reflection. Yet Rebecca Pannell finds the same film to be story enough of women's spiritual quest to merit serious reflection. Donna Bowman tells us that Keeping the Faith is both wacky comedy ("This priest and this rabbi decide to open a bar …") and serious reflection on what professional clergy owe their God, their congregations, and themselves. It portends a second career for actor Ed Norton as a director.

[9] Robert Arjet tells us that Hong Kong's legendary Jon Woo (again) uses sexism and gracefully choreographed violence as backdrop to Mission Impossible II, investigating the patriarchal and violence-ridden structure of American society. Dan Clanton claims My Son the Fanatic includes failures in presenting Islamic fundamentalism but that it is a very good film that raises large inter-religious questions.

[10] Elyse D. Sara, our summer intern, finds A Sign from God to be a daring effort to speak of God in a new way, not as an old man in the sky, but as a mysterious force behind change, a challenge to previously accepted boundaries. And, finally, Linda Ehrlich takes on an Iranian film, The Silence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf), showing that with the story of a blind boy's appreciation of music it provides a sense of the mysterious reality of spirituality and the hidden dimensions of life.

Breaking the Waves The Cell Dancer in the Dark
Fargo The Full Monty Ghost Dog
God's Army Holy Smoke

The Idiots

Keeping the Faith Magnolia The Matrix
Mission Impossible II Prince of Tides My Son the Fanatic
A Sign from God The Silence

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