The Religious Film
(New Approaches to Film Genre)
Author: Pamela Grace
Paperback: 192 pages (Paperback)
There's an ever growing library of books examining religious films in general and works on Bible movies in particular. The last two years alone have seen the release of books such as Melanie Wright's “Religion and Film” and Flesher and Torry's “Film and Religion". Add to that list Pamela Grace's “The Religious Film” and it begins to become clear that there is an increasing need for books on this subject to offer fresh analysis and content that sets them apart from the field.
Grace's fresh contribution lies with her introduction of the Hagiopic - “films that represent the life, or part of the life, of a recognised religious hero”.1
The book falls into two main parts. Section 1 is essentially Grace introducing the Hagiopic genre. Chapter one offers some definitions combined with with pertinent examples. The essential aspects are the subject matter (stories of a revered individual's encounter with God), the reverent manner in which such encounters take place, suffering and sacrifice“ of the hero which is ultimately justified by the last major characteristic “wish-fulfillment” (i.e. these films “depict a world” where God always intervenes2). Obviously, not all aspects need necessarily be present for the film to be classified within the genre.
Chapter 2 then offers an overview of the history of religious films, touching not only on Bible films and films about saints but also films from the more transcendental style (Bresson, etc.) leaning on the work of Paul Schrader.3. It's interesting to see discussion of the first two of these categories intermingled, which perhaps seems a little more artificial to those from inside Protestantism than others. That said, Grace makes a strong case here, and the thought occurs that whilst for many viewers the Bible films genre would stand apart from the Hagiopic, from Hollywood's point of view the Hagiopic is the more robust category.
Having discussed some of the most significant examples of the Hagiopic, Grace moves on to examine the literature on the subject. There's a solid overview of the majority of books on the subject including Stephen Humphries-Brookes' “Cinematic Savior: Hollywood Making of the American Christ” (2006) which had , thus far, escaped my attention. Books on transcendental films, films about saints, Jesus Movies, and Biblical Epics are all discussed before a final look at books about Christ figures.
Whilst the review of the printed material on the subject is rigorous, There is, surprisingly, no discussion of any online publications. Whilst objecting to this could, arguably, be a case of sour grapes on my part, I don't think it's an unreasonable expectation in this day and age. Film is, after all, an artistic medium that relies heavily on modern technology, and it's hard to fathom the reluctance to even mention the internet which extends to the entire book. Surely, periodicals such as the Journal of Religion and Film have something of relevance to say?
Grace's conclusion demonstrates the paucity of literature solely looking at the Hagiopic genre as a whole, and so she proceeds in the second half of the book to look at some key examples from the genre. Grace applies her model to King of Kings (1961) [Chapter 4], The Song of Bernadette (1943) [Ch. 5], both filmed versions of Jesus Christ Superstar (1973 and 2000) [Ch.6], The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) and Jesus of Montreal (1989) [Ch.7], The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and 1999's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc [Ch. 8] and finally The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) [Ch. 9].
Grace's selection allows her to explore the contours of her genre, with each chapter honing in on different subtleties within the genre. For example, one of the key features of Hagiopics is their reliance on spectacle, but the King of Kings chapter demonstrates how the film moves it away from the places it would normally be expected (in the miracles of Jesus) and relies instead on making a spectacle from battle scenes etc. instead.
Of the films explored only The Song of Bernadette (1943) seems to fit all the criteria, which makes it a strange decision, given that the chapters loosely follow some kind of chronological or developmental order. This was actually the last chapter I read. Having not seen the film prior to reading the book I waited until I had read the rest of the book so as to enjoy the film in the light of Grace's model, and then read the Bernadette chapter to see how well I'd been paying attention.
The fact that this exercise greatly enhanced my appreciation of the film is perhaps testimony to the clarity of Grace's model. If in leaving the Bernadette chapter until last I was still able to grasp her argument then she is certainly justified in not also including a full analysis of a film such as DeMille's The King of Kings to make the point more forcefully.
It is surprising that no film based on the Old Testament is covered in depth. The book is a little unclear as to whether this is because pictures based on stories from the Hebrew Bible do not really qualify as hagiopics, or because they fit so squarely into the conventions of the genre that they are of little interest to the scholar.
Overall the analysis is fairly insightful. Having read numerous books on this subject now I am always impressed when I read something that no-one else has ever mentioned, and, in reading this, there were a number of times here where that was the case. The analysis of The King of Kings and Jesus of Montreal was particularly strong. I also enjoyed Grace's comments on the 2000 version of Jesus Christ Superstar as there has, hitherto, been very little written about it.
Aside from the above comments about internet sources, in places the theological overviews offered by the book occasionally go awry (Veronica's veil has nothing to do with The Turin Shroud for example4), but that rarely has much impact on the discussion. There are also a few typographical errors that the publishers might wish to amend if the book is to be republished5. Given the quantity of other works on the subject that would seem unlikely. Whilst the analysis is interesting enough and the hagiopic genre approach offers some new possibilities, Grace's book is neither groundbreaking enough nor in-depth enough to suggest it will usurp more established favourites.
1 – Grace p.1
2 – Grace p.5
3 - Schrader, P. “The Transcendental Style in Film
4 – Grace p.75
5 – E.g.year of Jesus of Montreal given as 1969 on p.154