Beyond blockbuster shootouts and sappy romances, there are now a conspicuous number of films that deal with God, the church, and the meaning of life. Is this symptomatic of our society, or part of an ongoing tradition?
Religion is currently a hot topic for filmmakers around the world. The Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) last month confirmed it: Several films in its program addressed religious themes. And if you take a look at the movie theater schedules right now, you'll find a wide selection of movies dealing with the church or faith.
The French contribution to the Berlinale, "The Nun," is based on a text by Dennis Diderot and tells of the struggles of a young nun in an isolated convent. The film "Camille Claudel 1915" takes place in a very similar setting: the convent that served as the final home of sculptor Camille Claudel.
The Polish film "In the Name of," by director Malgorzata Szumowska, portrays the inner battle of a young priest who finds himself sexually attracted to men. And a new film by Austrian director Ulrich Seidl has just opened in cinemas, whose title clearly reveals its focus: "Paradise: Faith."
Is the film world now looking to religion in this era of spiritual disorientation? While the current abundance of religious films may be conspicuous, there has scarcely been a time since the invention of the motion picture when the spiritual realm has not been examined on the silver screen.
Even the Lumière brothers, who opened the world's first cinema in 1895, made a film about Jesus. And Hollywood quickly turned to Biblical stories, which reached their zenith in the 1950s with films like "The Robe" (1953) and "Ben Hur" (1959).
Many facets, many opinions
"Cinema has always dealt with socially significant topics, and one of the most relevant is of course religion," says Horst-Peter Kroll, editor-in-chief of the Catholic magazine Film-Dienst. "There have always been directors who have taken up the topic in story form and made quite successful films."
Religion has many facets, as Peter Hasenberg points out. He's responsible for dealing with film and media issues on behalf of the German Bishops' Conference. "There have been attempts to represent exemplary figures from the faith, films about problems believers have in their lives, and comedic treatments of faith-related topics. The spectrum is huge," he says.
And when it comes to opinions about religion, the spectrum is just as broad. However, the most controversial films are not the ones with a clear religious message.
"The most interesting films with religious content come from people who are grappling with faith from a critical point of view: Ingmar Bergman or Luis Bunuel, for example," says Hasenberg.
Plenty of questions, fewer answers
Conversely, Hasenberg continues, "The Church has always dealt with film, and actually there is no other social group that does this so extensively."
Religious viewers don't just concentrate on Christian topics, though. "In terms of religion, cinema has long freed itself from western Christian culture, and deals with religious elements from a variety of different traditions," writes Karsten Visarius, director of Film Cultural Center of the German Protestant Church, in the magazine epd Film.
Simply inserting a few priests or Buddhist monks doesn't automatically make for a religious film. Hasenberg points out that many works make only very subtle references to issues like the search for meaning or spiritual transcendence.
"There are films that have a strong link to religiosity: these are films about salvation, guilt and forgiveness, about the meaning of life and dealing with death - questions about the afterlife," Hasenberg comments. He adds that other films are much less explicit, dealing more with a spiritual search than with finding answers within a particular denomination.
Search for the meaning of life
That's the case with a number of recent fantasy films, such as "Matrix" and "Lord of the Rings." Even end-of-the-world dramas fall into this category. "Apocalyptic scenarios make the clearest references to religious heritage in contemporary cinema, whether in American blockbusters or in art films," writes Visarius.
Religion in the cinema has a lot to do with searching for the meaning of life, offering orientation and posing questions of humanity, says Horst-Peter Kroll. "That often has a spiritual dimension. It can be seen in all the Greek myths. Mythology always has something to do with religion."
The films now playing in the cinemas, then, are further links in an ongoing chain of works that have been asking life's biggest questions since the advent of the motion picture. At the same time, they also constitute a way for filmmakers to examine the central issues of their time, such as war, globalization, racism, or environmental destruction.