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Biblical Epics Flourish in Hollywood

  • Penelope Poulou

It's been called the greatest story ever told, so it's not surprising Hollywood has turned to the Bible for inspiration for almost a century.

The trend toward these kinds of films remains strong; the movie industry expects to produce 16 faith-based movies this year alone. Many of them may be forgotten just weeks after their release, while others have the potential to become blockbusters.

So what makes religion-inspired movies successful?

Son of God, about the life of Jesus, opened recently and is doing very well at the box office. Churches around the country are renting movie theaters for their members to watch the film.

American University Philosophy professor Martyn Oliver says films that offer a popular depiction of Jesus target Christian audiences.

"There is not a singular or particular vision on the part of the filmmakers," Oliver said. "That is, they are giving you what you already think you know."

The financial risk for the filmmakers was lessened because the Christian market was tested in 2004 with The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson's controversial movie grossed more than $1 billion dollars worldwide.

"He had an aggressive marketing campaign in Protestant and, particularly, large evangelical churches prior to the release of The Passion of the Christ,” Oliver said.

Gibson also had artistic vision. His violent and polarizing portrayal of the passion of Jesus mesmerized people the world over, Oliver said. Son of God is not on par with Gibson's film and its targeted audiences could thin out soon.

Unlike Son of God, a redemptive, friendly story about Jesus, Darren Aronofsky's Noah is a heavy, apocalyptic story about the end of the world.

"Aronofsky's decision to focus on the wrath of God, and that's a God we maybe don't want to think about," Oliver said. "He's an unfriendly God, and in that sense his [Aronofsky's] reading of the Noah text is not a Christian Noah."

Aronofsky's Noah is more faithful to the Genesis story accepted by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. But the film may not become a hit. It received a lukewarm reception in Mexico from a mostly Catholic audience that found it too dark and not reverential enough to Noah's character.

Many Muslims also oppose the film, because Islam prohibits visual depictions of its prophets.

However, Noah might resonate with viewers who relate to its environmental message, "to protect nature or perish by it." The fact that the film has impressive special effects does not hurt either.

Even for the best religious films, success remains elusive, according to Oliver.

But if a film has artistic vision, a powerful message and a captivating story, watching it can be a feast for the eyes and soul.

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