The Religious Film: A Review

In only 156 pages, Pamela Grace sets forth on a bold undertaking to create a new film genre, the hagiopic.  In her book, The Religious Film:  Christianity and the Hagiopic, she gives a brief description of this new genre and places it in a historical and critical framework but allows her insightful critiques of particular hagiopics to make the case for the genre themselves.

Jennifer Jones, "The Song of Bernadette"

Grace begins by discussing her distinction between the religious film and the hagiopic.  Religious films can cover a variety of topics, but the hagiopic film represents “the life, or part of the life, of a recognized religious hero” (1).  Obviously there are similarities between the hagiopic and the bipic but the former has a greater emphasis on the divine or the mysterious than the latter.  Grace makes an important distinction about sites of exhibition and their influence on a hagiopic’s success:  “The audience for hagiopics far exceeds the number of ticket-buyers, since churches, religious schools, and missionaries regularly show these movies to groups in the United States and other parts of the world” (2).  This is an extremely interesting point about exhibition of religious films to which she unfortunately does not return.  Grace argues that such films appeal to viewers not only because they can be uplifting but because they also mirror the audience’s own “spiritual questioning” (3).  Grace then highlights a few features of the hagiopic:  wish-fulfillment, miracle-time (miraculous events take place), suffering, and sacrifice.  She claims that hagiopics are a form of “ritualoid entertainment,” “a hybrid response evoked by their admixture of commercial religiosity, narrative, and spectacle [,…] a pseudo-ritual experience” (12, 13).

Chapter 2 of Grace’s book is a historical overview of the genre on which she elaborates over the next several chapters.  She runs through a gamut of films here that fit the bill.  She traces a long history from the earliest Passion Plays to Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).  Grace points out that the most popular (in terms of numbers) hagiopics are Jesus and Joan of Arc films.  Chapter 3 provides an overview of the criticism of religious cinema.  She adds, “Scholars have not written on the hagiopic per se, since the genre is being introduced in this book” (47).  Here, she provides an interesting engagement with three film styles, the spiritual, transcendental, and sacramental and how they do or do not impact the hagiopic.  She also runs over texts about Jesus, saints, and biblical films, concluding with brief attention to the on-going discussion of Christ figures in secular films.

Jeffrey Hunter, "Kings of Kings" (1961)

Chapters 4-9 are engaged criticisms of several films including, King of Kings (1961), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and its 2000 remake, The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), Jesus of Montreal (1989), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), The Messenger:  The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and The Passion of the Christ.  Even though most of these films have been criticized from a host of angles, Grace manages to provide something new in hers, particularly her review of King of Kings which is often quickly dismissed by far too many historians.  Of the film, she writes, “In its celebration of the human body, the film rejects overall cinematic tradition by focusing far more on men than on women; and it reverses hagiopic tradition by focusing more on Jews than on pagans” (65).  Later, she adds, “Ray’s shot of numerous crosses asserts the historical fact that crucifixion was common practice, and that Jesus was one of many who suffered that form of torture and death” (67).  She accuses most Jesus films of presenting Jesus’ crucifixion as a unique historical event which drastically influences the misinterpretation of that death.

Grace refers to The Song of Bernadette as a religious comfort film.  Films like this, “places believers in the right [… and affirm] the values of humility, absolute faith, and courage in the face of suffering” (78).  She points to the influence of Tommy (1969) and Hair (1967) on the emergence of the Jesus musical.  Yet Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) reverses the typical musical format:  “Jesus Christ Superstar reverses the narrative trajectory of the traditional musical.  The story is about the fragmentation of a close-knit group, the end of a romance, and the destruction of a friendship” (92).

Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui) and his disciples in "The Gospel According to Matthew"

Grace looks at The Gospel According to Matthew and Jesus of Montreal as alternative hagiopics which “deliberately reject many or all of the ideas and stylistic conventions associated with popular religious films […and virtually all of which] risk financial loss” (103).  She concludes on this topic, “[…Alternative] hagiopics with unorthodox material are often more profoundly religious than films that follow the guidelines established by the Church or Hollywood” (119).  Her Joan of Arc discussions are interesting, but The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ offer nothing new aside from a substantial refutation of atonement theory in terms of the latter.

This is a welcome addition to the growing library of books on film and religion both because of Grace’s introduction of a new genre and her fresh takes on some well-worn films.  Hopefully other scholars will pay attention to this genre and contribute more works to it.  The films of St. Francis readily jump to mind.