Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in the movie "Les Miserables." (Universal Pictures )
Conservatives frequently complain that Hollywood never makes movies that take religion seriously. Whether you're a true believer or an atheist, you probably would agree with that assessment. The reason is not some nefarious left-wing conspiracy; it simply happens to be difficult to make a film that deals thoughtfully — rather than simplistically — with questions of faith and the supernatural.
Yet this winter, for the first time in many a season, several major films do have religious underpinnings. It's worth noting that these films — "Les Misérables," "Life of Pi," "Flight" and "The Sessions" — were not made by small companies with a mission to produce movies for underserved Christian audiences. These are mainstream films from big studios that hope to reach far beyond the Bible Belt.
Their appearance at the same moment is probably just an accident of timing. But their release prompts reflection on Hollywood's changing attitudes toward religion over the years. In the 1940s and '50s, many big hits were drenched in religion. "Going My Way" and "The Bells of St. Mary's" featured Bing Crosby as America's favorite singing priest. During the 1950s, bloated religious epics such as "The Robe," "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur" were enormously successful at the box office. Even in the 1960s, films with religious elements — "The Sound of Music" and "A Man for All Seasons" among them — seduced audiences and Oscar voters.
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All that piety came under attack later in the '60s, and over the next decades religion receded from the screen. In his attack on Tinseltown values in his 1992 book, "Hollywood vs. America," conservative pundit Michael Medved declared, "Hollywood's persistent hostility to religious values is not just peculiar, it is positively pathological."
Such "pathology" abated — at least in the eyes of some beholders — when Mel Gibson released his controversial biblical epic, "The Passion of the Christ," in 2004. Although Gibson had trouble finding any studio that would distribute the film, it turned into a worldwide box office smash.
"Les Misérables" is positively awash in Christian symbolism. Some of the movie's religious themes come from Victor Hugo's classic novel and from the enormously successful stage musical. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-convict who steals silver from a church and then undergoes a moral transformation when the priest defends him to prevent him from being returned to prison. From that point on, Valjean sings frequently about his commitment to God. His most memorable number is "Bring Him Home," in which he prays to God to save Marius, the man loved by his adopted daughter, Cosette.
These spiritual yearnings were present in the novel and play, along with passionate social criticism of the mistreatment of the poor. Yet the religious subtext seems more overbearing in the movie, with lots of close-ups of crosses and other Christian artifacts that have never been highlighted so intently in the stage version. (Oddly, the theatrical production is more panoramic than this claustrophobic film.)
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In addition, despite the running time of nearly 2 hours, 40 minutes, one crucial song has been excised from the movie version. A counterpoint to "Bring Him Home" is a song performed by the venal innkeeper, Thenardier (played in the film by Sacha Baron Cohen), called "Dog Eat Dog," in which that cynical character looks up to heaven and sees nothing but a coldly impersonal moon staring down on him.
The main character of "The Sessions," Mark O'Brien, is a severely disabled poet and a devout Catholic who has a wry, complex relationship with God. The movie has a blessed sense of humor about religion, in keeping with the sardonic intelligence of the hero, brilliantly played by John Hawkes. In addition to his involvement with a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt) who initiates him in carnal pleasures, O'Brien has a friendship with a local priest, charmingly portrayed by William H. Macy.
Dogmatic Catholics might not approve of Macy's Father Brendan, since he encourages the hero's sexual experimentation, but the priest embodies tolerance and open-mindedness. This is a rare film that acknowledges that spiritual and sexual ecstasy can coexist.
Robert Zemeckis' "Flight," from a script by John Gatins, is studded with more subliminal religious motifs. This becomes apparent during the harrowing plane crash sequence that is the film's highlight. It surely can't be accidental that the plane crash-lands in a field next to a church. The main character, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), is a drunk and a drug addict but also a master pilot who brings the plane down with most aboard surviving. But did he have divine aid?