There’s no genre called religious cinema, says religious studies professor


TEHRAN (IQNA) – Professor S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate believes that religion is not a separate genre in cinema, as it appears in other major genres such as science fiction, romance, comedy, fantasy.

Religious cinema and the production of films with spiritual themes have always been of great value throughout the history of cinema.

The IQNA reached out to Brent Rodriguez-Plate, professor of religious studies, to discuss the relationship between religion and cinema.

Brent Rodriguez-Plate’s teaching and research explores how human sensory perceptions affect ways of being religious, and how the operations of religious traditions affect our sensual encounters. Investigating the material cultures of religious traditions, Plate’s work is interdisciplinary, moving between developments in cultural anthropology, art history, film studies and cognitive science, as well as religious studies.

His comprehensive publications include Blasphemy: Art that Offends (2006), Religion and Film (Wallflower Press, 2008), The Religion and Film Reader (2007) and A History of Religion in 5½ Objects (2014). He is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of the AAR, and others.

IQNA: In recent years, it seems that the trend towards spiritual and religious cinema has increased as in the early years of cinema. Do you agree with this opinion?

Rodriguez-Plaque: I think it’s always been there. It just takes different forms. You have to be careful when evaluating films and looking at their spiritual or religious content. It is not always blatant images of Jesus that make a “religious” film. Sometimes religion is there in the quest for characters to better understand each other, the transformations that take place in communities, and the use of rituals even when these rituals are improvised.

My work over the past two decades (in books like Religion and Film) has consistently highlighted the many ways that religious life, spiritual symbols, myths, and rituals appear in the film. But also, the way films become religious by the way audiences are moved, inspired and transformed through them.

IQNA: What do you think is the reason why religion has become such an important genre in the film industry?

Rodriguez-Plaque: I wouldn’t call religion a “genre”. Religion appears in the genres of Science Fiction, Romance, Comedy, Fantasy, and more. And religion is actually a lot more interesting in these kinds of movies.

I think there is a genre that you could call “Bible films” (from Sidney Olcott’s film From the crib to the cross at disney The prince of Egypt at the most recent low budget Paul the apostle), but they’re definitely more interesting in a genre I might call mythological movies. This would include South Asian movies like Jai Santoshi Maa south korean Why did Bodhi-Dharma go to the East? as well as in Hollywood Legend of Bagger Vance. Thinking about how mythology works allows for a much broader perspective on how and why ancient stories continue to be relevant in contemporary times.

But even then, religious life and practice appears in so many other places that it is ultimately uninteresting to separate some films from others.

IQNA: What do you think is the biggest challenge in making a religious film today?

Rodriguez-Plaque: It depends on what is meant by “religious film”. If one wants to be explicit about a religious tradition, be it Hinduism, Judaism or Christianity, there are dangers of offending people who might not agree with the representations. . If one is portraying Jesus, or portraying Mohammed in some way, or any other historical religious figure, one must carefully draw a line between the interests of many religious groups. It starts with finding funding to produce a film until it reaches the public.

And it’s related to politics. In the United States, the Conservatives protested Martin Scorsese’s decision Last temptation of Christ in the late 1980s, when the Liberals protested against the The passion of Christ in the early 2000s. The two controversies involved multiple elements of social life and showed why religion, culture, politics and entertainment cannot be easily separated.

IQNA: Throughout the history of cinema, we have witnessed the making of many religious films. What do you think is the difference between religious films made in the film industry today and films made in the 1950s and 1960s, for example?

Rodriguez-Plaque: Again, I’m not sure I would call these “religious films”. In the 50s and 60s there were Hollywood movies like The ten Commandments it gave a particular point of view on a history of the Jewish and Christian bible. But the filmmakers weren’t really religious. They just saw the story as one big old story that could be updated. In India at the time, there were what some critics called “devotional films” which were popular and elicited religious expression from viewers.

Similar things are happening today. On the one hand, there are a lot of thoughtful filmmakers who understand religion as an important part of life and therefore any film has to include this dimension. One of my favorite recent examples is Greta Gerwig Lady Bird, which is a coming-of-age story about a young woman: she’s on a quest to make sense of her life, and very subtly religious life is part of it. Or the 1999 blockbuster The matrix, which is full of Buddhist and Christian symbolism, mixed with some ancient Greek mythology. The matrix isn’t generally considered “religious,” but the film wouldn’t work without religion.

IQNA: Why does Hollywood not make films about Islam when other religions like Christianity and Judaism give the fact that there have been very cinematic events in the history of Islam?

Rodriguez-Plaque: I think Hollywood has repented for years of very bad portrayals of Islam, and Muslims in general! Many critics have carefully described the ways in which Hollywood in the past portrayed Muslims only as violent and not to be trusted. The past two decades have seen some changes in these representations, and these changes have been accompanied by larger social and political changes in the United States: significant levels of immigration to the United States by Muslims; more and more conversions to Islam, especially among people of color; and the related construction of mosques in many cities and an increase in the number of Muslims elected to political office. All of this is linked to an increase in the number of Muslims portrayed more positively in the media. It’s far from perfect, but I’m optimistic that things are changing for the better.

IQNA: What do you know about Iranian cinema, in particular Iranian religious cinema? What is your favorite Iranian film and filmmaker?

Rodriguez-Plaque: Being a Westerner, in all fairness, I got to know Iranian cinema in the 1990s and 2000s through filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. More recently, I saw Asghar Farhadi’s film A separation and Everyone knows.

The films that have marked me for a long time are those of Majidi Color of paradise and Children of Heaven. They are two simple stories of family life and love, but they offer a deeper insight into values ​​such as commitment, grief and love, and because of this they become deeply spiritual films.

Interview by Mohammad Hassan Goodarzi


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