Faith gets star treatment at Sundance

January 18, 2011

(RNS) Celebrity sightings and up-and-coming indie flicks are a given at
the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, but this year
something else is drawing attraction on the red carpet: faith on film.


A small but noticeable number of films at Sundance -- where
crossover movies like "Reservoir Dogs" and "Little Miss Sunshine" broke
into the mainstream -- tackle issues of religion, spirituality and
faith.


Out of 120 Sundance features scheduled to show at the Jan. 20-30
festival, 12 are overt stories about religion, or chronicle protagonists
largely defined by faith, says John Nein, senior programmer for the
festival.


"There are definitely more films (exploring spirituality) that ended
up in the program this year than in years past," he said, noting an
uptick in the number of submissions that touch on religious themes.


Christianity is a central theme in most of the films, from the
star-studded satire "Salvation Boulevard," featuring Pierce Brosnan as a
popular preacher who frames a born-again Christian follower for a crime,
to the riveting documentary "The Redemption of General Butt Naked,"
about a Liberian warlord-turned-preacher facing the loved ones of people
he killed.


The Italian film "Lost Kisses" centers around a Sicilian community's
reaction to a 13-year-old girl who may perform miracles. Two films
explore Christianity and Islam, with "Kinyarwanda" set during the 1994
genocide in Rwanda, and the documentary "Position Among The Stars"
tracing the lives of an impoverished family in Jakarta, Indonesia.


The Japanese "Abraxas" focuses on a depressed Zen monk who
reconnects with punk rock, while the bizarre American comedy "The
Catechism Cataclysm" centers on a priest who loves heavy metal music.


Three American narrative features -- "Martha Marcy May Marlene,"
Kevin Smith's horror film "Red State" and Vera Farmiga's directorial
debut "Higher Ground" -- are concerned with cults and religious sects on
the fringe.


Religion, of course, isn't totally new territory for Sundance --
previous fest fare included "Saved!," "Jesus Camp" and "Shape of the
Moon," a precursor to this year's "Position Among The Stars."


Most Sundance religious fare tended to be satirical or derisive --
with "Saved!" a prime example -- said Dick Staub, author of "The
Culturally Savvy Christian" and a columnist for Religion News Service,
who has participated in the Windrider Film Forums around Sundance that
bring together directors and audiences to talk about faith on film.


William L. Blizek, founding editor of the Journal of Religion and
Film and professor of philosophy and religion at the University of
Nebraska at Omaha, said religion may have a higher profile at Sundance
this year because "religion has become a much more visible part of our
culture."


"Now that you've got a culture that is more open to the discussion
of religion, you get more movies (exploring religion)," he says, citing
Mitt Romney, President Obama and others who are defined in the public's
eye by their faith.


With more openness toward religion, there is more freedom to make
movies about it, some Sundance filmmakers say.


"Position" director Leonard Retel Helmrich says he tried pitching
documentaries dealing with religious themes in the `80s and`90s in his
native Netherlands but could not get financing until recently. Flash
forward to 2010 and "Catechism" director Todd Rohal said there were no
concerns from funders that his film had a priest for a protagonist or a
"ridiculous" Catholic-infused title.


Sundance's Nein said this year's selections "indicate a wide array
of approaches" toward religion, including politics and current events,
blatant inspiration ("Salvation" and "Red State") and more personal
stories of redemption and soul-searching ("Tyrannosaur," about a
Christian charity worker, and "The Ledge," a thriller where a woman
wrestles with her personal faith).


Some films highlight the connection between religion and society
while still telling personal stories.


Helmrich, whose family has ties to Indonesia and both Islam and
Christianity, was drawn to making a documentary about the lives of a
Muslim family with a Christian matriarch in the nation's most populous
Islamic country.


"Butt Naked" is a personal story of a man seeking redemption after a
14-year civil war had killed 250,000 Liberians. Several scenes show the
allegedly reformed warlord face-to-face with relatives of his victims,
but why and how they forgive is left to the viewer to speculate, along
with the question of whether such a sinner can truly be redeemed.


"We were interested in knowing if somebody made a transformation
this extreme, what would it look like?" said co-director Daniele
Anastasion."
... How much do you have to do to balance the scales? Is it even
possible to balance the scales?"