Oscar films that literally have a prayer

Are this year’s nominations a hint that Hollywood gets how much religion matters?

Teresa Palmer and Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, 2016. Lionsgate | MoviestillsDB.com

Hollywood rolled out its latest batch of Oscar nominees earlier this week, and the press is abuzz with its snubs and surprises. Where’s Amy Adams? Where’s Martin Scorsese? No love for Deadpool? Meryl Streep again?! While we won’t see a repetition of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that rocked the awards the last couple of years, the nominations have given movie lovers plenty to talk about.

But one aspect particularly caught my attention this year: How these Oscar hopefuls deal with spirituality.

Most films don’t wade into religion at all. They never have. Oh, sure, there are exceptions, the Ben-Hurs and The Bells of St. Marys of the world. But statuettes aside, movies are a business, and few movie-makers want to risk alienating their audience by inserting overt references to religion. Sex? Fine. F-words? No problem. Except for that one f-word that ends in a-i-t-h.

But ironically, even as the country grows more secular, some filmmakers seem more willing to grapple with faith than ever before. And while their depictions of religion are not always positive—indeed, sometimes it’s just the opposite—just acknowledging that religion is important, and that it can be a huge motivator in people’s lives, is refreshing.

if you took away the film’s brutality—arguably necessary in this context—you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking this was a Christian movie, so clear are its messages.

Take, for instance, Hacksaw Ridge, which scored six nominations, including one for Best Picture. Bible-toting hero Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, nominated for Best Actor) joins the army in World War II, but because of his religious convictions, refuses to carry a gun. Despite tremendous pressure and sometimes withering abuse, he holds true to his faith and eventually wins the Medal of Honor—all without ever pressing a trigger.

Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer in Hacksaw Ridge, 2016. Mark Rogers | Lionsgate | courtesy Everett Collection

This gritty R-rated war movie is slathered in blood. But frankly, if you took away the film’s brutality—arguably necessary in this context—you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking this was a Christian movie, so clear are its messages. I don’t know if I’ve seen such an intrinsically spiritual film up for Best Picture since the Life of Pi was nominated in 2013, and I’d wager there hasn’t been a film with such a strong Christian message in the derby for the last, what, 40 years?

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Another Best Picture contender with a spiritual theme is Fences, which feels a world away from Hacksaw Ridge. It, too, has its brutal moments, but the wounds inflicted here are primarily emotional. Troy Maxson (Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington) is a hard-working garbage collector, doing his best to eke out a living and maybe a little bit of happiness with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis, also nominated). But he’s a hard, sometimes selfish man who betrays his wife and can’t figure out how to love his own sons.

Fences is about relationships—Troy’s relationship with Rose, his boys and his mentally disabled brother, Gabriel. But a sense of faith undergirds the whole story, from Rose’s dutiful devotion to church to Gabriel’s insistence that he’s seen Troy’s name written in heaven’s Good Book. And really, the film hinges on Troy’s soul—the better angels of his nature rubbing against its darker, deeper shadows. And when Gabriel pulls out his ever-present trumpet at the end of the movie—a trumpet he carries to use on Judgement Day—the clouds part and the sun shines down. The movie ends with a message from heaven, one that speaks of hope and redemption.

All this religion at the Oscars suggests that filmmakers are beginning to understand what most of us already know: Religion matters.

Other films in the Best Picture competition offer their own nods to faith. The women of Hidden Figures go to church and pray at the dinner table. In Manchester by the Sea, Patrick (played by Oscar-nominated Lucas Hedges) has an awkward lunch with his estranged mother and her new “fella,” both apparently fervent “born-again” Christians. It’s not the most positive portrayal of the faith in movies, but it’s interesting: After lunch, Patrick’s guardian, Lee (Oscar-nominated Casey Affleck) reminds him that they, being Catholic, are Christians, too.

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Left to right: Taraji P. Henson playing Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer playing Dorothy Vaughn and Janelle Monáe playing Mary Jackson. Hopper Stone | SMPSP | 20th Fox Film Corporation 2016

The list goes on. I’ve already written in this space about the poignant ruminations on the nature of God in Jackie, which was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Actress (Natalie Portman) and Best Original Score. Scorsese’s Silence nabbed one nomination— for Best Cinematography—and was all about religion from opening credits to the closing crawl. Captain Fantastic, which earned Viggo Mortensen a nod for Best Actor, could be viewed as a scree against, in part, organized religion, but it’s still a huge motivator for the movie’s primary players. Other movie scripts from Lion to Moonlight were salted with subtle references to faith, suggesting it was important to some of its characters.

All this religion at the Oscars suggests that filmmakers are beginning to understand what most of us already know: Religion matters. What we think about God, and how we view our relationship to him, shapes our lives and molds our souls. Faith moves us like nothing else.

And you know what? Any force that strong is a great ingredient for drama. It’s nice to see that Hollywood may be catching on.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay
Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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