Why Don't We Talk About Religious Intolerance on Film?

We call out racism and sexism, but not religious intolerance. Because, uh, it's fun to make fun of certain religions?
Publish date:
April 24, 2012
religion, racism, film, spirituality, scientology, mel gibson, PT anderson, tom cruise

Me and PT Anderson. But it was many years ago, so I couldn't ask him about this.

When “The Passion of the Christ” came out in 2004, I took my kid sister with me to a matinee.

I had read loads of reviews and wanted to see if the hype was warranted; everything I had heard about pre-ranty Mel Gibson’s Catholic-tinged project had piqued my interest. Was it really going to be as gory as I heard? Would I be offended by the religious elements? Is it necessary to tell the greatest story ever told MORE graphically/violently?

It was more gory than I had heard. The 39 lashes scene was pretty brutal. My poor, gentle little sister was in hysterics. I was raised Catholic and worried that I might feel either pangs or spirituality or revulsion at paying $12 a ticket for it...But, I wasn’t offended by the Jesus element as worried for Mel’s sanity; I found this to be the work of a zealot, plain and simple. It wasn't until after I saw the film that I heard it suggested that there may have been anti-Semitic themes. This was before we knew Mel Gibson was a bit of a stealth bigot.

Spiritually, I subscribe more to Rev Run’s quote, “God is love,” than to any particular church. I like to think of a benevolent creator, rather than that mean Old Testament God who drowned everyone and turned people into salt. So while I'm a believer of some stripe, I can't say as I've been personally or individually affronted by a depiction of my religion in film. But I do try to recognize proseletyzing and intolerance in the cineplex.

I bring this up because one of my favorite filmmakers is apparently making a movie that takes aim at a particular creed. Paul Thomas Anderson's next film, "The Master," takes on that Hollywoodiest of religions, Scientology.

I've talked a little bit here about how consuming media can feel like implying consent, and how aware I am that paying for a piece of art can feel like condoning its rhetoric, which is why I feel very strange about movies that tackle religion in any capactiy that doesn't feel strictly objective. It seems that we frown a lot less on religious intolerance in media than we might with racism or sexism.

Hollywood has a strained, strange relationship with spirituality -- that it's exploited when convenient ("Evan Almighty" was aimed squarely at Christian filmgoers) and that certain religions are fair game for lampooning. For years, it's basically been all right to make fun of certain religions. Scientology is a cult, Evangelicals are crazy hicks, Muslims exist solely in films to threaten the president's plane or harass Jamie Foxx. Then there's the Jewish movie producer archetype, which is fine because it's supposed to be some kind of "for us, by us" in-joke, but it's strange that we aren't more aware that while it's maybe innocuous, it's still a really casual form of intolerance.

Take Tom Cruise, who should know way better as someone who's constantly hounded for his beliefs, and was weirdly dressed as a fat, money grubbing studio executive named Les Grossman in "Tropic Thunder." (Why not just call him Jewy Jewface, writers?)

As a spiritual person who doesn't subscribe to a particular church, I wasn’t Mel Gibson’s target audience, but I lined his pockets, and helped him spread his message, whatever that was. I tend to be the type of person that has to see the popular movie of the moment even if I know I’m going to hate it. I need to have an educated opinion, and I feel I can only have that after viewing.

As an audience goers went to be offended, to have an opinion, and to have a frame of reference on the mania in the media. But it's important that we keep talking about it.

Obviously, I haven't seen the new PT Anderson movie, so I can't say whether the subject matter is handled. It's rumored that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a L. Ron Hubbard-like leader of a new religion in the 1950s -- Joaquin Phoenix (who was raised within another alleged cult, Children of God) and Amy Adams co-stars. Great! I love all those people. But the subject matter makes me uneasy.

I can't speak for people who have been personally involved in Scientology, but I feel conflicted about the way religion is often handled so cavalierly, and with so little complaint. Yes, there have been abuses reported by former members of the church, but that's the case with Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as well. But we're quick (though not as quick as we should be) as a culture call out racism, sexism, and classism, but not religious intolerance. Why? Because, uh, it's fun to make jokes about Judaism or Scientology as long as people are good humored about it? It doesn't make sense.

Look, I'm excited for this movie. I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman and PT as smart, talented artists, so I want to trust that the movie's done well and with a light touch. It would have to be difficult to be a life-long Southern Californian in show business without eventually encountering Scientologists. PT directed Tom Cruise (earning him a well-deserved Oscar nod) for “Magnolia,” and Cruise is about the most famous Scientologist there is. I’m sure PT has a very specific point of view of what inspired him to envision the beginning of the movement. I for one, cannot wait to see what he’s come up with. And whatever the result, I hope it inspires plenty of talk about how we show spirituality on screen.

No filmmaker today captures the sinister under-belly of California better than Anderson. Every movie is a love letter to Los Angeles and the Valley and every sprawling depiction of the interconnectedness of life touches a nerve; whether it’s the porn industry with “Boogie Nights,” the Altman-esque opus which is “Magnolia,” or the insanity and greed of Daniel Plainview in “There Will be Blood” (which notably included the line "God is a superstition."). Each film dazzles me with one of a kind visuals, RAD soundtracks, and catchy dialogue and profanity.

I happen to think Paul Thomas Anderson makes great and important cinema, and I applaud him being ballsy. Movies should push the envelope and make you think differently. A good movie teaches you a lesson, wows you with a performance, or can elicit an emotional response. The fact that he’s even loosely going after a subject so near and dear to Hollywood is ambitious and brave. I’m pumped to see it. I’ve been a fan of everything he’s made thus far.

And I'm all for free speech -- Mel Gibson had every right to express his faith in “The Passion of the Christ,” as violently and zealously as he wanted. Film is art and art is about expression. You’re allowed to make a movie that offends people or alienates others. You have the right to make a racist film, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't go, "Hey, whoa, that's racist, I don't think I feel good about paying for your pool" when we see it on screen.

Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion are awesome, but let's not forget to police the way we view films. "Birth of a Nation" is still shown in film classes, and it's got elements of brilliance as a piece of art, but it's also virulently racist. It's important to recognize propaganda and to call out bigotry and dogmatism when we see it.

You also have the right to stay far away from any movie or piece of art that potentially makes your skin crawl. But it's uncomfortable that I'll only know whether I want to give my implied approval with dollars after I've already paid them.