Consider a film whose main character goes from wanting to kill herself to praying for strength and faith within the span of five minutes. Consider a film that uses blatant imagery of a child living and breathing in the womb. Consider a film that preaches the triumph of faith and life over despair and death. Consider a film that won 7 Academy Awards last night.
Except for that last point, I could have easily been describing one of a dozen of expressly ‘Christian’ films to come out in the past decade. From Fireproof and Facing the Giants to Bella, there is something about these films that screams Christian ideals, whether they’re literally screaming it, or just thematically pointing towards it. These are what society and others like to call ‘Christian Films.’ I could go on and on about how I feel on this topic, but this short article sums it up pretty nicely: At Least It’s Christian.
The film I was referencing in the beginning is, of course, the monumentally successful and equally compelling Gravity, by director Alfonso Cuáron (Children of Men, A Little Princess). Amongst a slew of other excellent films, including the Best Picture winner, 12 Years A Slave, Gravity claimed some of the night’s most coveted awards.
So why does Gravity, a film that doesn’t call itself Christian, get away with these themes? Because besides giving us a technically complex spectacle, it gives us a story independent of its themes.
As a film, Gravity pushed the limits of filmmaking technology, inventing new ways of filming actors and making them weightless, and creating shots so elaborate and breathtaking, the audience felt weightless themselves. The filmmakers set out to tell a story about rebirth, about despair, and about the value of human life, but more importantly they set out to tell a story about astronauts who are set adrift in space.
This is the difference between what many would call a ‘Christian film’ and a great film with Christian themes. The filmmakers focused on story and visuals and let the themes flow from that, as opposed to forcing a story around a theme. This is a trap so many ‘Christian’ filmmakers find themselves in. They want to convey a theme, not tell a story. As a result, we end up with films in which the situations feel contrived to make sure that the characters end up in church or kneeling at the foot of a cross by the end.
This brings me to what I mean by expressing the essence of what Christians believe versus the effects. In one of my favorite scenes in Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone shuts down the oxygen in her spacecraft and drifts off to sleep with every intention of never waking up again. As she falls asleep her subconscious begins to become more active, expressing the value of life that she, and every human being, inherently understands. As
she comes to this understanding, she wakes up, turns the oxygen back on, and what does she do? She prays. When no more than five minutes before, she was explaining that no one ever taught her how to pray, she finds herself praying to her recently deceased partner, and her more distantly deceased daughter. She all of a sudden is able to pray because it is something so inherent to human nature, that no matter how far away from God someone might be, there is still that desire to connect and speak with our Creator. It is one of the most touching moments in any film from the past year.
Why does Gravity get to have its main character pray overtly in the middle of the film? Because the story earned it. It gave the audience a situation so compelling and devastatingly scary, then made them believe it was actually happening through its astounding visuals, and finally was able to convince them that this was a moment in which someone would pray. In Gravity’s themes we find the essence of some of our Christian beliefs. The value of human life, and the dangers of despair, are both essential to a Christian’s understanding of life, but they are also difficult for the world outside to argue with. By doing that, he was (perhaps inadvertently) able to show the effects of those understandings – the need for prayer and faith.
Alfonso Cuáron is not, to my knowledge, a Christian, at least not an outspoken one. However, his films echo themes that consistently resonate with what we believe as Christians. From A Little Princess, with strong themes of perseverance, faith, and love, to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where a light in the darkness is a prominent motif, to Children of Men, an arguable pro-life film in which hope plays a key role, Cuáron has told stories through film that are compelling regardless of theme, but which simultaneously cannot escape their theme. As Christian artists, this seems to be an ideal to strive for.
Paul Duda studied film at JPCatholic (class of 2013) and currently works at Drive Studios. He is the director of Project Callisto and has credits on numerous other projects including the feature length thriller Red Line.Post Image Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.