Can the movies do God?

Faith-based films are proving to be big box-office in America. Kaleem Aftab asks if pushing religion on screen will appeal to cinema audiences in Britain
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The Independent Culture

Hollywood has never been slow to sell its soul on the promise of a fast buck. However, any worried, Faustian-leaning studio executive can rest easy. For now, any deals that need making are with God, rather than the devil. That is because faith-based movies are proving to be big box-office draws.

Religion is having a second coming at the cinema and the studios are seeking their share of the bread. Last year The Blind Side won plaudits and an Oscar for Sandra Bullock, for her portrayal of a middle-class mother who takes pity on a working-class black football player and helps to make him a professional sportsman. The film was based on a true story and an undercurrent that the director, John Lee Hancock, played up was that part of Leigh Anne Tuohy's success in life and ability to juggle being a wife, mother and career woman was based on her unwavering Christian beliefs.

A debate is now raging in the US over whether Secretariat, a movie about a Triple Crown-winning horse from the early 1970s, is attempting to push religion in a similar fashion. Although religion is barely mentioned in the tale of a female racehorse trainer overcoming the odds to train a champion, the movie opens with a passage from the Book of Job and ends with the hymn "Oh Happy Day".

The Salon film critic Andrew O'Hehir ruffled feathers when he accused the movie of promoting an unrealistic portrait of America and questioned the Christian values that he thinks it pushes. The film's director, Randall Wallace, speaks openly about his religious beliefs and has also spoken of his desire to make movies that appeal to people with "middle American values".

Whether the values Secretariat pushes are realistic or not, or are even pushed, the message that Hollywood is chasing the Christian market is to be found most strikingly in marketing departments, rather than on the screen. Disney, which backed the family-orientated Secretariat, has made a push to appeal to a Christian audience.

Hollywood and the rest of the world woke up to the fact that there was a large and untapped audience of churchgoers when in 2004 The Passion of the Christ defied all expectations to give its director, Mel Gibson, a mega-hit. The film took a phenomenal £413m worldwide; 60 per cent of that audience was in America.

Gibson's project was once heralded as a great folly but the tables were turned when the tills began ringing and talk began to circulate about how churches in the American south were organising group outings to see the film. However, Gibson's star began to wane when in 2006 he made anti-Semitic comments to a police officer after being arrested for drink driving. Faith, it seems, retains the power to break careers as well as make them.

Others, though, were quick to make hay in the market that The Passion of the Christ had ignited. Distribution companies such as Mission Pictures International (MPI) have been set up in the hope of mobilising Christian congregations to watch films in the cinema. MPI has done this with remarkable success, by making films that are not directly about religion but are instead inspirational stories in which characters, through their belief in God, find fulfilment.

MPI's Letters to God made the box-office top 10 on its release in America in April. Despite having no household names in the cast, the story of an eight-year-old boy who writes letters to God during a fight against cancer, and inspires his community through his inspirational words, touched a chord with audiences. In the film, the boy's letters inspire an alcoholic postman to better his life.

MPI has produced a number of films to tap into this market, including another success, To Save a Life, about a teenage sports star who finds hope through religion after his best friend dies. A forthcoming film, The Way Home, about a missing child, stars former Superman Dean Cain and carries the tagline "In the darkest hour God gave them hope".

Faith-oriented films are also enjoying unprecedented success in Brazil. The biggest film of the year so far has been Nosso Lar, an adaptation of a best-selling novel by the Brazilian medium Francisco Candido Xavier. The story, which is set during the Second World War, tells of a Rio de Janiero doctor who, after he dies, finds himself in a strange spiritual world. Having to confront the demons of his life on Earth, he is helped by a friendly spirit and is taken to an astral city, Nosso Lar, where he is taught about how his actions on Earth have had a profound affect on his ability to negotiate the afterlife.

Nosso Lar has the biggest budget of any film made in Brazil and it has more than made it back. Yet according to its producer, Iafa Britz, this success is unlikely to be repeated internationally. After a special screening at the Rio Film Festival, Britz told me the film would need to be remade for America. Of the European market, she said: "The chances are slim that it will be bought there. As soon as you bring up religion, in northern Europe especially, it seems to turn off distributors. I think it has something do with all the death and devastation of the world wars that has put people off anything with religious tones."

It seems that faith-based movies do not play well in northern Europe, and especially not in Britain. Relative successes here, such as Into Great Silence, an examination of life in a Carthusian monastery in France, from 2005, and last year's No Greater Love, about Carmelite nuns in Notting Hill, did not make an impact at the box office. They were qualified successes based on low expectations, which seemed to reach an older audience. Such films also showed that given the right product, a faith-based theme does not necessarily kill a film in British cinemas.

What is intriguing is how art-house cinema has abandoned films based on religion. At one time it could be argued that many of the best such films were connected to religion, from the work of Ingmar Bergman to that of Michelangelo Antonioni, but in recent years art-house cinemas have shied away from spiritually-oriented films. The same can be said of film-makers in Europe. In Europe, obsession with how faith impacts on life seems to have receded.

The big problem with the latest wave of faith-based movies is not that they are about religion, but that they are not made to the standards of previous religious-themed pictures. Now Hollywood is putting its considerable financial weight behind such films, it seems that production values will improve. In terms of appealing to more secular audiences, directors have become more adept at making films that will both appeal to faith-based audiences and more secular ones. The Blind Side and Secretariat seem to have appealed first to sports-loving audiences. Church audiences have been beneficial ancillaries.

The next wave of faith-based films is likely to come from the Middle East, where cash-rich sovereign funds in Abu Dhabi and Qatar have for a number of years been looking at investing in local film projects. They are also looking at projects that comply with Islam. It will be a major surprise if such tales appeal to audiences outside the Islamic world.

'Secretariat' is released on 10 December