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Salvation Cinema.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  Most of what passes for "religious" art, music, and literature in pop culture these days is chintzy stuff. It fails not because it deals with religion, but because it refuses to deal with it in anything but the most superficial terms. Commercial Christianity, in particular, degrades spirituality more than Marilyn Manson ever could. Shilling vacuous joy and smiley-face salvation, shows like Touched by an Angel and T-shirts with slogans like "God's Gym" are shallow expressions of what you can only assume are shallow beliefs.

That's why The Apostle (1997, R) is such a—pardon the term— revelation. Robert Duvall's remarkable hat trick (he wrote, directed, and starred) gets to the roots of religion, in this case fundamentalist Christianity, and takes it seriously. Duvall is "E.F. The Apostle," a preacher on the run after assaulting his wife's lover. He's flawed but no fraud—there's no trace of Elmer Gantry in Duvall's characterization. E.F. is a great preacher, but he's more than just a showman. He believes what he says, he believes in the power of his own belief and the limitless possibility of redemption; and even though people think he's maybe a little nuts, they're swept away by his enthusiasm. As he settles in a small Louisiana town and gathers a new congregation, the film suggests true faith is not about answers at all but about a constant struggle—a struggle with God, maybe, but mostly a struggle with ourselves. Most things about the movie are good, but Duvall's performance in particular is wonderful. Keeping up a nonstop conversation with God, punctuating his sentences with fervid cries of "Glory!", he is both riveting and raucously entertaining.

The French-Canadian director Denys Arcand tackled religion in Jesus of Montreal (1989, R), in which a troupe of actors stages a spectacular Passion Play at a Montreal church. The film makes a Christ figure of the lead actor (Lothaire Bluteau), with the others serving as his disciples—especially after the church cancels the play on the grounds that it is heretical. Ironically, of course, the actors' vision of Jesus—placing him in historical context, emphasizing his anti-authoritarianism—is more compelling than the church's sterile one. The movie eventually goes off the deep end, but up until then it's a strange, fascinating, and surprisingly funny contemplation of moral integrity.

Probably the most revered cinematic exploration of faith is Carl Dreyer's silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Recounting the French patriot/visionary's trial and execution, the film is both an indictment of religious hypocrisy and a celebration of the transcendent possibilities of belief. When Maria Falconetti (a street performer Dreyer recruited to play Joan) turns her eyes upward, you have no doubt she's seeing God. The film is slow, but it builds a visceral intensity.

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