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Faith-based films: on the heels of huge box office takes for Christian-themed movies, an abundance of films are appearing containing Christian content, but will they be any good?

Hollywood has been abuzz lately with the big news that more faith-based movies like The Passion of The Christ and Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are on the way, but the reaction so far has been rather mixed.

Fox plans 12 family and/or faith-friendly movies a year. Sony Provident plans several faith-based movies in the next 12 months. Even little Maverick Spirit plans a dozen spiritually oriented films a year. Just during October alone, there are several faith and family films coming from both studios and faith-based distributors.

Many pundits--even Christian ones--have said "Enough! We don't need any more Christian movies, especially not more bad ones." Others, however, have rushed to stand in line to support all of these movies, whatever their quality.

Rather than move toward either of these extremes, we should exercise wisdom, knowledge, and discernment. By doing so, we can choose the good and thereby encourage Hollywood not just to throw Christians the scraps, but to make quality movies with faith and value--movies that will attract nonbelievers as well as believers and perhaps even soften hearts and change lives, as did The Passion of The Christ.

There are at least three fundamental components of a great movie.

First, it has to be a wonderful, terrific drama, or else few people will want to see it. As one of the most renowned screenwriting teachers, Robert McGee, says, writing a script is the most difficult art form because it is so demanding. Unlike novels, which can go on and on and include plots, subplots, themes, and sub-themes, or other art forms which can be wildly interpretive and unique, popular movies must tell a story well in a short period of time--90 minutes to two and one-half hours--to capture a broad audience.

The craft of screenwriting is well known, but often ignored by Hollywood veterans as well as innocent "wannabe" Christian dramatists. Studies have shown that, on average, dramatic movies that fit the classical dramatic formula do much better at the box office. This does not mean that there are no exceptions, but the exceptions are few and far between.

The second fundamental element of a great movie is the moral virtues within a script. As our annual comprehensive box office analysis at Movieguide clearly proves year after year, the more that a script adheres to a Judeo-Christian, biblical view of reality, the better the movie does, on average, at the box office.

Finally, the third element of a great movie is its spiritual quality. People want hope. They want redemption. They want a savior. Movies with these elements do better not just in western countries but worldwide.

Many of the new faith-based movies coming out from the major studios have very small budgets. This has raised concerns that these movies will be simply lackluster attempts to capture the Christian audience. However, these movies could be terrific, even though they're small budget. Those that are exceptionally good should be supported, and those that are not should not be supported. But, it is important not to develop a cynical, jaded attitude and paint them all with the same brush. Such is the case with the statement, "We don't need any more Christian movies."

So, if Hollywood executives really want to capitalize on the 142 million people who go to church every week, they must bring them movies that are well made, entertaining, morally sound, and spiritually uplifting. It's like the boy who cried wolf. If Christians and family audiences keep responding to the clarion call "Support your Christian movie!" and keep walking away disappointed, they'll soon start ignoring the call.

Good Christian Film

Two recent film offerings demonstrate once again that Hollywood can make wonderful movies that inspire and entertain: One Night With the King and The Nativity Story. Both of these films deserve the support of all people of good will who want to see a return to wholesomeness and quality in popular entertainment.

One Night With the King, based on the story of Esther in the Bible, is impressive for many reasons. The most apparent is that it has big production values with good-looking sets and crowd scenes on a moderate budget. Secondly, it is a well-told story even if it is slightly too long and has a few, very minor plot problems. It is certainly as good as most Hollywood movies and once more dispels the notion that good Christian films can't be made. Finally, it is impressive because it tries to bring back the biblical epic in an earnest and entertaining way.

The story opens with little Hadassah playing with her family, and a flashback to King Saul being told to annihilate all of the Agagites, a Baal-worshipping, child-sacrificing people. Due to Saul's negligence, the Agagite queen escapes Saul's grasp. The queen's offspring harbor an intense hatred for the Jews.

Years later in Persia, Hadassah is orphaned. She is raised by her Uncle Mordecai. When King Xerxes puts away his disobedient queen, Hadassah is one of the women called up to be considered as the next queen. She changes her name to Esther to hide her Jewish roots. Of course, anyone who has read the Bible knows that she becomes the favorite of the king. Meanwhile, Haman, who is a descendant of the Agagite queen who escaped Saul, is intent on killing all the Jews. Esther must put her life on the line and break protocol to go before the king to plead for her people.

The script by Stephan Blinn, based on author Tommy Tenney's original novel, is very clever. The movie brings history to life in a meaningful, realistic, and inspiring way. The story becomes a little long and slightly repetitive in places, with some static development. There are also some quick-jumping conflict resolutions at the end. Most of these structural problems are very minor and will not be noticed by most viewers. Anyone who loves the Bible will love this movie, whether he or she is Christian or Jewish.

Another slight flaw is that the actors have very divergent accents, from British to Los Angeles valley accents. After a few minutes of the movie, however, the story sweeps the audience along, and the casting difficulties become unnoticeable. Another slight flaw is the musical score, which is not bad, but it sometimes sounds too much like stock music of the 1950s biblical epics.

Esther is not the type of beauty mentioned in the Bible who would sink ships or change kingdoms, but Tiffany Dupont does a good job of bringing Queen Esther to life and deserves commendation for tackling a very difficult role with grace and savoir-faire. Veteran actor John Rhys-Davies (Gimli in Lord of the Rings, Sallah in the Indiana Jones movies) adds a lot of heart to his role as Uncle Mordecai.

Depth and Breadth

The Nativity Story is one of those very rare movies that brings the Gospel alive in a compelling, captivating, entertaining, and inspiring manner that shatters expectations. It is a sacred movie and a divine revelation in the best sense of these words. It is a human story with depth and breadth and height and all the right elements to capture the audience.

The movie opens with Jeremiah 23:5-6: "'The days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.'" The rest of the movie references and quotes Scripture throughout.

The intensely paranoid King Herod sends out the troops to kill all the innocents in Bethlehem and stop the prophecy that there will be born a King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Herod is intensely superstitious and played brilliantly. Thus, this movie starts, as it should, with a bang. It then flashes back to a year earlier in the town of Nazareth, showing a brief moment of tranquility in the life of Mary and Joseph.

Suddenly, the Roman troops descend upon the village, demanding tribute for Caesar. Mary's father loses part of his land and his donkey. Joseph the carpenter buys the donkey back from a greedy soldier and gives it back to the father, asking for Mary's hand in marriage. Mary protests a little, but she is betrothed and must spend a year before they consummate the marriage.

Soon, an angel of God comes to Mary to tell her that she is with God's child, born by the Holy Spirit. She goes to see her cousin Elizabeth, who in her older age is also with child. (A previous scene shows Elizabeth's husband, the priest Zechariah, entering the temple and being struck mute when he doubts the word of the angel that Elizabeth had become pregnant.) When Mary returns to Nazareth, it is clear that she is pregnant. Joseph is devastated but decides to continue with the marriage after an angel appears to him in a dream. At the same time, the magi in Babylon are preparing to follow a unique astrological sign, which forms a brief new star, to find the King of Kings.

Joseph and Mary have to journey to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census, and the prophecies of God are fulfilled.

The Nativity Story has one of the best scripts ever for a biblical story. What makes a movie compelling is a sense of jeopardy, and that sense of jeopardy is present throughout this movie. The dialogue, the plot development, and the turning points are refreshingly dramatic--so good in fact that they will elicit tears at certain points. The Nativity Story is a compelling drama that carefully avoids gruesome, graphic violence. Even the slaughtering of the ox at the temple does not show the blade entering the animal, yet it causes the audience to wince.

Catherine Hardwicke's direction is superb. Joseph and Mary are very human and very Jewish and very much in love. Each character has a terrific character arc. Probably the best part of the movie is the costuming and the settings. Having spent some time in Israel researching other movies, I can attest to the authenticity of even the smallest details of life in Israel in the first century. The crucifixions, the agriculture, the ephods, everything is done exquisitely. There is one moment where Mary has an attitude, but it is very brief and natural. A later statement, however, declares that Mary is always trustworthy, that she keeps her promises; therefore, she is honored by God. Her complexities add depth to her character and make the story of Mary and Joseph more profound.

The Nativity Story is a nearly perfect movie. It should be a movie that every Christian would want to see. It is certainly a movie that every non-Christian should see. It testifies in every way to Jesus the Messiah and is clearly and consciously evangelistic. The movie pointedly proclaims the story of The Christ and the great news that there is salvation in none other through statements such as: this baby is the "greatest King" and "God made flesh"; the gold is for the King of the world; the frankincense is for the greatest priest of all; and that the myrrh is to honor the sacrifice.

Both of these finely crafted films express a strong biblical worldview and are devoid of the foul language, nudity, carnality, and gratuitous violence that have become mainstays of modern movies. This is wonderful, edifying entertainment for audiences of all ages.

Dr. Ted Baehr is founder and publisher of Movie-guide and chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission.
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Author:Baehr, Ted
Publication:The New American
Date:Dec 25, 2006
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