Hollywood religious films range from the reverential to the riotous

Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking. Picture: supplied
Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking. Picture: supplied

Someone once said words to the effect that Hollywood's idea of religion was "Jews selling Catholicism to Protestants".

Leaving aside conspiracy theories, there's truth in that. Most - though not all - studio bosses were Jewish and did not want to call attention to their "difference". The Jazz Singer was one of the few depictions of a rabbi in mainstream movies. Rod Steiger also played a rabbi in The Chosen, but that was several decades later.

For a long time, religion was largely represented in American movies by overwhelmingly positive depictions of Catholic priests and nuns - Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way, Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary's, Debbie Reynolds as The Singing Nun, Julie Andrews and company in The Sound of Music. And more recently we've had Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking.

Keeping the Faith had both a rabbi (Ben Stiller) and a priest (Edward Norton) who had been friends since childhood, a positive display of interfaith relations.

No doubt the recognisability of Catholic dress and practice and the Church's major role in society - not to mention the National Legion of Decency, the Catholic organisation that categorised films on their suitability for the faithful - contributed to this. And appealing to Christians, of whom there were many more than Jews, made sense. Not delving too deeply into theological matters made sense too - quite apart from reminding people of differences, it would also bore many. And making money has always been the business of Hollywood: there's no sense in alienating a lot of people.

Less sympathetic were the schoolteacher priests played by Richard Burton's in Absolution and James Mason and Robert Preston in Child's Play. Both films were atmospheric thrillers.

Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby The Bells of St Mary's. Picture: Supplied

Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby The Bells of St Mary's. Picture: Supplied

More nuanced depictions appeared in other films. The title character in The Cardinal started off as an arrogant young priest but learned humility, faced an agonising decision - his sister's life or her baby's? - and suffered a crisis of faith but did good work opposing racism and anti-Semitism.

Robert Duvall in The Apostle. Picture: Supplied

Robert Duvall in The Apostle. Picture: Supplied

Reflecting modern viewpoints, the role of missionaries to convert "heathens" is by no means unambiguously positive in Black Robe, The Mission and Silence. And the priests investigated in Spotlight for child molestation and ignoring or covering up the crimes were not regarded positively.

More ambiguous is the situation in Doubt, set in the 1960s, with a popular parish priest suspected of child molestation by the nun who is principal of a local school. The recent revelations about the Catholic Church and child abuse might colour reactions but the situation is left open in the film.

Some of these films remind us that priests and nuns, like any other group, contain good as well as bad people.

Non-Catholic clergy don't seem to be as common as central characters in films. But here have been some, usually on the extreme or huckterish side, including the rock-music-and-dancing-are-EVIL firebrand played by John Lithgow in Footloose, Burt Lancaster's cynical revivalist in Elmer Gantry and the con man played by Steve Martin in Leap of Faith. Not to mention Robert Mitchum's "Preacher" Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, with LOVE and HATE tattooed on the knuckles of his hands.

Meryl Streep, left, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt. Picture: Andrew Schwartz

Meryl Streep, left, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt. Picture: Andrew Schwartz

Angels sometimes get depicted in films: there are the heavenly bureaucrats in Here Comes Mr Jordan and its remake, Heaven Can Wait, and the would-be angel out to earn his wings in It's A Wonderful Life.

Matt Damon, left and Ben Affleck in Dogma. Picture: Supplied

Matt Damon, left and Ben Affleck in Dogma. Picture: Supplied

Less reverent is the depiction of two fallen angels in Kevin Smith's Dogma. They're played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and Alanis Morisette plays God. Speaking of the Almighty, God has also been portrayed by George Burns, Morgan Freeman and Whoopi Goldberg, among others, often with a comedic spin. If we venture from Heaven to Hell, the Devil has been played as, among other things, a charming rogue named Mr Scratch in All That Money Can Buy, an androgynous woman in The Passion of the Christ, and something of a prankster in Bedazzled. Not to mention the head of a law firm in The Devil's Advocate.

Whether jolly or juvenile, serious or satirical, reverential or ridiculous, religion has been depicted in films in a diverse range of ways. But not as diverse as religion itself, or its adherents.

This story How Hollywood handles holiness first appeared on The Canberra Times.