A century of effort has proved that making great religious films is exceedingly difficult, certainly if you are aiming for spiritual truth over and above artistic merit.
It's all the more astonishing, then, that just the last few years have produced several outstanding candidates, in The Island (Ostrov, 2006), Of Gods and Men (2010) and The Way (2011). The first two of these were instantly recognized as classics, but the last may take a while to establish itself, because its strong religious content escaped a good number of well-intentioned reviewers.
That lack of recognition is what fascinates me here. Just what did the critics go out into the wilderness to see, and why didn't they see it?
I only recently had the chance to see The Way, some months after its release, and I don't want to review it here at any length. But looking back on the comments at the time does raise serious questions about religious and secular ways of interacting with art.
The Way is a deceptively simple film. Martin Sheen plays Tom Avery, a Californian doctor whose son (Emilio Estevez, who also directs) is killed beginning the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Reluctantly, Avery decided to complete the pilgrimage himself. Along the way -- The Way -- he encounters a mixed bag of other pilgrims, none of whom demonstrates the slightest degree of obvious piety. Each in fact offers a silly and superficial justification for travel -- Sarah, for instance, claims that she wants to quit smoking. Together, the four become a family, with analogies to Dorothy and her companions en route to Oz.
At the end of their journey, each finds what he or she was looking for, whether or not they had the slightest conscious idea what that was at the outset. Each finds healing, Sarah from years of family strife and domestic violence. Each, indubitably, finds God, in a film that is so utterly bred-in-the-bone Catholic that in the old days, the Church might have granted you an indulgence for each time you saw it. The final images -- of Tom faithfully pursuing the pilgrimage that has become his life -- are stunning. Once having set foot on the Way, he cannot turn back.
The problem is that none of these quests or discoveries is signaled in traditional Hollywood form. There are no heavenly lights, no gazes into misty angelic faces, no heavenly bells. (And unlike The Island and Of Gods and Men, the characters are not explicitly monks or hermits). To understand The Way, you just have to have a vague knowledge of the Catholic tradition, and especially sacramental thought.
Reviews of The Way were largely positive, and fair-minded, with nothing resembling a flat-out anti-religious take. But reading some responses, I honestly wondered if we had been watching the same film. Claudia Puig in USA Today found "a sweet, life-affirming tale", and noted that "many of the travelers have goals that are decidedly secular." Well yes, so those characters themselves said, but when they got to Santiago, they realized who exactly had been calling them, and what a shell those secular fronts had been.
Peter Rainer in Christian Science Monitor was struck at the scarcity of overt spiritual content and concluded that "The film is coy about its religiosity." This line is astonishing if you have been watching with any awareness. Coyness is never apparent: abounding faith is. Religious themes seem never to have entered into the Los Angeles Times's critic's viewing, in which "emotional healing" emerged as the core theme.
The New York Times's critic saw a pleasant film mercifully void of troubling religious materials. Neil Genzlinger reassured his readers that "This is not an 'inspirational film' in the usual, syrupy sense [and it certainly is not]; none of these people are overtly finding God on this trek. The beauty of the movie, in fact, is that Mr. Estevez does not make explicit what any of them find, beyond friendship."
None of these people are overtly finding God on this trek. I'm speechless. Mr. Genzlinger also believed that Sarah is "an acid-tongued woman trying to quit smoking." This is like characterizing Moby Dick as a closely-observed travelogue of whale watching in the South Pacific.
Roger Ebert was baffled. What was the point of the film? "At the end, Tom has arrived at some sort of reconciliation with his son and forgiven him for having undertaken the damn fool pilgrimage in the first place." Ebert is not sure "what the point was of making Tom so firmly secular." Yes -- he missed the whole conversion that was the point of the film!
I am left flailing for an answer. What on earth, or beyond earth, could a film-maker do to bring home religious content to such reviewers?
How about subtitles? At moments involving a spiritual encounter or awakening, perhaps a red bulb or a halo could appear at the bottom of the screen, with an instructive caption:
(*THIS IS A CONVERSION EXPERIENCE, AND THE DINNER SYMBOLIZES A LAST SUPPER!*).
So there's one answer: Closed Captioning for the Religiously Impaired.