Sean P. Means: Can a ‘Bible movie’ satisfy film lovers and religious viewers?

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: April 25, 2014 08:09PM
Updated: April 24, 2014 04:57PM
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This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Russell Crowe in a scene from "Noah." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Niko Tavernise)

One family tradition of my youth was the ritual viewing of “The Ten Commandments.”

We would tune in every year, around Easter, for ABC’s annual broadcast of Cecil B. de Mille’s classic 1956 biblical epic. If nothing else, it was an excuse to stay up well past bedtime to watch TV.

The movie, if you’ve never seen it, is an extravagant telling of the book of Exodus. It starts with the baby Moses being plucked from the Nile, raised as a prince of Egypt and into the strapping form of Charlton Heston. He’s then discovered to be a Jew, enslaved and later exiled, only to return to lead the Jews out of Egypt to Israel — stopping, of course, to part the Red Sea and pick up the tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments.

It’s fantastically campy, with overwrought acting from the likes of Yul Brynner (as the pharaoh Rameses), Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne DeCarlo, John Carradine and Vincent Price. It’s also, surprisingly, rather racy for its time — since de Mille was a showman and knew he could get away with hot actresses in slinky gowns as long as God smote people for it later.

Even as a good Catholic kid, I could tell how over the top “The Ten Commandments” was. My brothers and I, recognizing the repetitiveness of the dialogue, even made a game out of it. We counted the number of times a character would say “Moses, Moses, Moses” (11 times) or “So let it be written, so let it be done” (we counted 7 ½).

Maybe that’s where my movie education began. It’s certainly where I first realized that the idea of a “Bible movie” means something different to me, a movie lover, than it does to a devout reader of the Bible.

That’s been quite evident this spring, with a spate of movies adapting the Bible or following Christian themes:

• “Son of God,” a telling of Jesus’ story, culled from last year’s “The Bible” TV miniseries. (Opened Feb. 28.)

• “God’s Not Dead,” a drama about a devout Christian college student (Shane Harper) debating his atheist professor (Kevin Sorbo). (Opened March 21.)

• “Noah,” director Darren Aronofsky’s epic telling of the Genesis story of the great flood and the ark, starring Russell Crowe. (Opened March 28.)

• “Heaven Is for Real,” a fact-based story of a Nebraska pastor (Greg Kinnear) whose 4-year-old son claims to see Jesus. (Opened April 16.)

The other thing these films have in common is that they exceeded their box-office expectations — at least the ones set by the movie industry.

For example, the $44 million “Noah” earned on its opening weekend was well above what analysts had predicted it would bring in — which was somewhere around $30 million.

But it still wasn’t enough to satisfy the folks at the Christian-based advocacy group Faith Driven Consumer, which issued a news release at the time chiding Paramount for not taking more of Christians’ money.

“The company’s leadership would be well-advised to consider the tens of millions of dollars they have already left and the hundreds of millions they will potentially be leaving on the table,” the group wrote.

The bewildering logic of this argument — it’s OK to make biblical movies, as long as you’re in it for the money — also points out how a movie with religious themes is judged differently by faith groups than by regular moviegoers.

The rap against “Noah” from faith groups — namely, that it didn’t hew to a strict reading of Genesis — is precisely what made it fascinating to moviegoers and many critics. Aronofsky made an artistic and highly personal interpretation of Noah, using not just the traditional biblical canon but also parts of Judaic and Islamic myths.

In short, because it wasn’t the story we had heard before, it was more interesting as a movie. But it was considered an insult to the faithful.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this sequence of events. The most notorious version was when Martin Scorsese — considered then, as now, one of America’s greatest filmmakers — tackled the story of Jesus, adapting Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

The outcry from Christian groups was loud and vociferous. One of the major complaints is that the movie depicted Jesus (Willem Dafoe) coming down from the cross and living a normal life married to Mary Magdalene. What the complainers ignored is that this was an alternative scenario, a temptation by Satan that Jesus ultimately rejected so he could complete his crucifixion.

For moviegoers, it made Jesus’ sacrifice resonate in ways it hadn’t before on film — because, for the first time, the ending was in doubt.

Movie lovers are looking for something surprising, like “Noah.” The faithful want something comforting and conforming to their beliefs, the way “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven Is for Real” do. Between those extremes, there’s not a lot of common ground.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.