Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Behold! Bible Stories Are Back

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Behold! Bible Stories Are Back

Article excerpt

God is a whale of a storyteller. From the Garden of Eden to the Great Flood to the resurrection of Christ, he's got the best material.

So it's no wonder that religious themes have dominated the arts for centuries, from the first fireside odes to the new film "Exodus: Gods and Kings."

Yet in Hollywood, where the prevailing god is called Moolah, Bible stories have drifted in and out of fashion. After World War II, when the movie industry was threatened by an infidel called television, the studios responded with big-screen religious epics: "Samson and Delilah," "The Robe, "The Greatest Story Ever Told." In "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur," square-jawed Charlton Heston was the embodiment of Christian might. Adjusted for inflation, "Ben- Hur" is still among the top 20 box-office hits, and no film has bested its total of 11 Academy Awards.

In the iconoclastic '60s, religion receded from movie theaters. One of the biggest hits of the '70s was "The Exorcist," which expressed the battle between good and evil in R-rated terms and left its priestly protagonists dazed and confused.

In the new millennium, religious films have returned to theaters with a vengeance. For that we can credit Mel Gibson. The star of the "Mad Max" movies was raised in a conservative Catholic home that rejected modern refinements such as the English-language Mass. At the height of his Hollywood success, Gibson bet heavily on his dream project, a violent re-creation of Christ's crucifixion, in the authentic Aramaic language of the era.

When the studios declined to distribute the film, Gibson did it himself, and in 2004, "The Passion of the Christ" became the most profitable independent film ever.

Gibson's direct-marketing strategy enlisted clergy to evangelize for the film. Although it didn't pan out for the uncompleted "Chronicles of Narnia" series, the strategy is still employed today. Recent faith-based movies such as "Son of God," "Heaven is For Real" and "God's Not Dead" have successfully bypassed the traditional publicity apparatus - such as screenings for critics - to preach directly to the choir. (Evidently, it doesn't matter to the distributors that Kirk Cameron's new film "Saving Christmas" is literally the worst-reviewed movie in history, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes.)

Ever mindful of the marketplace, Hollywood took note of the faith phenomenon and raised the stakes. Earlier this year, Darren Aronofsky's big-budget "Noah" was supposed to satisfy faithful and film-buff audiences alike. But its break-even performance at the box office left Hollywood hanging.

And now there is "Exodus," Ridley Scott's bigger-budget take on "The Ten Commandments." British actor Christian Bale, best known as the dark avenger Batman, plays the Jewish emancipator Moses. The effects, as expected, are spectacular. …

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