The Christian Film I Want to Make

Eamonn Clark

Years ago I had a post on the relationship between animation and iconography. The basic point is that the more “data” given by the artist, the more the mind has to overcome the falsehood of the representation. That’s why icons are good for devotion, while realistic images are not.

Ever since, I have been thinking about the Christian film that one day I would like to make.

It is easy to critique the “genre” of Christian film. It is worth doing so. The Church has the truth, so She should also have beauty, no? It is disgraceful that there have been so few good Christian films produced since the medium was invented over 100 years ago.

A few films stand out as masterpieces – yet to my mind, none really hits the mark, for reasons explained in my post on animation. About as close it gets to what I have in mind among color films can be found in the 1959 production, Ben-Hur.

Notice – no words, no face… And yet, it is just about right. In this scene, Christ is on screen for about 2 minutes, and later at the end of the film we see His shadow for a few seconds as He is carrying the Cross. But somehow the entire film is about Christ nonetheless, and it drives that fact home much more efficaciously than many films that portray the entire Gospel narrative. What if the Ben-Hur style of depicting Christ was used to tell the whole Gospel story? Food for thought.

So, to my dream-film. Would it be animated? No. “Moving iconography”? Closer.

I invite the reader to do an exercise. Take a quick look at any recent film about the life of Christ. (For example, this one.) Consider: how does it affect you?

Now, there is a website (here) dedicated to old Christian films – take a look at the film “No Greater Power” (skip to about the 18 minute mark). Watch it for a bit. Notice the difference?

Now rewind, turn the sound off, and play something ambient and mildly dramatic, like this, or maybe this, and give it a watch…

Now go back to the first film.

Which of the three models did you prefer? If you are like me, it is the third. The selective realism allows freedom for the mind to move to God rather than focusing as much on the film itself. If the point is to make a movie, then maybe the first model is best. But “making a movie” would not be the point. Nor would it be making money – as is what unfortunately drives Hollywood and much of the Christian movie industry as well. Cheap budget makes big bucks if you have the “right message” – it is going to be picked up by millions of people to show their children, to show their youth group, etc. That’s the point. But they do not evangelize.

For anyone with a moderate amount of knowledge of the events of the Gospel narrative, I think my model could work, at least for many people.

So, the film would be black and white (or some version of sepia), silent (or mostly silent), with semi-ambient music designed to draw the viewer into the moment of the scene, and be very limited and obscure in the portrayal of Christ, especially leaving the full view of His Face just out of sight. All this helps to conjure – rather than replace – the memory of the real event and the real persons, allowing for a more authentic use of the medium of film for an encounter with God by freeing the mind from the burden of the senses. In a word, it’s contemplative, like an icon.

One day someone will be kind enough (and foolish enough?) to give me the money needed to do such a project. Until then, it’s nice to dream.

Animation & Iconography

There is a charming story told about St. Bernadette, the Lourdes visionary. After the apparitions were well over, people wanted to know what Mary looked like, especially to construct a statue for the Grotto. She gave a sculptor as many details as she could remember, but the result dissatisfied her: “That is not Our Lady!” She was then brought all kinds of paintings – Our Lady of This and That, and whatnot. None of them matched her memory. Finally, she picked up a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. “That is the Blessed Virgin!”

Our Lady of Perpetual Help

The “non-realism” of icons, at its root, is a sign of respect for the mystery of the holiness of the subject being depicted. It leaves something to the imagination, as if to say “it is impossible to depict the reality, you must go find it for yourself.” It is revelation through negation, perhaps what we could call a “weak apophatic” mysticism. The medium also allows for one to emphasize certain features of a subject as a symbol.

Icons are never “drawn” or “painted,” they are always “written,” like a word. The goal is not to capture the reality so much as it is to start one down the right path to a real encounter with the subject, and ultimately with God. There is great value in this. We would find it odd to have a devotional picture of someone posing as the Blessed Mother… We do not find it odd to have an icon, which is “less realistic” but is still somehow much more accurate, as St. Bernadette would affirm.

One might call to mind many scriptural corollaries to this – the ubiquitous treatment of “seeing God” as difficult or impossible, the veil over Moses’ face, the gradual progression from Law to Spirit… And, if you pay close attention to the Gospels, almost no miracle of Christ takes place in direct visibility – it’s always in the midst of chaos, in a storm, in a cloud, inside a body, etc. This is why a scene like this – while well done in other ways – might feel a little “off”:

If this is what His miracles looked like, He may as well have flown around Jerusalem (Mt. 4: 5-7) and been done with it.

This whole issue of the delicacy of mystical imagery is particularly poignant in film, where actual people who we know are not “real” become stand-ins: they do the walking, talking – all of it. Sometimes this is helpful. But no matter how good an actor or director is, you know that “this is not how it actually looked, and that’s not actually Jesus/Mary/etc.” If you want an “authentic picture,” you have to do more work in a way because you need to deconstruct what is being shown and then stick to a mostly shapeless image in your mind.

For these reasons, I want to suggest that the art of animation gets a largely undeserved bad rap, or is at least not given enough serious attention.

This is an absolutely wonderful bit from The Prince of Egypt. The film has a pretty killer soundtrack, but the step back from the “big orchestra” pieces here is particularly effective. The lyrics are a play off of the song which is sung by Moses and the Israelites after the crossing of the Red Sea. Most important, however, is the symbolic imagery – notice especially the moment at 0:38, as a type of the Crucifixion. All of this achieved through “a kid’s medium”… Still very moving, no?

Compare and contrast with the same scene from a live-action film (go to about 1:14:00):

Here is another example of religious animation done extremely well, telling the story of Bl. Joan of Aza giving birth to her son, St. Dominic:

This short wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t animated. Think about it. There’s an ethereal character to it that allows for the strange to be beautiful in a way that live-action characters would render impossible. (It would end up looking more like this, which wouldn’t seem right.)

These are just a few examples. But it is clear that the “unreal” can achieve certain goods that the “real” can’t, especially with spiritual realities which are distant (or “unreal”) to our intuitions.

In art class in elementary school, we often thought the goal of painting, drawing, etc. was to make the work look as similar to the subject as possible. Maybe this attitude never quite left some of us. And maybe it’s time it did, especially if we are using art to evangelize or catechize.


Post by: Eamonn Clark