LOCKDOWN TV SERIES
by Symeon J. Thompson
Back in the day, what is now called “faith-based filmmaking” was a mainstay of mainstream cinema. Saint stories like The Song of Bernadette or “sword and sandal epics” like Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments were commercial and critical hits, as normal as detective stories or rom-coms. That time has passed and it is rare to see Hollywood tackle religious subjects.
Some filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese with Japanese martyrdom psycho-drama Silence or Mel Gibson with war epic Hacksaw Ridge, or even Darren Aronofsky’s Jewish-inspired Noah cover religious content, but they’re major filmmakers with a lot of money and power behind them.
This is not the case in non-Western cinema. Indian cinema, in particular, has a major role for religious-based stories. Hindu dramas lend themselves to grand spectacles and Sikh military prowess is innately cinematic – as was seen in last year’s Kesari, based on the true story of 21 Sikh soldiers who held off thousands of tribal warriors in defence of the British Raj.
In the West it is easy to claim the reason for the decline is the decline in religious observance. This certainly has some merit and goes to debates about how religions should interact with culture – but that’s a matter for another time.
What the overall situation means for the hard heads that provide the money for movie-making is that they see a fractured market that is unlikely to pay the sort of money necessary to actually make a movie.
Movies are expensive to make and market; and studios, at the end of the day, are in a financially high-risk position. For every blockbuster a studio puts out, there are plenty of films that don’t make their production budget back, let alone their marketing one.
As a result, faith-based film-making has become a genre in its own right. And it is rarely a good thing for a genre to become so broad that it is all encompassing. For instance, Russian cinema is seen as a genre and, while there may be commonalities in Russian movies, this can become an excuse not to bother with little things like competent storytelling.
A similar situation exists with online publishing, where micro-targeting means a writer needs only to fulfil the requirements of a tiny subset of readers because, as long as they pay, nothing else matters.
The past artistic and commercial success of religious stories was because they were not siloed off in their own little box but were part of the cinematic mainstream and so they had the same expectations as anything else.
Two main approaches were adopted to get over the alienation an audience can feel when con-fronted with stories geared around religious protagonists and Gospel narratives that were well known. The first approach was to have peripheral characters as the narrator, allowing the audience to connect with them rather than with the saint. The other was to reset the story in a more contemporary time or tone. This is part of why much medieval and renaissance religious art is in contemporary dress.
Both approaches allow people more easily to see themselves in the story as it occurs. Orson Welles even planned a version of the Gospel narrative, using only text from the Gospels but set in a Wild West sort of environment, as a deliberate attempt to get people to think about the stories they would hear every week.
Streaming series The Chosen takes a similar tack. It dramatises the life of Jesus (Jonathan Roumie, pictured) by focusing on Jesus’ followers and how and why they are chosen.
Central to the series are the investigations of respected Pharisee Nicodemus (Erick Avari) after he discovers a true miracle – a woman possessed so strongly by demons that his efforts to help her fail, and yet a few days later she is seen happy and well, and going by her true name again: Mary (Elizabeth Tabish) of Magadala.
The characters are arguably modern and, while there are efforts to ensure historical and biblical accuracy, there is a distinct impression the aim is connection over historicity.
Creator Dallas Jenkins has even found a creative way to fund the project. The Chosen is the most successful crowdfunded film in history and, rather than having viewers pay for the series directly, they can choose to pay for others to watch it, and to invest in future episodes. This model frees the creatives from external studio control while also ensuring production costs are covered.
Simply by fleshing out the biblical narratives competently and focusing on the human element Jenkins has managed to make something relatable and engaging. It will be interesting to see how it develops over time.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).