Hollywood rediscovers its faith

By Nick Allen in Los Angeles

Russell Crowe builds an ark and saves mankind as the star of Noah.
Russell Crowe builds an ark and saves mankind as the star of Noah.

The saint-like image of a hooded woman looms out from the movie poster, her arms outstretched as a divine light bursts from the sky. A message written above is simple and unambiguous: "You Will Believe."

So goes the promotional campaign for the forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster Mary Mother of Christ.

"It is a part of Mary, Joseph and Jesus' life that has not been shown on the big screen before," reads a synopsis. "Under the reign of terror of Herod the Great and, against all odds, they survive as young parents in one of the most treacherous times in history."

It promises "faith-based high action drama" - and there is no room in the audience for doubting Thomases.

Mary Mother of Christ, whose title character will be played by Odeya Rush, a 16-year-old Israeli-born actress, is one of a series of unashamedly Christian biblical epics due to appear next year, marking an unprecedented Hollywood overture to America's evangelical heartland.

Studio executives who have been releasing superhero and zombie films have, it seems, had an epiphany. Now their new best friends are evangelical pastors whose endorsements they seek, even inviting them on to sets during production. Pastors in turn play clips from films of which they approve to their congregations.

Larry Ross, who has handled publicity for Christian leaders including Rick Warren and Billy Graham, said pastors would recommend a movie if it "proves edifying to their congregation, if it builds their faith".

In March, audiences will be treated to Noah, a US$150 million ($183.5 million) effects-laden extravaganza, in which Russell Crowe will build an ark and rescue mankind from the Great Flood.

Noah will be followed by Sir Ridley Scott's Exodus, in which Christian Bale, as Moses, will part the Red Sea.

Another movie of Moses' life, called Gods and Kings is also planned. Steven Spielberg was to have made it, but he has been replaced by Ang Lee, who won the Best Director Oscar this year for Life of Pi.

Meanwhile, Son of God will tell the story of Jesus' life, with Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado in the lead role. Will Smith is said to be planning a film based on the story of Cain and Abel, and Brad Pitt is rumoured to be playing Pontius Pilate in a separate project. There will also be Resurrection, in which a Roman soldier is sent to investigate Christ's death. It has been likened to Gladiator, "with a mystery bent".

Phil Cooke, a filmmaker and media consultant to Christian organisations, said Hollywood's epiphany had financial, not spiritual, origins.

"What's happened is they've understood it's very good business to take Christians seriously, and this is a real serious market," he said.

"For years, Hollywood bent over backwards to reach special interest groups, be it feminists or environmentalists. It has finally realised that there are 91 million evangelical Christians in America."

For their part, studio executives have taken something of a leap of faith that films in which religious figures save the world will bring big box office receipts.

That faith is based in no small part on the success of The Bible, a television mini-series shown on the History channel this year, which averaged 11.4 million viewers and became America's most watched cable show of 2013.

"It made the Bible cool to talk about again," said Cooke. "The separation of church and state in America is so strong that people had become afraid to talk about God at work or at school."

Since the days of epics such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments more than 50 years ago, Hollywood and America's Christian areas have rarely seen eye to eye. A low point was Martin Scorsese's 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, which included sex scenes and flopped after Roman Catholics led a boycott.

But in 2004 Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ achieved great commercial success, thanks partly to the endorsement of prominent Christians such as Rev Billy Graham.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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