Many of the films produced by explicitly Christian companies struggle to gain an artistry that puts it on the same level as great works of art–or even of popular commercial films. Great films are rare because they are so hard to create, but it’s even harder to make a great film about faith, because faith is an interior reality that is hard to show exteriorly.
I find it encouraging that a good number of Christian-themed films have been made this year and last year, and the Christian filmmakers are growing in skill and making better movies. This past week, I viewed two films produced by Pure Flix, whose success with God’s Not Dead in 2014 has pushed them forward to produce and distribute a number of films this year. Although neither of the two film is great art, they aren’t great, but aren’t terrible either. Even being somewhat preachy, they can inspire.
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Several years ago, a homeless man on the street asked me to bless them, and in the conversation that followed, I found that I was deeply blessed by my encounter with him. Do You Believe? begins with the story that reminds me of that moment: a Christian pastor drives past a street-corner preacher who is dragging a cross through the city streets asking, “Do you believe in the cross of Christ?” When the pastor replies, “I’m a pastor,” the street preacher replies, “If you believe, what are you going to do about it?” This becomes the question that the deeply touched pastor brings back to his congregation. Through his questioning of the depth of his own faith, and the ways the members of the congregation respond to his challenging question, twelve people’s lives are changed.
Do You Believe? has multiple storylines with various characters in crisis—from an EMT who is sued for talking about Jesus to a man who dies in a car accident, to a runaway pregnant teen, to a soldier suffering from PTSD, to a young woman desperate for connection who is contemplating suicide. The finale is an intertwined resolution of most of the major storylines.
Artistically, Do You Believe? has some issues in part because it’s so ambitious: it’s really, really hard to pull off close to a dozen storylines without seeming contrived. (The multiple storyline has become more common but only great filmmakers really pull it off well—like Crash written and directed by Paul Haggis; Do the Right Thing directed by Spike Lee, or some of Robert Altman’s films. Other films have attempted it with some success: Clint Eastwood in Hereafter, and the film Cloud Atlas, which really didn’t work for me.)
In Do You Believe?, the crises of the characters ring true overall, because much of the acting is credible and occasionally riveting, beginning with the small role of the street preacher portrayed convincingly by Delroy Lindo. Sean Astin, Mira Sorvino, and many other actors do a wonderful job of portraying wounded and vulnerable human beings. The film’s believability is stretched too far when the resolutions of the problems are a bit too convenient, especially the contrived intertwining multiple storyline resolutions at the end.
Overall, this is a film that really delves into the pain of human existence and emphasizes that faith needs to be expressed in our lives, that the Cross doesn’t mean that we’re happy all the time, but that belief in the Cross of Christ must be lived: choosing to do the loving thing and trusting that God will work things out. Do You Believe? is rated PG-13 by the . Its mature themes are not so much problematic for young teens and pre-teens, but that these younger audience can’t really appreciate the struggles the characters go through because of these issues. Rather than see this as a family film, I’d recommend it for families with older teens rather than younger ones.
Faith of Our Fathers, on the other hand, is primarily a road trip film, with a powerful parallel story about two soldiers in the Vietnam War. The backstory is beautifully set up with credits introducing the stories of two men leaving their wives to fight in the Vietnam War in 1969. As the film opens in the present day, the son of one of the soldiers (neither returned from the war) discovers mementos of his dad, including a letter from a good friend of his father’s. He goes to find the friend, discovers that the friend also died in the war, but that his son has some letters that refer to his dad which he is willing to share—for a price. These two men appear to share nothing in common–except a longing to know more about their fathers, so they start off on a road trip from Mississippi to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The road trip becomes torturous for the characters but also, unfortunately, for the viewer, due to a lack of credibility in some of the acting and coincidences.
The real potential of this film is the parallel between the stories of the fathers as they get to know each other in Vietnam, and their sons as they read through the letters together and also get to know each other. In both friendships, one man shares his faith with the other. Although the film falls short artistically in multiple places, robbing it of the power it could have had, there are still some moments that feel genuine and can be moving, especially for those who already have faith.
Faith of Our Fathers is also rated PG-13 for the war violence, but with its less mature themes it could easily be seen by a family with younger teens and maybe even pre-teens, according to parents’ discretion.
Pure Flix offers free resources online for both films: scene clips and sermons for Faith of Our Fathers and group reflection and discussion guides for Do You Believe?–an added benefit to watching the film as a means to reflect and grow in faith.
Both of these films suffer artistically for different reasons, requiring some patience to put up with some preachiness and their assumption that they audience is Christian. But both also have some genuinely moving moments. Even flawed films can remind us of the importance of faith in our lives—and if we’re inspired by just one moment in the film, it can be well worth watching the entire film. What I also find inspiring is the courage and integrity of the actors, producers, writers, and directors who are willing to put themselves out there as Christian filmmakers—who could be making a lot more money doing other kinds of movies, but have chosen to do this kind of film.
I would affirm—with our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, a media pioneer who recognized the urgency of evangelizing with the media back in the early 20th century—that films about the Gospel need to be “worthy in form of the truths which they contain.” We have some serious work to do and grow as Christian artists.