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Religion and Film: An Introduction

Religion and Film: An Introduction by Melanie J. Wright (I.B. Taurus, 2006), 256 pages, ISBN: 1850438862 (hardback), £47.50; ISBN: 9781850438861 (paperback), £14.99

About the reviewer: Dr Miles Booy was awarded his PhD by the University of East Anglia for his work on questions of authority in the representation of Christ in film. He is the author of Love and Monsters: The Doctor Who Experience, 1979 to the Present (IB Tauris, 2012) and his other publications include contributions to The Cult TV Book (2010).

There’s a lengthy, if sporadic, back-catalogue of writing on film and religion – largely Christianity – often originating from lesser-known American universities in the southern states. Largely the work of professional theologians or Religious Studies scholars, the theoretical conceptions of film and the historical understanding of its institutions were usually naive in the extreme. The writing barely made any impact on Film Studies and you’d be lucky to find the relevant volumes in a British university library. Melanie Wright’s book springs from this tradition, in as much as she reviews it as preceding literature, and her introductory chapter forms as good an overview of the work as anyone is likely to spend time reconstructing. This review lacks the space to fully overview this ‘lost tradition’ of film scholarship, but if you want to track it down, Wright’s work and bibliography provide all the sources.

Where Wright’s book differs from her predecessors is that nuanced theological knowledge is allied to a solid grasp of film theory and history. Her accounts of (for example) autuerism, classical narrative, audience research theory and how trailers can position a film for a certain reading are all solidly informed. It is to those who come from Religious Studies/theology and want to analyse film that Wright primarily addresses herself, and the book admirably provides the conceptual apparatus they were almost certainly missing. With such groundwork solidly in place, Wright argues that a cultural Studies methodology offers enough common ground to both Film and Religious Studies to form a basis for an analysis satisfying to both.

But if the methodological thinking offers nothing new to film students and scholars, the readings of the films themselves, bring fresh touches to old debates. DeMille’s Christianising of the Exodus in both versions of The Ten Commandments (1923; remade 1956) is discussed with a depth and nuance beyond the accounts normally provided by film studies. The mixture/clash of religions evident in The Wicker Man (1973) and Keeping the Faith (2000) are expertly detailed and analysed. Anglo-Asian cinema and Bollywood are also discussed. Those who study – or simply love – these films will want to add these readings to their collections.

So, a largely irrelevant tradition of academic film analysis – one so theoretically impoverished as to barely warrant the term ‘tradition’ – ups its game and reaches intellectual credibility. For a film module on a Religious Studies course, this could easily form the staple textbook.  Will Film Studies want to engage, though? Historically, the answer has been ‘…no, not really, we’ve got higher priorities right now’. It’s hard to see that answer changing, though the reasons why it perhaps should are surprisingly obvious. Western academics’ engagement with, for example, Iranian and Indian cinema will remain superficial without an appreciation of the religious iconographies and experiences which inform so much of them. In America, of course, the next Passion of the Christ (2004) may be just around the corner. ‘Religion and film’ has hardly seemed less marginal. Not just an excellent book, then, but a timely and much-required one.

Dr Miles Booy

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