A Christian critic wrestles with new biblical films and the hope of a better ‘faith-based’ cinema

Faith-based films. (Edel Rodriguez / For the Times)

By Justin Chang

My reservations have little to do with standard criticisms like awkward performances or clunky production values — venial sins, surely, for new filmmakers trying to find their way. What rankles about a cinematic sermon like “Letters to God” or a morally offensive wartime drama like “Little Boy” isn’t the mediocrity of the craft; it’s the calculation inherent in the enterprise. There’s a smug complacency with which these movies preach a message ostensibly meant to set the world passionately ablaze.

How much value are we willing to ascribe to a work of art simply because it aligns with our beliefs? And how much can we trust our tears? Any honest believer who has sat through a worship service has certainly asked whether they are hearing the authentic voice of God or simply being emotionally manipulated by the music — and then proceeded to wonder if the two might not, somehow, be one and the same.

I certainly can’t say whether the swells of emotion I felt while watching “Paul, Apostle of Christ” are attributable to the Holy Spirit or simply a competent level of artistry by all involved, and I’m not terribly interested in parsing the difference. By far the most intelligent, absorbing and stirring of these three movies, writer-director Andrew Hyatt’s well-acted drama of imprisonment and martyrdom implicitly rebukes the “God’s Not Dead” franchise by reminding us what actual persecution looks like. It returns us to a vision of ancient Rome (the film was shot on location in Malta) where some of Christ’s earliest followers were routinely burned alive in the streets or condemned to death in the arena.

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