By Piet Levy
Religion News Service
(RNS) Celebrity sightings and up-and-coming indie flicks are a given at the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, but this year something else is drawing attraction on the red carpet: faith on film.
A small but noticeable number of films at Sundance -- where crossover movies like Reservoir Dogs and Little Miss Sunshine broke into the mainstream -- tackle issues of religion, spirituality and faith.
Out of 120 Sundance features scheduled to show at the Jan. 20-30 festival, 12 are overt stories about religion, or chronicle protagonists largely defined by faith, says John Nein, senior programmer for the festival.
"There are definitely more films (exploring spirituality) that ended up in the program this year than in years past," he said, noting an uptick in the number of submissions that touch on religious themes.
Christianity is a central theme in most of the films, from the star-studded satire Salvation Boulevard, featuring Pierce Brosnan as a popular preacher who frames a born-again Christian follower for a crime, to the riveting documentary The Redemption of General Butt Naked, about a Liberian warlord-turned-preacher facing the loved ones of people he killed.
The Italian film Lost Kisses centers around a Sicilian community's reaction to a 13-year-old girl who may perform miracles. Two films explore Christianity and Islam, with Kinyarwanda set during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and the documentary Position Among The Stars tracing the lives of an impoverished family in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The Japanese Abraxas focuses on a depressed Zen monk who reconnects with punk rock, while the bizarre American comedy The Catechism Cataclysm centers on a priest who loves heavy metal music.
Three American narrative features -- Martha Marcy May Marlene, Kevin Smith's horror film Red State and Vera Farmiga's directorial debut Higher Ground -- are concerned with cults and religious sects on the fringe.
Religion, of course, isn't totally new territory for Sundance -- previous fest fare included Saved!, Jesus Camp and Shape of the Moon, a precursor to this year's Position Among The Stars.
Most Sundance religious fare tended to be satirical or derisive -- with Saved! a prime example -- said Dick Staub, author of The Culturally Savvy Christian and a columnist for Religion News Service, who has participated in the Windrider Film Forums around Sundance that bring together directors and audiences to talk about faith on film.
William L. Blizek, founding editor of the Journal of Religion and Film and professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said religion may have a higher profile at Sundance this year because "religion has become a much more visible part of our culture."
"Now that you've got a culture that is more open to the discussion of religion, you get more movies (exploring religion)," he says, citing Mitt Romney, President Obama and others who are defined in the public's eye by their faith.
With more openness toward religion, there is more freedom to make movies about it, some Sundance filmmakers say.
Position director Leonard Retel Helmrich says he tried pitching documentaries dealing with religious themes in the '80s and '90s in his native Netherlands but could not get financing until recently. Flash forward to 2010 and "Catechism" director Todd Rohal said there were no concerns from funders that his film had a priest for a protagonist or a "ridiculous" Catholic-infused title.
Sundance's Nein said this year's selections "indicate a wide array of approaches" toward religion, including politics and current events, blatant inspiration (Salvation and Red State) and more personal stories of redemption and soul-searching (Tyrannosaur, about a Christian charity worker, and The Ledge, a thriller where a woman wrestles with her personal faith).
Some films highlight the connection between religion and society while still telling personal stories.
Helmrich, whose family has ties to Indonesia and both Islam and Christianity, was drawn to making a documentary about the lives of a Muslim family with a Christian matriarch in the nation's most populous Islamic country.
Butt Naked is a personal story of a man seeking redemption after a 14-year civil war had killed 250,000 Liberians. Several scenes show the allegedly reformed warlord face-to-face with relatives of his victims, but why and how they forgive is left to the viewer to speculate, along with the question of whether such a sinner can truly be redeemed.
"We were interested in knowing if somebody made a transformation this extreme, what would it look like?" said co-director Daniele Anastasion.
"...How much do you have to do to balance the scales? Is it even possible to balance the scales?"
The Films At Sundance Exploring Religion
Following is a brief synopsis of the major films dealing with faith, religion or spirituality at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival:
Abraxas -- A depressed Buddhist monk tries to reconnect with his punk rock past.
The Catechism Cataclysm -- A young priest who's lost touch with his flock reconnects with a high school acquaintance for a canoe trip.
Higher Ground -- Vera Farmiga, the Oscar-nominated actress from Up In The Air, directs and stars in this movie about a woman seeking answers from a fundamentalist Christian community.
Kinyarwanda -- The first dramatic feature film produced by Rwandans intertwines six accounts of survival during the Rwandan genocide, including stories about a priest and an imam.
The Ledge -- An atheist says he must leap off a building by noon in a thriller that also examines the life of a woman seeking spiritual redemption.
Lost Kisses -- Residents in a Sicilian community suspect a 13-year-old girl has a miraculous vision.
Martha Marcy May Marlene -- A woman who fled a dangerous cult tries to return to a life of normalcy.
Position Among The Stars -- The final installment of a documentary trilogy that follows the life of a Christian matriarch living with her Muslim sons in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The Redemption of General Butt Naked -- A former Liberian warlord who's responsible for the murder of thousands seeks salvation and forgiveness as an evangelical preacher in this documentary.
Red State -- Kevin Smith, who caused controversy with his scathing comedy Dogma, tries out horror with this film about dangerous Christian fundamentalists.
Salvation Boulevard -- George Ratliff, director of the documentary Hell House about a church-run haunted house, directs this satire of megachurch culture. Starring Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Marisa Tomei and Ed Harris.
Tyrannosaur -- Actor Paddy Considine (In America) makes his
directorial debut with this story of a self-destructive man who seeks redemption with help from a Christian charity worker.