Having a message need not spoil the medium

By on March 1, 2008

“Hail, thou ever-blessed morn! Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!”
(From a hymn by Edward Caswall, 1858)

The release in recent months of a spate of faith-based films poses a quandary for filmgoers. It is simply this: Can a faith-based message happily co-exist with good storytelling? Or, will the very presence of a religious sensibility spoil the filmmaking by yielding heavy-handed, didactic, or preachy offspring? The answer, surprisingly, seems to be that having a message need not spoil the medium. The imprints under which such films are released – like Fox Faith and Believe Pictures – are the first hint that there’s a moral, faith-informed, message at work. And, there’s no denying the presence of a certain earnest wholesomeness in such fare. But that’s a characteristic that is rather welcome (and rare) in a boundless cinematic sea dominated by the coarse, the bleak, and the soulless. What is more, these films can, and do, tell involving stories that engage our emotions.

[pullquote]Set in 1850 Appalachia, The Last Sin Eater involves a community of Welsh immigrants who cling to the superstitious notion that one of their number – chosen by lot for the role and thereafter consigned to becoming an outcast – can absolve his fellows of their earthly sins by symbolically taking those transgressions upon himself. But the heart of the story concerns a 10-year-old girl, convincingly played by Liana Liberato, who is tormented by guilt over the accidental death of her younger sister. Themes of sin, guilt, and forgiveness permeate the story, but that doesn’t diminish its impact one whit. On the contrary, it works remarkably well as a drama, as a character study, and as a redemptive tale – with strong performances by its young lead and such supporting players as Louise Fletcher and Henry Thomas.

Then there’s The Ultimate Gift, which concerns a spoiled, shallow young man, who is bequeathed an unexpected series of life lessons by his late grandfather’s will. What unfolds is not always subtle, but it is buoyed by a solid cast: Well-known actors like James Garner and Brian Dennehy are along for the ride, but the heavy lifting is done by younger cast members – and they are more than up to the challenge. The result is a positive redemptive journey that will hook you – despite yourself (and despite teetering on occasion too near the precipice of hokeyness). And there are stops along the way for romance, humour, sorrow, and loss.

For its part, Saving Sarah Cain presents us with a big city newspaper columnist who suddenly inherits five orphaned nieces and nephews – kids she has never met before, who just happen to be Amish. With appealing performances and an effective relationship story, it has the ability to inspire (and bring a few tears to the eye), without being heavy-handed about its roots in religious faith.

What all of those films – and others (we haven’t even mentioned the five films in the Love Comes Softly series) – have in common is a preoccupation with redemption.

They are not overtly about the forgiveness of our sins by God, though that is, to varying degrees, implicit in these stories. No, what is front and centre here is redemption in the sense of mending what is broken, healing what has been hurt, and retrieving what is worthwhile from the depths of the human psyche. These characters “make good” by doing good for others; they find fulfillment by finding what is best within themselves. And, in the end, what could be more dramatically satisfying, more emotionally engaging, and more cathartically inspiring than that?

John Arkelian is a writer, film critic, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.

Copyright © 2008 by John Arkelian.

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  • John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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