2019: The year in reviews

Religious themes graced an unusual number of notable films in 2019, which may be the best movie year of the decade — with one notable caveat.

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

An exquisite art-house film about a beatified martyr. The triumphant arrival of a belated documentary of a celebrated gospel concert. A fact-based drama about an alliance of devout and unbelieving survivors of clerical sex abuse calling for justice.

These are just a few of an unusually large crop of notable films that tackled religious and spiritual themes in 2019.

Prayer, clerical characters, and church services and liturgical celebrations featured in several films, from the baptism and confession scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman to Tom Hanks’ Mr. Rogers praying for all the members of the Vogel family by name in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

There was a revisionist Jesus indie. A Harriet Tubman biopic that treated Tubman’s faith and mystical experiences as a kind of superpower. A documentary about an influential priest who served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and marched with Martin Luther King Jr.

There were also, of course, a number of faith-based films, produced within the “Christian film” industry. Among these were the fact-based medical-miracle drama Breakthrough, the sports movie Overcomer and the abortion-themed conversion story Unplanned, based on Abby Johnson’s memoir.

All of these were embraced by the faithful and did well at the box office, though like most faith-based films they continued the trend of preaching to the choir.

Still, the film’s unavoidable pro-life implications have caused discomfort, perhaps even cognitive dissonance, among some of its supporters. At Sundance a leading New York film critic, while acknowledging the film’s achievements, expressed concern about how the U.S. “extreme right” might respond to it — an indication, for me, of the film’s moral power.

The revered filmmaker Terrence Malick is a Christian and the religious themes in his work are very deliberate, but his films speak powerfully to cinephiles of other faiths and of none. His latest celebrates the life and death of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a devout Austrian Catholic executed in 1943 for refusing to swear the soldier’s oath of allegiance to Hitler, and declared a martyr and beatified in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI.

A somewhat different case: In cataloguing the horrors of China’s crimes against humanity, the critically acclaimed documentary One Child Nation bears startling witness to the human dignity of discarded fetuses found in alleys and garbage dumps, above all in the work of the visual artist Peng Wang, the film’s most eloquent voice of conscience.

I found this the most powerfully pro-life message on American screens in 2019, though the filmmakers didn’t set out to make a statement about abortion itself. On the contrary, late in the film is a glib throwaway line unconvincingly comparing efforts to restrict abortion in the U.S. with China’s policies of forced abortions and sterilizations.

Still, the film’s unavoidable pro-life implications have caused discomfort, perhaps even cognitive dissonance, among some of its supporters. At Sundance a member of the New York film community, while acknowledging the film’s achievements, expressed concern about how the U.S. “extreme right” might respond to it — an indication, for me, of the film’s moral power.

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