Oscar Gets Religion: 7 Categories We’d Like to See

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David O. Russell, director of American Hustle, tells of the relations between religious worlds and worlds of film:

Worlds are everything to me. When I would see my Bronx relatives or my Brooklyn relatives . . . I’d be on the outside of it, whether it was a bar mitzvah or a Catholic confirmation. My parents had renounced both their traditions. So I’d watch these events from the outside with great fascination. I said, “They had a ‘thing.’ They’re inside of a ‘thing.’” Some of my relatives in the outer boroughs became my greatest resource—because their worlds were so specific—and I now say, “This is magic.” Those people are living life so passionately. They’re living something real.

Russell is intrigued by the ways rituals and communities form worlds onto themselves, accessible to some, and mostly inaccessible to others. He calls this reality magic, and it’s just what he’s after on screen.

What Russell further offers is a way to think about religion and film in ways that are not limited to whether or not Jesus, Noah, or God Almighty is a character. Religious worlds are like cinematic worlds, and audience participation allows glimpses and crossings from one world, one “thing,” to the next. Here is passion, reality, and little supernatural or biblical needs to be in place.

With such an understanding of religion’s relation to film, I offer a different way of conceiving last year’s films religiously. In this way, we can think about what films might offer an understanding of religious traditions.

 

Plate’s Picks for Religion Oscars

Best Hero’s Journey:

(tie) 12 Years a Slave, Gravity – Every other film in the world is a hero’s journey, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be retold in amazing ways.

 

 

Best Portrayal of the Complexity of Tradition:

Grandmaster – Wong Kar Wai’s martial arts tale of honor and revenge subtly shows the ways traditions are always in process of being remade, remixed, and shuffled.

 

 

Best Creation of Mythology:

 Epic – Wild and wooly characters, human and not, bound together in the battle of chaos and cosmos, through the congruence of worlds.

 

 

Best Sense of the Sacred in the Everyday:

Enough Said – This film just felt “real,” as if its world was not, in fact, all that separate from the viewers’ world. The magic of the mundane.

 

 

Best Ethical Compunction:

The Wolf of Wall Street – Makes us wonder if justice only occurs in the worlds on screen; made by one of the most famous ex-Catholic filmmakers.

 

 

Best Re-Use of Ritual:

Nebraska – A pilgrimage story where the journey is as important as the destination. Payne’s film takes its place in a line of familial pilgrimage films: Smoke Signals, Le Grand Voyage, and The Straight Story.

 

 

Best Iconography:

The Wind Rises – May be Miyazaki’s last film, but like all his works, the images stick long after the show is over, bridging the gaps between worlds on screen and off screen, even when animated.

 

 

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. His most recent book is A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects, from Beacon Press. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.

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