I have a warped ideal about religion. My upbringing was never particularly religion focused. I never went to church unless it was for school (Christmas and Easter services and the like) and never identified as being of a particular faith. My parents label themselves as Church of England followers I believe, but they were never particularly religion focused either.
When it comes to religion and it's portrayal in film I have particular quirks. I will absolutely reject something that targets itself as being about faith, but is merely a way to show sadistic violence on screen - that would be Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ - yet I will gladly dive into the world of the Christian faith in the form of Martin Scorsese's very controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. That film has more faith, spirit and beauty in one scene than Gibson's vile Saw sequel in disguise as a serious film, yet is the one that gets picketted and demonised.
I am also particularly struck by films about religion that mark is a failed and/or flawed. Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters was one of my very favourites of 2003 and there is one scene in that Irish film where one of the young girls sent to the Magdalene Asylum has the chance to escape and hesitates. That scene alone has enough to warrant a discussion, but I don't own it on DVD and didn't want to write about it without it being fresh in my mind. Another film that I feel connects to this theme is Antonia Bird's 1994 film Priest, which deals with a homosexual priest in a small British town. I suggest you see both of those films.
But, no, when it came to writing about faith and film the one movie that stuck out like a sore thumb was, without a doubt, one of the best films of the 1990s and one that not only deals with life, death and what it means to have faith, but even has Satan desiring to reject his evil ways. It's a film that, on the surface, is far from the sort of thing that traditional religious folk would sit down to watch of a peaceful Sunday afternoon - "not a chance in Hell" you might say with a sly smile. Yes, the film that came to mind when it came to faith and film:
I've always thought that South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut had one of my favourite takes on religion. It's idea that Satan - the dark overlord, the Devil, Beelzebub, whatever you want to call him or her(?) - is evil not by nature, but because of the mere fact that he is "Satan" is a fascinating one. And that this man, well whatever it is you want to him it, wants to leave his evil doings is a universal one. How many times have we seen a movie about a frowned upon individual (prostitutes, lawyers, politicians and stock market gurus are the traditional vessels of "i-want-to-be-a-good-person" films) turning their back on the field that caused them to be so corrupt and sinful and to become a better person. Perhaps not a good person - even Satan must know that he can never be perfect - but a better one.
It's almost the most definitive tale of redemption there could ever possibly be. It's why so many films marketed towards the Christian audience are stories of redemption, good overcoming evil. If Satan can turn his back on evil and become better, then surely everyone can, right? My understanding of the Christian faith is just that, but, let's face it, South Park was never and is never going to be the kind of film that religious audiences are going to get behind and rally for. Plus, Satan in South Park is gay! Perhaps that's going too far? Redemption for Satan is okay, redemption for a gay Satan... notsomuch?
The other faith-based aspect of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut that ultimately fascinates me the most though is the way the film deals with the hypocrisy of, not necessary religion in general, but certain people who follow their faith to the ends of the Earth and use it as a defence mechanism for everything that is wrong in the world. One of the recurring jokes - and one that ends up transpiring through a series of events I will let you discover if you have yet to see the movie - is that if the blood of Terrance and Phillip - the foul-mouthed Canadian comedy duo who are obsessed with toilet humour and who inadvertantly teach the kids of South Park to swear incessantly - ever gets spilled onto the land of Earth then it will ignite the fires of Hell and bring about the apocalypse, which is something that Satan's eager sidekick (and lover) Saddam Hussein desires very much, but that Satan is hesitant about. It is the conservative housewife mother that does the dirty deed and descends the world into chaos.
Yet it is Kenny McCormick - a near unintelligible hooded third grader who was sent to Hell after setting himself on fire - who saves South Park's (and the entire world's, natch) predicament before ascending to a boob-filled Heaven. This, to me, is a clear demonstration of the anybody-can-achieve-greatness ideal that I see as a powerful aspect of faith. Any faith. That Jesus Christ was (apparently) an ordinary carpenter (right?) before all that stuff that (apparently) happened just further solidifies South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut as one of the greatest faith-based films ever. Why not Kenny?
The film twists and contorts and transcends the ideals of religion and turns them in on themselves. The film is neither pro or anti religion (although back in 1999 I believe many activist groups believed it was indeed anti-religion and particularly against the Christian faith), but I think it argues for a world of tolerance. It shows that people who follow religion are as flawed as the people who do not. That God, Satan, Heaven and Hell may indeed be real, but nobody is going to get there unless everybody learns to get along. If the religious zealots target people who disagree and the people that disagree target the ones that do then there may as well be no Heaven because the way we're all going nobody is going to get there.
I hope all of that made sense. I only decided to write about this earlier today so I just started writing out a bunch of nonsense. Don't forget to check out the other blog-a-thon participants over at Strange Culture. It'll surely be a doozy!