Movies are seldom articles of faith. Yes, they ask us to suspend disbelief, but only long enough to buy into the comet hurtling toward Earth, the maniac with the knife, the love that will ever be true. Much rarer are the films that wrangle with the big questions: Does God exist? When do religious beliefs become political? How does one reconcile faith and sin?
Hollywood tends to shy away from such subjects, if only because one moviegoer’s creed can be another’s blasphemy. But a few filmmakers with early-’70s roots continue to obsess over what it means to believe. Martin Scorsese’s pageant-like biopic Kundun probes whether religious leaders like the Dalai Lama owe anything to the secular world, while Robert Duvall’s fascinating, eccentric The Apostle shows a Southern-fried preacher stumbling toward atonement. Both are joined on video by The Exorcist 25th Anniversary Special Edition, a rerelease of William Friedkin’s 1973 film that, in its own crass way, brought questions of faith back into the pop culture.
Yeah, I know, most people don’t think of Exorcist that way, but rather as a seminal fright flick — the first modern, F/X-heavy shriek-o-rama. But both William Peter Blatty’s novel and Friedkin’s film make a show of addressing the difficulty of belief in the modern world, especially through the doubt-tormented Father Karras (Jason Miller), the psychiatrist/priest trying to rescue a demonically possessed girl (Linda Blair). In the introduction to this edition, Friedkin goes so far as to intone that The Exorcist is a ”film about the mystery of faith.”
Oh, bollocks. Exorcist is a film about pea-soup puke, rotating heads, and masturbating with a crucifix. Miller and Ellen Burstyn give harrowing, nuanced performances, but if you have any doubt as to Friedkin’s main order of business, check out the half-hour making-of documentary preceding the film, with its scaaary stories of on-set fires and weirdly disconnected crew interviews (”This is the device I made to create the vomiting effect … ”).
And yet … Shallow as The Exorcist is, it seemed strikingly new amid the atheistic, post-’60s cultural landscape. And if Scream is one of its children, so is Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and, by extension, Kundun. Granted, the sanctity of the Dalai Lama (played by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong as an adult) is never questioned; instead, the film wonders what obligations a holy man has to the worldly sphere. As Communist China moves to absorb Tibet in the early ’50s, the pacifist Dalai Lama and his followers come up against the hard truth of Mao’s maxim ”Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” If a leader will not fight, should he then flee? Can one forge a purely spiritual community in place of a physical country?
Scorsese answers yes, and backs it up with a hypnotic visual and sonic strength that loses a lot on TV. To approach Kundun as a traditional Hollywood narrative is a waste of time, anyway: This is a cinematic mandala in which notions of devotion, sacrifice, statesmanship, and bliss slowly twirl by, inducing either sleep or exaltation.
If Kundun is a meditation, The Apostle is a roistering revival meeting. Writer-executive producer-director Duvall also stars — and by God he should have won an Oscar for something — as Sonny, a barnstorming preacher who is righteous, charismatic, and not a little smug until his wife (a nicely weary Farrah Fawcett) leaves him, and he takes a baseball bat to her lover’s head. Sonny then hits the road to start over, ultimately landing in a bayou backwater with a conveniently empty church.
The Apostle is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore, and we’re all the poorer for it. Duvall lets the tale ramble, allows his characters to chew the fat, and indulges his actors the way a star-turned-director will do. Out of this he builds a believable community of believable Christians — inconceivable in most Hollywood films — and finds grace within that community. That his new congregation is mostly black is only lightly touched upon; what matters is that when Sonny tells a fallen redneck (Billy Bob Thornton) ”I was a worse sinner than you,” he finally means it (and he’s right, too). It’s enough to renew your faith — in movies, at the very least. Exorcist: B- Kundun: B+ Apostle: A-