In Defense of Christian Cinema: A Review of <i>Do You Believe?</i>

Christian Hamaker

DVD Release Date: August 4, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: March 20, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, an accident sequence and some violence)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 115 min.
Director: Jon Gunn
Cast: Mira Sorvino, Ted McGinley, Lee Majors, Cybill Shepherd, Makenzie Moss, Brian Bosworth, Sean Astin, Alexa PenaVega, Madison Pettis, Liam Matthews, Delroy Lindo, Senyo Amoaku, Shwayze, Valerie Dominguez, Madison Pettis

Christian film critics and culture writers have written a recent spate of articles pondering what "Christian cinema" is, or should be. It's a question all Christian critics wrestle with, and one that has taken on even greater weight since The Passion of the Christ led to an explosion of interest in films seeking to reach Christian viewers.

SEE ALSO: Beautiful Calvary about the Struggle to be Both Righteous, Human

However, the tone of the latest articles about movies aimed at Christian audiences has taken on a note of despair. In January, Terry Mattingly at GetReligion asked, “Why are Christian Movies So Bad?” A month later, Brandon Ambrosino at Vox.com, in reviewing Old Fashioned, piled on by adding a key word: “Why are Christian Movies So Painfully Bad?

Then, earlier this month at Crosswalk, Entertainment and Culture Editor Ryan Duncan asked, “Can Indie Filmmakers Save Religious Cinema?”. Duncan challenged the idea that films like God's Not Dead, a big box-office hit from last year, had any effectiveness outside of preaching to the choir. "If Christians truly want faith-based films to reach secular viewers, and find a place among the critically acclaimed, we need to strike out into new artistic territory," he wrote. "It may not be the safest path, but then, when has the Gospel ever been safe?"

SEE ALSO: God's Not Dead... but Christian Films are on Life Support

Duncan's article was spurred by an Alissa Wilkinson piece in The Atlantic in which the Christianity Today chief film critic lamented the failure of her favorite film from last year, the R-rated Calvary, to generate the same level of interest and discussion among Christians as did God’s Not Dead, Son of God or Heaven is for Real. The latter three were all sizable hits (although Wilkinson notes several other Christian films from 2014 failed at the box office), but none seemed to capture the attention of audiences who weren’t already predisposed to assent to the films' messages.

Calvary, meanwhile, depicted a faithful priest ministering to a flock of colorful characters, but any levity was more than offset by a heavy gloom that begins with a threat on the priest's life and culminates with a violent act. "Rife with religious imagery and resonances, the film’s message about forgiveness and redemption is thoroughly consistent with Christian theology and features a bracing view of the havoc wreaked on generations of children by abusive ministers," Wilkinson wrote.

SEE ALSO: Truth Is Found in Gibson's Graphic Passion of the Christ

It's not unusual for film critics to champion little-seen films that are mostly ignored by audiences, so it could be a sign of health that moviegoers interested in religious themes and ideas on the big screen now have a spectrum of films from which to choose. If God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real are what's available at the local mall, Calvary has to be sought out at the arthouse. Audiences have long made the same distinction with more mainstream stories. Some are presented in easy-to-digest ways that have broad appeal, while others involve different aesthetic and narrative choices that limit their box-office prospects but, in some cases, produce a higher level of artistry that a subset of viewers will seek out and reward.

Film critics are often tagged with being in the second group—drawing attention to movies with smaller production costs and tiny promotional budgets, but which engage the imagination in ways that mainstream cinema often fails to do. Still, when a blockbuster delivers what it sets out to do and excels on its own terms, those films, too, usually receive strongly favorable reviews from movie critics (and, yes, bad arthouse movies get panned by the same critics).

Which brings us to Do You Believe?, the new film from Pure Flix Entertainment, the company behind God’s Not Dead. Written by God’s Not Dead screenwriters Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, Do You Believe? is a multicharacter study about lives that ultimately intersect. Some of them are believers, some are skeptics, some are grieving and some are being tested. They're all dealing, in one way or another, with the cross of Christ and the message it conveys.

The story of Do You Believe? is predictable, it’s a bit too tidy (OK, maybe a lot too tidy) and it strains credulity more than a few times. It is, in a word, formulaic, even though said form has been worked out repeatedly in mainstream films like 13 Conversations about One Thing, Crash and Magnolia. But as with other formulas, it can still prove effective when well executed, as it is in Do You Believe?

The story's 12 characters include a pastor (Ted McGinley) who’s persuaded by an evangelist (Delroy Lindo, Sahara) to preach about how the cross compels action; an older couple (Lee Majors and Cybill Shepherd) still struggling with the loss of a daughter years earlier; a homeless mom and her daughter (Mira Sorvino (Space Warriors) and Makenzie Moss); an ex-con who has turned his life around (Brian Bosworth); an EMT and his wife (Liam Matthews and Valerie Dominguez) who are facing the consequences of his sharing the gospel with a dying man; a war veteran and another woman who are suicidal (Joseph Julian Soria and Alexa PenaVega); a doctor and his girlfriend (Sean Astin (Mom's Night Out) and Andrea Logan White); a pregnant teen (Madison Pettis); and two partners in crime (Senyo Amoaku and Shwayze).

That’s a lot of character juggling for any film, and Do You Believe? inevitably rounds out certain characters more than others. Still, the film is never confusing, and runs no longer than it needs to in order to illustrate its main point: That the cross of Christ is something we all have to deal with, sooner or later, and that faith leads to action.

But the secret to the success of Do You Believe? goes beyond its message. The film, shot by Brian Shanley, looks better than other Christian movies, and the acting from several veteran performers carries the story through some rougher patches. A finale brings most of the characters together for an event that includes life ending, life beginning, numerous gasp-inducing car crashes and a miraculous event that could easily induce scoffing and laughter, but because the film engages viewers rather than causing them to tune out, the sequence is more likely to wring a few tears, as intended.

That's not to say Do You Believe? is a masterpiece, of course, but it is effective on its own terms. If you find those terms objectionable—if you have a problem with a blunt presentation of the Gospel or with characters actually responding to direct appeals thereof—Do You Believe? might not be for you. But this is precisely the kind of story that many evangelical Christians long to see: an explicit presentation of how Jesus changes people, sometimes radically, from a life of sin to a life of faith and redemption.

Such stories often lack subtlety, but they should by no means be off-limits for Christian filmmakers or audiences. The idea of how God's providence works itself out—the same idea that helps explain much of the power of Magnolia and the other mainstream films mentioned earlier (whether or not the filmmakers intended to convey that idea)—is made explicit in Do You Believe?, but that doesn't render the underlying theological themes any less potent. These themes, like any others, simply have to be put across in cinematic fashion and given conviction by skilled performers. Do You Believe? works better than other Christian films precisely because it does all of that, and does it well. In its own realm, Do You Believe? has set a new standard for what a certain vein of Christian cinema can be. It's a major step in the right direction.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

Publication date: March 19, 2015

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