When Scripture Hits The Screen, Filmmakers Say Their Prayers

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Russell Crowe, the lead in Darren Aronofsky's forthcoming biblical epic <em>Noah</em>, may have received a quick blessing from Pope Francis at a recent public audience, but the movie is drawing criticism in some quarters.

The film Noah, with Russell Crowe in the title role, opens in the U.S. March 28. It's already been banned in several Muslim countries for portraying a man considered a prophet, and here in this country it's stirred controversy among some Christians for not being a sufficiently literal telling of the Bible story. NPR's Scott Simon spoke with Rajinder Dudrah, senior lecturer in screen studies at the University of Manchester, on why religious figures in film can cause both fascination and offense.

Interview Highlights

On the perils of puttin religious figures on screen

I think whenever you cast a religious figure, this kind of pricks up the eyes and ears of one potential viewing audience, whether that's domestic or international. And with a figure like Christ or Noah, [who have] followings not just because of Judeo-Christianity, but also the Abrahamic faiths, it potentially has an international audience.

And then also, when there's any controversy around this figure — you know, whether, was this figure real, to what extent, which interpretation of the religious text have they taken up — then of course this arouses a certain kind of interest. And if that interest then [develops] into controversy, and if the censorship word comes in, if certain countries start banning it, then that in itself will arouse a little bit of interest, maybe even suspicion. And people will walk through the theater doors, [when earlier] perhaps they thought, "Oh, maybe not."

On why some religious films cause controversy

We've had people like Charlton Heston, who's previously played Moses. ... Classic film, and I often turn to that again and again. I've actually used it in my lectures as a piece of spectacle, but also [to address], how does one depict a God-like figure or a revered figure on screen. ... And I think the issue there is one of interpretation. It's which version of the religious text does one turn to, which religious scholars or which religious authorities have they consulted, if at all? Or is this really more a kind of an artistic interpretation, which the script writer, the producers, the directors, in collaboration and conversation with each other — and then the actors and actresses, who then interpret or reinterpret that role?

On why Charlton Heston made a great religious character

For me, he really had that screen persona. And I think this is also really relevant to why we go and watch these religious figures on screen. Charlton Heston was wonderful in the sense that he was that dashing, heroic figure in the early part of the film, but then later on he undergoes this transformation. And there was something about his stature, the way he stood, the way he delivered his lines, the way in which he was able to look and stare at the screen, and at you, which really gave this sense of a kind of divine presence. An actor who is able to transcend the human and suggest the possibility of divinity or at least semi-divinity, I think that we as an audience build an affinity with that actor and character, too.

On religious figures in Bollywood films

Most recently, we had Akshay Kumar playing Krishna in Oh My God, and that was received — that was almost like a critique on religious authority figures, where the Krishna figure has to come down and make some sort of intervention and critique on that. It raised a few eyebrows, but actually people went and watched it, enjoyed it, you know, laughed along with it. And also, you know, made criticism about it. And I think when that happens, that's a good sign or a healthy sign of cinema being able to engage in those kinds of debates.

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