If one word could sum up many of the religion-themed films at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, it could be "conversion."

In director Justin Kelly’s “I Am Michael,” journalist Michael Glatze morphs from a sure-footed gay man to a straight conservative Christian attending Bible school.

Director Amy Berg’s documentary "Prophet's Prey" looks into the workings of the FLDS Church where adherents of the faith leave behind multimillion-dollar homes and successful businesses to follow Warren Jeffs, who claimed to be a prophet of God to cover a multitude of sex crimes.

Even in director Rodrigo Garcia’s understated drama, “Last Days in the Desert,” Jesus walks the desert praying for some kind of event or conversion that will prepare him for his coming execution and resurrection.

It seems natural that Hollywood gravitates toward religious themes that delve into extreme or epic subjects like conversion or fanaticism since, as Christian writer and film critic Brett McCracken says, they make compelling film.

“Drama and conflict and extremes of anything seem to appeal more to filmmakers than steady, normal characters,” McCracken said. “You don’t see many movies about everyday balanced Christianity because it’s not dramatic enough.”

In other words, it's hard for a film about Christians simply doing what they’re expected to do — like feeding the poor or helping the less fortunate — to compete with Moses parting the Red Sea in 3-D or learning the mysterious details behind the Church of Scientology as in director Alex Gibney’s damning Sundance documentary, “Going Clear" does.

But it’s also a reflection of the changing attitudes surrounding religion, McCracken said.

“There’s more of these (religion) films now in the last few decades just because religion in general has become less of a sacred cow,” McCracken said. “There are lots more atheists out there these days, so it’s open season for critique.”

Slipping confidence

Faith in the U.S. has changed over the years. Atheists, along with agnostics and what the Pew Research Center call “Nones” — people who don’t believe in “anything in particular” — are some of the fastest-growing groups in the world.

Gallup polls dating back to the early 1970s found that American confidence in church and organized religion has slipped. In 1973, 65 percent of Americans said they had “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion as a societal institution.

By 2014, that poll number had dropped to 45 percent, and the percentage of people who had “very little” or no confidence in organized religion crept from just 11 percent in 1973 to 24 percent in 2014.

With all this change in how Americans view faith and religious institutions, McCracken says it’s not surprising that more films are made about fanatical leaders or extreme groups that lend themselves to suspicion, but he hopes faithful and secular audiences alike take the films with a grain of salt.

“Documentaries especially have always been a little like muckraking — these little exposes of things that get people riled up,” McCracken said. “As Christians, we should feel a little upset that good stories aren’t being told and remember that these films are just about specific cases. One would hope filmmakers would be honest that stories aren’t representative of the entire spectrum of Christianity.”

Sparking conversations

“Last Days In the Desert” producer Bonnie Curtis is hoping her film will be able to unite audiences over a wide breadth of beliefs rather than a collective suspicion around religious extremism.

“Whether you’re religious or not, whether you believe or not, I think most people believe that this man walked on the earth,” Curtis said of Jesus. “The film doesn’t judge and it doesn’t force its opinion on you and that allows people to ask the big questions.”

The story finds Jesus (Ewan McGregor) and Satan (also Ewan McGregor) walking through the desert during the tail end of his 40-day meditation on his way back to Jerusalem.

Along the way, Jesus becomes involved with a family whose domestic trials act as a parable for Jesus’ own struggles with his worldly parents Mary and Joseph, as well as his spiritual father and his struggle to accept his mission.

The spare dialogue, minimal special effects and sun-bleached landscape are all deliberate, Curtis said, to inspire thoughtful discussion rather than shock and awe.

“This is not ‘Exodus’ or ‘Noah,’” Curtis said. “The film breathes so there’s room for you to put yourself inside of it.”

While Curtis says director Rodrigo Garcia took strict measures not to preach any particular religious agenda in the film, she’s hoping the stripped-down style and simplicity of “Last Days” can help reverse some of the dissension people today feel over faith.

“For a lot of people, Jesus has been turned into an action figure. The shiny dressings we’ve put on what began as a simple story — maybe this film can speak to that,” Curtis said. “We’re trying to get people to talk in and around the subject of religion and just use the film as a starting point for divisiveness to lessen a bit.”

For that divisiveness to truly diminish, McCracken said, Hollywood needs to widen its view of religion.

“Anytime religion or belief is explored in a film, even if it’s a negative, skewed exploration, it’s good to get people questioning their own assumptions on belief,” McCracken said. “If there’s more of a mix of the films being made about religion, I think that’s a good thing for the larger conversation about the role of faith in our lives.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson