The Oscar-nominated film “Everything Everywhere All at Once” managed to dazzle audiences in the genre of absurdist comedy. Evelyn (played by Michelle Yeoh) feels the weight of existentialism — questioning whether meaning in the universe exists — and decides that the solution is to create meaning herself.
Even though the film isn’t billed as a religious commentary, it speaks to the feelings disillusionment younger generations have towards religion.
The rise of the religious nones and the growing rejection of belief systems that have meaning apparent in them, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” speaks to the solution that many religious nones will arrive at: carving out meaning where they believe that meaning does not exist at all. The film has won big at the Oscars — best original screenplay, best supporting actor, best film editing, best director, best actress in a lead role, best picture and better supporting actress.
Technically speaking, it was a great movie with an interesting script and great cinematography, but the nihilism in the movie is part of a single narrative that Hollywood has about religion and meaning — that inherent meaning doesn’t exist. Nihilism is a belief system that rejects inherent meaning and asserts that there’s no universal truth or morality. It’s at odds with many religious beliefs, but it’s becoming a popular way to treat meaning in film along with deconstruction.
The film “The Banshees of Inisherin” interrogates loneliness and suffering alongside the existence of religion. Angela O’Donnell said in America Magazine, “Only love can save us from ourselves, from the darkness we all harbor within us. Where there is no love, there is no hope, no life, no God. The banshees win.” Don’t get me wrong, the film was good, but what it said about meaning is a limiting narrative.
In “The Banshees of Inisherin,” religious community plays a vital role, but the perspective of God from the religious community comes across as cold and destructive whereas constructing God outside of religion alleviates the suffering. The film deconstructs religion even while arguably highlighting the necessity of religious communities. It has something in common with “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
Both of these films reject traditional belief systems as the origin of meaning and instead, characters have to “transcend” or “deconstruct” to then create meaning in a world otherwise characterized by gloominess. Even if that isn’t the intention of both these films, they seem to highlight nihilism and deconstruction. This perspective on religion is a pervasive one throughout Tinseltown.
Beyond the critique of religion being insufficient for meaning in everyday life, the sinister minister or churchgoing villain is something of a common trope on the big screen and streaming services these days. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any good depictions of religion. Martin Scorsese’s adaption of Shusaku Endo’s novel “Silence” doesn’t treat religion as flawless, but engages comfortably with the complexity around religion. The religious people in the film are sympathetic characters with varying different personality traits. Some are heroes, some are normal people. It’s both serious and thoughtful.
But it was snubbed at the Oscars, only receiving one nomination.
Scorsese’s sensibility in his spiritual epic “Silence” has a similar sensibility to Dallas Jenkins’ “The Chosen,” even though they deal with vastly different material. The sensibility is one where storytelling is prioritized, people of faith are whole people and religion has the ability to be good for people instead of something to overcome or transcend.
When these types of movies are made, there’s a significant audience for them. Take, for example, “Jesus Revolution.“ Even though critics expected it be a bust at the box-office, it ended up being a box-office surprise. It tells a good story about faith and allows faith in the story to be good itself. Some religious people feel snubbed by Hollywood not because religion isn’t included, but because Hollywood shortchanges religion and religious people.
There’s room for critique and scrutiny of religious movements while also showing the positive aspects of religion, but what’s happening in Hollywood now is a single story — a single story that presents religion as inherently limiting.
What’s interesting is there was one Oscar-nominated film in particular that treated religious people with respect, but it didn’t generate as much buzz as others. “Stranger at the Gate” is about a U.S. marine who plans a terrorist attack on an American mosque, but then meets members of the mosque, who are overwhelmingly kind to him. It’s based on a true story and is a powerful film to watch in post 9/11 America.
The marine in the film is forever changed by the Muslims he meets and abandons his own prejudice and extremism. Mae McKinney, the U.S. marine, converted to Islam in real life. “Eight months after McKinney’s initial visit to the mosque, he converted to Islam. After the ceremony he was greeted with what he called ‘a mosh pit of hugs’ from the people he once intended to harm,” said CNN.
The film highlighted the very real danger Muslim Americans face and have faced while also showing their close-knit and kindhearted community. After watching it, I realized it was the type of film that I wanted everyone to see. It was both powerful and humanizing — and it worked to dispel stereotypes about religious people.
Religious people are disillusioned with the way that Hollywood treats religion — it’s been that way for a while now. It’s people of all different faiths who have expressed that sentiment. Simply put, there are better stories to tell about religion and religious people than stories that seek to portray a shift away from religion as inevitable. These stories may go a long way in convincing a large swath of America that their lives are just as worthy of artistic depiction as the lives of other people.
And if Hollywood is worried about the potential for box office potential, just look at what “The Chosen” has done on a crowd-funded budget. They’ve proved the potential.