Scene A: As Jesus, actor Jim Caviezel endures a horrific lashing while stumbling toward crucifixion on a hill near Jerusalem.
Scene B: As George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart returns to real life atop a snow-flecked bridge, kisses Bert the cop and charges back into Bedford Falls.
Which one is a spiritual film? A growing grassroots movement says the world could use a little more Capra and a little less "Passion."
SPIRITUAL VS. RELIGIOUS FILMS
Modern movies can tweak our libidos, steal our breath or leave us gaping with high-tech awe. But why do so few of them reach our souls? The scarcity of modern-day spiritual movies has led "Conversations With God" author Neale Donald Walsch and producer Stephen Simon to create "Indigo," an independent film of that largely abandoned genre. This Sunday, Walsch and Simon will hold a seminar at Scottsdale’s Chaparral Suites Hotel on ways that audiences can fuel a resurgence of positive films.
"We’re letting people take a look at spiritual cinema and the importance it plays," Walsch said, "and talking about how people can take a more direct role in sending positive messages to the world."
Hold on, you might say. How can anyone claim a lack of spiritual films while the country is locked in "The Passion of the Christ?"
" ‘The Passion’ is not a spiritual film," Simon explained. The producer of "The Goodbye Girl" and "The Electric Horseman" says that "Passion" may aim for the soul, but it’s too bound in dogma.
"Religious films espouse a particular belief system that you must follow to experience God. ‘Passion’ espouses a very conservative Roman Catholic view. Mel Gibson is rubbing our faces in the violent death of Jesus."
True spiritual movies, he says, fall more along the lines of "Whale Rider" or "It’s a Wonderful Life."
"They embrace all belief systems," Simon said, "and they do three important things: They ask who we are as human beings. They ask why we’re here. And, hopefully, they leave the viewer feeling a little bit better about being human."
HOLLYWOOD VS. SPIRITUAL FILMS
Today’s audiences might well appreciate another "Whale Rider" or "Wonderful Life." But, more often, we exit cineplexes weighing the message of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2." Subtler, nonviolent films are the cinematic needles in the haystacks of face-kicking, coming-of-age fare. Simon says the glut of shoot-’em-up, adolescent movies has its roots in the rise of corporate Hollywood.
"Over the last 15 years, major corporations have bought out every studio," Simon said. "Corporate managers are being put in charge of creative decisions. These managers may mean well, but their job is to create revenues quickly." In Hollywood’s heyday, a movie was a success if it made money. In today’s market, a movie won’t even be considered for production unless it stands to make a LOT of money.
"If it cost $10 million to make, they’re looking to make $40 million off that movie. So, big stars, expensive productions — aimed toward the younger crowd. As a result, adults are no longer going to movies on a regular basis."
In "Indigo," a movie that won the Audience Choice Award at the recent Santa Fe Film Festival, Walsch and Simon hope they’ve lit a candle against the darkness. "It’s a lovely movie about a family whose 10-year-old child is an ‘indigo child,’ with a high level of psychic ability." Walsch explained. "Often, these children are misdiagnosed as dysfunctional or ADD. The movie is about how the child heals the family." It has an unusual financing structure, as well.
" ‘Indigo’ was not financed by any major studio," Walsch said. "It was financed by ‘little people’ who contributed $500 to $5,000 a person to get it made." The money was raised through spiritually based film circles all over the world. "It is this great, unseen silent army that is allowing the creation of these films."
The weekend seminar will include a screening of "Indigo," a discussion with its creators and a give-and-take on making spiritually uplifting movies outside of Hollywood. The trio hopes to establish an Arizona branch of a distribution network.
"Right now, we have spiritual film communities in 70 countries," Simon said. "By the year’s end, we hope to have 150." The groups would hold local screenings, share films with each other, and lobby for space on local video shelves. "It’s a new paradigm," he said. "The baby step is establishing a presence in Phoenix."
If successful, "Indigo" could foster an era where small-budget movies premiere at festivals and then circulate around the world on DVD. This would place a heavier burden on script quality — and demand a more active role from audiences. But Simon’s confidence is based partly on the idea that the status quo is doomed.
"The old paradigm is dying," he said. "Last year, for the first time in 12 years, studios sold 100,000,000 less tickets than the year before. We’re not trying to reform that system, but develop our own system. We want these films, and we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is."