Much ado has been said about religion and how diverse religious practices have been depicted in numerous films. Religion in America reflects no more than simple faith but dwells into the social structure and the meanings of faith in the midst of American culture and society. With film as medium of conveying messages, it is of no shallow signification why this form of art is to be examined in the light of religious portrayal in a number of Hollywood films.
This essay shall review the films “Saved! ” (2004), “Witness”(__), “The Apostle” (1997), “Scarlet Letter”(___) and “Smoke Signals” (1998) in terms of their accuracy and overall attitude towards religious persons and issues. Popular not merely for their cinematic value or production or array of big stars, these movies became controversial for varied social reactions, whether for laudable reason or hyper-critical conviction. “Witness”: The Struggle for Personal Convictions
“Witness” tells of a modern-day police officer (John Book portrayed by Harrison Ford) who found refuge in the laid back and primitive Amish village in Lancaster County. Wanting to protect a young Amish boy (Samuel, played by Lucas Haas) who witnessed the killing of an undercover policeman in a subway station from the perpetrators, he finds himself immersing in the Amish way of life. He dresses “plainly”, milks cows, does carpentry, takes the horse-driven buggy, and later falls in love with the child’s mother (Rachel Lapp portrayed by Kelly McGillis).
Later he finds out that the killing was brought about by the higher-ups in his department, he was chased and found. Finally, the movie ends with a resolution of the case. The movie was an insight into the remote Amish community focusing on human nature and how it relates to religion. A viewer may see the film on a cultural perspective with the struggle between the Amish-English identity and the multi-cultural facets and differences between the two worlds, with religion and love story only as undertones.
However, a closer look would reveal that that so much of religious beliefs and subjects are embedded in the story. The movie opens with a funeral, emphasizing the Amish funeral rites. A person who has not seen the movie nor has any idea of what the movie was about would mistake the movie for a sixteenth century epic. Only later in the subway station scene would the viewer have an idea that the story was set in the 20th century.
The juxtaposed modern-dressed passengers to that of the Amish mother and son emphasized the remoteness of the two cultures’ civilization, the Amish seemingly locked in a time space that was the 16th century. The Amish culture and religious practices were clearly identified in the film. Their struggle for “plainness”, of simple living was progressed in the story. There was the men’s usual trousers and coat with hooks and eyes rather than buttons, the bearded men with shaved upper lips, women dressing the same way with religious caps-these were how the typical Amish looked like.
The Amish dressed the same way, believing that dressing the way they do maintains their plainness, the Amish’ guiding principle in their way of life. As the movie progresses, images of horse-driven chariots, the farming activities, the Pennsylvanian German language, the typical Amish houses made of wood with no electricity and television, the barnyards and the corn stocks, the horse-driven farm machines, the water-driven water supply are made evident and persistent in the Amish community.
This is how the Amish community looked like and depicted the manner they survived and subsisted while living a wayward life amongst 20th century modernity on its outskirts. The Amish lived a peaceful, contented life in a well-knit community where everyone knew each other and everyone was willing to lend a hand. The religious themes were clearly drawn as well. The gun played an important signification of the Amish-way versus that of the English. To the Amish, the gun was a symbol of immorality.
Focus was had in this aspect such that when Samuel sees Book’s gun, Rachel and Eli (Samuel’s grandfather played by Jan Rubes) react in a rather hostile manner: Rachel tells Book that if he should stay he should respect the Amish ways, and Eli renders a heart-to-heart talk with Samuel telling him that “guns are for the taking of life and outsiders who contend that killing is necessary do not consider the alternatives:” and that by being violent, he “becomes one of them” referring to the killers in the subway station.
Although Book respects their views, he does not necessarily succumb to it. He believed that his gun was necessary to protect himself and others against bad people. The Amish were peaceful people. They do not fall for man’s vices such as hatred and violence. In a scene where an Amish group was being bullied by a group of Englishmen, they were seen unyielding to anger and retaliation, a reaction normal to an English such as Book, an offense he would not let pass. Even jealousy (between Book and another Amish man attracted to Rachel) was not an issue.
The film effectively showed the Amish people’s devotion to how they believe God wants them to live their lives. Modern life, as reflected by Book, on the other hand, portrayed loneliness, remoteness and complexity. In a man-eat-man world, Book was a reflection of a typical culture way beyond the Amish ideology. In one frame, one killer policeman was seen washing his hands after killing his victim in the subway bathroom. Relevant to Catholic religion, the washing of the hand signified an attempt to cleanse oneself of sins. This was an irony in the film.