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FILM REVIEW ‌ Reaping the Faith

Targeting Christian moviegoers makes good business sense -- and, so far, some really rotten movies

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The Last Sin Eater
Fox Faith Films
Starring: Liana Liberato, Henry Thomas, Louise Fletcher
Directed by Michael Landon, Jr.
Rated PG-13

Our nation's purveyors of entertainment are finally acknowledging the existence of theists, and all I have to say is: Thank heaven above. It's about time somebody started paying attention to Christians in America.

I kid, of course. It seems absurd that in a nation where (depending on your survey source) between 77 and 82 percent of the citizens self-identify as Christian, that would be considered a "niche market." Yet out of demographic tunnel vision and a fear of offending anybody, Hollywood had made God notable mostly by His absence. Christians, it was presumed -- like African-Americans, Latinos, women, AARP members, or really anyone who wasn't young, male, and white -- didn't go to the movies all that much, so why bother?

Then came The Passion of the Christ, which yanked in a ridiculous $370 million at the domestic box office in 2004. And Tyler Perry's Christian-friendly Diary of a Mad Black Woman pulled in $50 million on a $5 million budget in 2005. Entertainment industry analysts tied themselves in knots trying to explain these "surprise" successes, ever-baffled by the phenomenon of people paying attention when other people pay attention to them.

So when 20th Century Fox studios created a special boutique division -- Fox Faith -- exclusively to develop movies with Christian themes, it seemed like a savvy financial decision. The audiences were eager and waiting, but they would learn the hard way that they would get what every other under-represented group initially gets from the movies: limp stories that seem to think it's enough to say to viewers, "Hey, we're like you."

Fox Faith's latest offering, The Last Sin Eater, is a fairly typical representative of the new faith-based cinema. It's not so much the setting that is typical, which in this case is an isolated 1850s Appalachian community of Welsh immigrants. Nor is it a protagonist like 10-year-old Cadi Forbes (Liana Liberato), who -- after a traveling preacher (Henry Thomas, erstwhile buddy of E.T.) arrives with the Good News -- questions her community's pagan tradition of designating one among their number as an outcast "sin eater" to purge the dead of their transgressions.

No, the sadly typical thing about The Last Sin Eater is that it's a mess. The story is a jumble of elements, including a long-ago Indian massacre, an imaginary playmate/guardian angel, family tragedy, and death rituals. Director Michael Landon Jr. -- who, after adapting a number of Janette Oke's Christian novels, is trying to become the Señor Spielbergo of the genre -- films some lovely scenery, but he repeatedly wraps his actors' thick Welsh accents around silly dialogue. It's earnest, but only marginally competent.

That, unfortunately, is the way most niche-target sub-genres begin. When black directors began telling black stories in the 1970s, they were the down-and-dirtiest kind of B-filmmaking imaginable; ditto the first gay-themed projects of the early 1990s. Audiences were so eager to see movies that spoke to them in any way that they ignored amateurish production values and wooden performances. They were not yet ready to demand quality, content to support the slop they were served. And current Christian cinema is serving up largely the same low-grade menu -- think of it as "salvation-sploitation."

It doesn't have to be that way. If you look through recent years, you'll find compelling examples of films that tackled themes of faith in challenging ways. Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves asked if we could celebrate a God who demands cruel sacrifices of his children; Robert Duvall's The Apostle painted a complex portrait of a flawed man who still believed deeply. And in Brigham City, Mormon director Richard Dutcher took on the sense of superiority characteristic of some believers in a way that ultimately still affirmed faith. These were not films that pandered to the faithful, yet they made the relationship between humans and God as central to cinematic storytelling as they are to so many people's lives.

The question is whether those are the films Christian moviegoers will want to see. The Last Sin Eater concludes with a mass baptism, and maybe its target audience will be interested mostly in the kind of stories where accepting the Lord is the only real happy ending. Telling people only what they want to hear often turns out to be a good business plan. It's also a good way to make a lot of crappy movies.

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