Tyler Smith writes, directs, and narrates Reel Redemption: The Rise Of Christian Cinema, his first documentary, after a decade or so hiatus from making features. And the title is not a lie, as the shockingly absorbing, swiftly paced movie is the history of how Hollywood has presented Christianity throughout the ages. Of course, early hits and classics such as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments are discussed, as well as more nuanced takes on religion like The Night of the Hunter.
Obviously, the picture would be very short and shortsighted if it did not dive into the modern, independently produced films that, on occasion, have done shockingly well at the box office, though most receive less than glowing reviews. But Smith has more on his mind than a simple chronological history lesson. No, he’s interested in examining how the two powers that be went from working closely, and well, with each other to the church condemning Hollywood as a hotbed of sin and vice. And this is done via his offscreen voiceover and clever use of clips from a lot of motion pictures ranging from the Coen Brothers’ brilliant Hail, Caesar! and the aforementioned The Night of the Hunter, to The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Devil’s Advocate. I did not count them, but there are probably hundreds of clips.
The filmmaker also uses clips from taped sermons, or news segments, to discuss controversial moments or address specific grievances one side may hold. He also talks about why the modern incarnation of faith-based movies is generally not well received by critics and brings up titles that were, though most of those movies did not do as well as their more kitschy yet popular counterparts. For example, God’s Not Dead launching a franchise versus the little-known Believe Me.
“…the history of how Hollywood has presented Christianity throughout the ages.”
As dry as this may sound, Smith makes it all fascinating. The filmmaker imbues the visual essay with a sense of humor that keeps the audience engaged during the more academic moments so that it’s never boring. Also, by being both a historical and anthropological study of religion in cinema, it feels comprehensive, even though an ending cannot exist at the moment, or ever really. Thorough though it might be, it is not entirely complete.
See, for undetermined reasons, Smith largely sidesteps comedic films’ takes on religion. Yes, Believe Me is a comedy, but it still falls squarely in the traditional idea of a faith-based movie. He does mention a full-on satire of such film, though I don’t recall its name. And yes, Hail Caesar! is one of the first clips shown. But hits such as 2004’s Saved, which received favorable reviews, and the more recent and delightful Yes, God, Yes are ignored entirely. Their satirizing views of taking the gospel too literally or using it as a shield for one’s own impropriety make both titles, and those that are similar, perfect fodder for this exact kind of project. While such omissions are noticeable, they are minor issues considering all that Smith accomplishes.
Reel Redemption: The Rise of Christian Cinema is a fascinating history of religion on the silver screen. While it may not cover all the bases it should, director Tyler Smith does a great job at keeping the information flowing in a lively manner. The editing between the numerous film clips is excellent, and it never becomes as dull as it might sound. Overall, this documentary readily applies to both Christians and non-believers alike, so long as you are interested in the history of movies.
"…a sense of humor...keeps the audience engaged during the more academic moments..."