What the 2023 Oscars love (and hate) about religion

The 2023 Oscar nominees largely portray religion as cartoonishly negative, but the movies also acknowledge that a world without religion isn’t great either.

(from left) Monica Sherwood (Chloe East) and Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

(Religion Unplugged) — It’s no surprise that Oscar-nominated movies have a lot to say about religion every year. Religion is a big part of the world, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for good or ill, largely decides the most important movies that shape culture.

This year’s Oscar-nominated movies tackle religion a little differently than last year’s. Last year, Oscar-nominated movies — particularly those nominated for Best Picture — wrestled with things like kindness and reconciliation as positive aspects of religion versus oppression and violence as negative aspects of religion.

But the 2023 Oscar nominees have largely given up on real religion. Portrayals of religion in the real world are almost exclusively cartoonishly negative, but the movies also acknowledge that a world without religion isn’t great either. Instead of real religion, the academy seems to believe in a handful of imaginary religions created for the silver screen.

When religion is bad

The negative examples of religion are fairly standard. Religion is bad when it upholds oppressive systems of injustice through warfare and against women and minorities. If it isn’t perpetrating injustice, it typically isn’t powerful enough to stop it.

The biopic “Elvis” shows the most opposition to the king of rock ‘n’ roll coming from uptight establishment, racist, religious folks. They object to Elvis’ sexual stage presence and how much his work resembles Black music, which they view as uncivilized and improper. In particular, they object to the way that his music reflects and inspires cultural change.

“Women Talking” centers on women in a Mennonite community who at last discover the men who have been drugging and raping them. The men demand that the women forgive them — and while the men are away bailing the guilty out of jail, the women discuss whether to stay and forgive, fight or leave. Much of the discussion revolves around whether they can believe in God or anything they’ve been taught when the religious rulers of their community perpetuated and enabled so much evil.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” only references religion when one of the authorities is trying to use “God and country” rhetoric to inspire people to continue fighting the pointless war they’re in, or in a crude and flippant way: “You will keep (your gun) as clean as the thighs of the holy virgin!”

“The Fabelmans,” an autobiographical story of director Steven Spielberg’s childhood, takes place around a Jewish family and a number of unpleasant encounters with Christians. While driving past houses in the neighborhood decked out with Christmas lights, Sammy (Spielberg’s stand-in) makes a joke that it’s obvious which house is theirs because it has no lights. When Sammy goes to a new school, the kids bully him for being a Jew who “killed Jesus.” He quickly develops a crush on a Christian girl who loves that he’s Jewish but will only date him after he accepts Jesus with her. This happens in the course of a sexually charged prayer, both of them on their knees in her room surrounded by pictures of Jesus that double as posters of a boy band crush.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” takes place on a small Irish island where everyone knows each other and goes to the same church. The priest there is a humorless, patronizing individual prone to temper tantrums. One protagonist visits him regularly, and while he’s well-meaning, the priest does no good in helping the man work through his problems. He portrays a God that’s unfeeling and uncaring.

“The Whale” is not a Best Picture nominee, but it’s gotten buzz as Brendan Fraser’s return to Hollywood with a nomination for Best Actor. It also contains one of the most dramatic portrayals of religion. Charlie, the depressed and overweight protagonist, receives repeated visits from a young man claiming to be a missionary for a local church. The young man sees Charlie’s unhappiness and makes it his mission to save Charlie’s soul, something that Charlie and his friends are violently opposed to, given that the local church was responsible for the death of Charlie’s gay partner. In the end, it’s them who end up saving the young missionary rather than the other way around.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” has a number of nominations, including Best Supporting Actress for Angela Bassett. The antihero, Namor, is an immortal who becomes villainous when Catholic conquistadors murdered and enslaved his Mayan people. Namor speaks of White people as invaders with “strange dogmas,” and a fearful and hateful Catholic priest refers to Namor as a demon “without love.”

These negative portrayals of religion are fairly standard when it comes to critiques of religion, but it’s particularly of note that they’re all examples of real-world religions. Even the “evil” religion in the fantasy world of Wakanda is real-world Catholicism.

When religion is absent

The Oscar nominees are at least (mostly) smart enough to see the problems of a world without religion. Of the 10 Best Picture nominees, four of them don’t deal with religion at all. They live in a world where religion is irrelevant, but they all deal with what to make of a world in the absence of religion.

“Triangle of Sadness” proves that oppression exists plenty outside of religion. In a world defined by class and class exploitation, the rich exert their power over the poor without consequence on a pleasure cruise. The hierarchy of power is shifted when the ship is attacked by pirates — and what results is much more like “Lord of the Flies” than paradise.

“Tár” shows the desire of humans to worship something, see themselves as God and oppress the people beneath them. Lydia Tár, a powerhouse conductor, reads from her book that music is the only way to truly experience the divine. She describes her musical heroes reverently, and she sees herself as a god: when she threatens a bully who’s been tormenting her daughter, she says, “God is always watching.”

“Top Gun: Maverick” doesn’t have any religious commentary at all, but its popularity proves that in place of religion, people make gods out of men. Tom Cruise plays Maverick again in this sequel to the classic 1980s film; he’s an unbeatable old-school Hollywood hero who always wins. Audiences and critics alike went absolutely nuts over it.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” portrays a world without God as one that is ultimately meaningless beyond human desires and close relationships. The movie is about an Asian American immigrant mother in the midst of a midlife crisis who has to save the multiverse from an alternate-universe version of her daughter who is destroying all of reality because she’s decided that nobody’s life has any meaning. (And it only gets crazier from there.) In one pivotal scene, the mother and daughter are in a dimension where they are both rocks (told you), and the daughter describes the story of humanity as a slow discovery of individual insignificance. First people think they’re the center of the universe — then they discover they’re not. They think they’re the only universe that exists — then they discover theirs is just one of infinite universes. The only way the heroes determine that they can find meaning in life is if they focus on their individual happiness and personal relationships and don’t think too much about the nature of the rest of reality.

When religion is good

So if religion is bad, but the absence of religion isn’t much better, what is the solution? The answer of the 2023 Oscar movies is perfect fantasy religions that replace the religions of the past.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” portrays religious people as the good guys. The Na’vi of the planet Pandora are deeply religious people whose lives are filled with rituals of life, death and community, centered around the worship of their goddess. This goddess not only inspires their values and connects them to nature — she rewards some with advanced powers. By contrast, the villains are cynical materialists who want to exploit the natural world and remove its sacred nature.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” may portray Catholics as evil, but the Mayan and Wakandan religions are overwhelmingly real and positive. Namor’s god blesses his people with the ability to live and breathe under water. (The fact that the Mayan people of Namor’s day performed human sacrifice is not mentioned.) And Shuri, who doubts her people’s god, eventually discovers its reality and its importance in processing grief.

“Women Talking” sees women trying to disentangle their faith from the oppression of the men who exploited them and then reinvent a better religion for themselves. They imagine recreating their religion to be one that is formed “by women” and “based on love.” The values of love and pacifism are among the good things about religion they wish to retain, and they want to get rid of the power structures that have brought them harm. The story itself claims to be based on true events, but much of the story — including the final inspiring choice the heroines make — is completely fabricated.

“Elvis” is the one film that largely portrays real-life religious groups in positive lights. The film portrays White religious people as villains, but the religious Black community — from whom Elvis got his inspiration, and whom he spent much of his childhood surrounded by — are portrayed positively. As a child, Elvis is enraptured with Black gospel music, even fainting in the middle of charismatic worship. A Black preacher inspires him by saying, “When it’s too dangerous to speak, sing.” His mom tells him that his musical abilities are “God-given, so there can’t be nothing wrong with it.” But even in this movie, Black Christians are idealized; they’re just the inspiration to launch a rock star’s fame.

The problem with fantasy

This year’s Oscar nominees are both a step backward and a step forward. Unlike last year, these movies are not able to contend with how religion can be a mix of good and bad. But it’s a step forward in a sense that there is an ideal solution: abandon the religions of the real world and invent religions that are better.

In many ways, this is pretty accurate to trends in modern culture. Most young people who are leaving church and identifying as “nones” still believe in some form of God — they just don’t like church. Atheism remains unpopular. People just don’t like the religions that exist, and they want to create their own spirituality.

But there is a problem with this approach: It’s literally a fantasy. It will only remain good and pure as long as it remains internal. If implemented, it will be just as prone to corruption, oppression and abuse as any other religion. The problem with religion, politics and money is that they’re run by humans. And humans are a mix of good and bad, so anything they touch will be a mix of good and bad too.

Treating real world religions as exclusively bad gives people false hope in their fantasy religions and false pessimism in real-world religions. If there is hope, it’s because man and God meet in the real world and create unity between people. There’s no escape to a better fantasy, so it’s more worthwhile to make the real ones work.

But the false confidence of the purity of fantasies is very powerful. The biggest box office successes this year were “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” — fantasies that worship fictional military heroes and fictional religious warriors. Both were black-and-white good-guy-versus-bad-guy stories with little to no room for awareness of individual potential for evil.

If this fantasy is where the Oscars are putting their hope, it will not create a better world than the one they are rejecting.

by Joseph Holmes, an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers.