Religious film series spotlights covert religious themes in films

| Staff Reporter

A small group of students and professors gathered in the basement of Busch Hall for the inaugural screening of the Religious Studies Film Series on the evening of Oct. 25. The film was “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007), about a shy man who buys a sex doll to be his girlfriend. Quirky and heartfelt, the film becomes a musing on relationships and community, as the whole town goes along with him, treating the doll as a living woman. After the screening, a lively discussion teased out the religious themes and symbolism found in the film. Perhaps Bianca, the doll, was an idol or an effigy, brought in to help Lars through a rite of passage he had not yet undergone. Perhaps the town’s acceptance of Bianca was a ritual that served a social function for Lars and his peers.

“I actually secretly think that whoever wrote that script must have taken a theory class in religion when they were an undergrad,” Kathleen Gibbons, lecturer in Classics and Religious Studies and organizer of the fall film series, commented.

The Religious Studies program created the film series this semester as a way to build community, both within the program and beyond. The series also offers students a chance to apply the skills they learn in Religious Studies courses to films in popular culture, whose themes aren’t always obviously religious.

“Human beings, I think, really are animals who tell themselves stories,” Gibbons said. “In making sense of our lives, we endow things with certain kinds of meaning.”

Sometimes, the creation of these stories generates stereotypes. As a professor of Religious Studies in the Humanities, Gibbons believes part of her job is to give students the tools to think critically about the narratives they both construct for themselves and are told. This is something she hopes students will get from these screenings, whether or not they ever take a Religious Studies course.

The second film in the series was “Spotlight” (2015), the Academy Award winner for Best Picture that year about the Boston Globe journalistic team that uncovered the massive child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church. The number of students in attendance was nearly double that of the first screening. This time, the discussion brought up questions on the structure of institutions, both secular and religious, and how the two mix. Anna Bialek, a lecturer in Religious Studies, shared her own knowledge on the gender dynamics of child molestation in the church and why we haven’t uncovered such a scandal among women.

There were many students currently taking Religious Studies courses who found out about the series from their professors, but there were also students with no experience in the subject. The discussions were always accessible to students of all experience levels. Those in attendance seemed to really enjoy the event, participating enthusiastically in the discussions and taking fliers for Religious Studies courses. Conversations about the films continued on as students left the building.

Choosing just three films for the fall series was a challenge for the department. She wanted to show a variety films that both depict religion in a literal, explicit manner like “Spotlight” and also address it in more subtle ways, like “Lars and the Real Girl.”

“Religion is kind of everywhere, in ways that might not necessarily be obvious,” Gibbons said. “Among other things, what religion does is help us to negotiate power relations and to negotiate a wider social and personal space.”  

The third and final film of the series is “Selma” (2014), the story of the voting rights marches of the Civil Rights Movement. It will be screened Tuesday, Dec. 6 at 6:30 p.m. in Busch Hall, Room 18. Light refreshments will be provided, and a discussion will follow.