The 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) felt unusually heavy with films concerning religion and its followers. Of the more than 30 films I screened, nearly a third grappled with what it means to be a person of faith or live in a world where religious institutions structure daily life. And within these, a subset that spanned national borders caught my attention — films that dealt with how representatives of faith communities dealt with people who were not deeply committed members. These films painted a portrait of religious people at their best when exemplifying their values to outsiders and at their worst when talking to adherents who express doubts with institutional practices.
Perhaps the purest expression of transformative power of religious conviction came in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (in theaters Nov. 22), a lightly fictionalized adaptation of how an Esquire journalist had his life and relationships overhauled by profiling Fred Rogers. Yet, ironically, the film is largely free of any explicit discussions of Christian faith or dogma. The actor tasked with lacing the iconic sneakers of the television star, the equally revered Tom Hanks, noted at the premiere’s Q&A that while Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister, he never used his program to preach or give any other kind of religious instruction. Rogers’ preternatural patience and kindness often earned him comparisons to a saint, which he frequently swatted away. As his wife Joanne puts it, the compassion and empathy he radiated into the world came from years of practice.
Over the course of the film, Mr. Rogers has a breakthrough with Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel, the self-aggrandizing writer begrudgingly assigned to produce a puff piece on the beloved host. He’s convinced Rogers can’t be entirely for real and that the right set of questions might eventually expose a crack in the smiling façade. Within moments, however, Rogers sizes up his interrogator and spots the insecure child hiding inside of him. Through his coolness under questioning and earnest redirection of Vogel’s questions, Rogers sets him on a path to forgiveness, which he describes as “a decision we make to release someone from the feelings of anger we feel towards them.” In facilitating Vogel’s reconciliation with his estranged father, Rogers fulfills what Christian scripture deems the greatest commandment: love thy neighbor.
The genius of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the way that Heller aligns the audience with Vogel’s journey, whether they share his skepticism of Rogers’ persona and message or not. The script, by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, structures a rather straightforward tale in a format akin to a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode, creating a framework in which the earnestness and simplicity of Rogers feels natural. Heller complements this visually with scene transitions shot with period-appropriate broadcast cameras and using DIY model sets similar to the ones employed on the show. The effect is to render all viewers children — not because she thinks that little of us, but because she wants as much for us as Mr. Rogers does for Vogel and everyone else. We all matter, and we should carry that with us out of the film.
This spirit was not limited at TIFF to extraordinary figures like Mr. Rogers. Another incredibly potent vision of a religious community’s ability to transform lives by exemplifying their values came in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal (release TBA), a character study of a man named Ruben (Riz Ahmed) who becomes hearing impaired. As a heavy-metal drummer, Ruben’s entire livelihood and identity have depended on his ears. The chaos of this development in his health threatens to upset the stability he’s achieved in four years clean from heroin, too. Ruben’s girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), recognizing his need for help, guides him to a small community in the woods that helps deaf addicts find stability.
In his first contact with the home, Ruben meets with Joe (Paul Raci), a deaf veteran who runs the operation with calming authority. While Ruben realizes his need for strategies to adjust to his deafness, he fears admitting as much out of fear he might look weak or be a diminished person — an internal battle captured with heartbreaking tenderness in Ahmed’s performance. He offers his inability to pay as an excuse not to join the program; Joe says the church might sponsor his stay. Ruben again tries to squirm out of it by saying he’s not religious. Joe replies, “The church helps people in need, not religious people.”
This statement alone does not turn the tide for Ruben, but there’s a moment of grace in his pause after Joe’s kind peace offering that indicates the gesture cleared away some of the resistance around his heart. This minor moment offers Ruben a path forward by connecting him to a larger animating spirit of helping people not because of what they do, what they believe, or whether they are fully able-bodied. Joe and his community, however delayed the effect of their gentleness might be, urge Ruben to love what he has and who he is, not mourn who he was. I’ll be curious to read more from deaf and hard-of-hearing writers once they see Sound of Metal, but from my perspective, the film provides a moving portrait of how people can make the choice to treat their disability as an enhancement, not an impairment, to their experience of life.
Outside the United States, however, a far less rosy picture of the religiously inclined pervaded. Norwegian director Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s Disco (release TBA) features two churches that could desperately use a Fred Rogers or a Joe. On the one hand, there’s an evangelical congregation blasting Jesus jams in a contemporary service, serving fancy lattes in their lobby, and preaching a hollow prosperity gospel that makes Christianity sound easy. On the other, there’s a more conservative congregation that presents congregants with the trappings of a more traditional service yet masks a dark underbelly of mysticism.
Caught somewhere in the middle is Josefine Frida Pettersen’s character, the 19-year-old dancer Mirjam. Not unlike Ruben in Sound of Metal, she’s grappling with the fallout from physical fallibility that keeps her from performing at the top of her craft. Such listlessness sends her looking for comfort and answers in religion, and Mirjam finds neither in the congregation headed by her stepfather. While she seeks grace and clarity, all he offers is judgment and critique.
Sociologists who study religion as phenomenology find that people in Mirjam’s position — tense, at a turning point in life, possessing few strong social bonds — are prime for switching or conversion. In the more conventional church, she’s presented with the option to work through her doubts and grapple with her faith. Unlike the evangelical parish, whose emphasis on God’s providence can lead to feelings of insufficiency for those experiencing hardship, this group presents itself as far more worldly and wise. But the more intellectually stimulating services that drew Mirjam in prove to be an insidious front for some baffling fundamentalist practices. While Syversen does fall prey to the occasional bout of “both sides are bad” cynicism, his film presents a compelling case that religious institutions are failing people by gravitating toward extremes and abandoning a sensible center based in basic scriptural principles.
Mirjam’s exile from organized religion, painful as it might be, is at least existential and internalized. In Polish director Jam Komasa’s Corpus Christi (release TBA), the protagonist Daniel (a remarkable Bartosz Bielenia) finds himself quite literally locked out of serving in the church. As a youth offender serving a sentence in a detention center, Daniel has a religious conversion experience and wishes nothing more than to serve as a clergyman upon release. Yet upon parole, he is sent not to seminary but to serve as a carpenter’s apprentice. As it turns out, the Catholic Church’s belief in redemptive grace through Christ doesn’t exactly apply to ex-cons in Poland.
In a strange twist of fate, Daniel stumbles into a church in the new town and successfully cons the local parish into believing he has come to serve as their priest. He fumbles through many of the sacerdotal duties like presiding over Mass and hearing confessions, yet he proves quite useful for the community when it comes to healing a festering wound. When Daniel arrives, the town is still reeling from a car accident that claimed the lives of several young people … as well as the driver, though the public memorial does not reflect that. Upon digging into the incident, Daniel realizes that public perception of the event does not match what actually happened, and that the driver has been unfairly blamed.
As someone who knows what it’s like to be written off by religious institutions, Daniel is compelled to fix the problem and bridge the gap between the two opposing camps, uniquely qualified on a personal level to point out the transformative power of religion. But revealing this would reveal his deception, leaving him with no easy solutions — and the audience with no easy answers. The compelling moral drama at the core of Corpus Christi sums up much of the religious dialogue I noticed at TIFF 2019: What do we value more, the message or the messenger? How should religious principles manifest themselves in their adherents?
Perhaps it’s best to reflect on the wisdom of Mr. Rogers, as invoked by Marielle Heller prior to the premiere of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. “It’s really easy to fall into the trap of believing that what we do is more important than what we are. Of course, it’s the opposite that’s true,” she observed. “What we are ultimately determines what we do.” As the world’s increasing madness sends more people looking for answers in the spiritual realm, those who already claim to possess such convictions would do well to ensure their actions align with their stated beliefs.