Interesting that you cite Hacksaw Ridge near the end of this essay. I haven't seen the film since its original release, but my vague recollection is that that film downplayed the religious element, too.

To quote from Richard Brody's review in The New Yorker:

"The Dosses are Seventh-Day Adventists, but the film gives no sense of a religious community—or, if there is one, whether the Dosses are isolated in theirs. Is Desmond alone an outlier in faith? (The extended, meticulous portrait of the life of devout Christians in a small Tennessee farming town is among the best things in Howard Hawks’s 'Sergeant York,' from 1941, in which Gary Cooper plays a conscientious objector who becomes a battlefield hero during the First World War.) . . .

"The power of religion becomes a blank, with no particulars, no details, no substance. Desmond’s devotion to the Bible yields no parables, no diction, no favorite stories, no specific references. Throughout his service, Desmond carries a small Bible that Dorothy gave him and into which she slipped an inscribed photo of herself—and, although he opens that Bible often, Gibson shows him staring at the picture, not contemplating the text. Desmond’s devotion is depicted as devoid of practice and thought; he sticks to the two Commandments that are the cornerstones of his faith. (The one about keeping the Sabbath leads to a droll yet earnest subplot.) Doss’s heroic actions are marvels; the faith that motivates those actions is not conveyed."

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Apr 5Author

Thanks for your comment, Peter!

FWIW, I’ve seen Hacksaw Ridge two or three times, and I understand what you and Brody are talking about. In my review I wrote that “what matters most is not exactly *what* Desmond believes, but *that* he believes.” It’s not a movie about faith as much as about tenacity in faith and defense of religious freedom.

Even so, religion is an explicit and significant presence in the film. Throughout the movie it’s clear that Desmond’s motivations for not touching a weapon are explicitly religious, rooted in the Ten Commandments as he understands them. The movie also engages in religious dialogue and argumentation about God’s will and the meaning of his commandments in a way that Cabrini doesn’t. A psychiatrist tells Desmond that he believes in the Bible “as much as any other man,” and he wrestles with his conscience, but what do you do when everything you value is under attack. I think Brody is unfair to the subtlety of Desmond’s reply: “I ain’t got answers to questions that big. But I also believe that my values are under attack, and I don’t know why.” This is not a man who doesn’t think about what he believes, but he’s also not going to give himself an out because he doesn’t have all the answers.

Significantly, Hacksaw Ridge opens with a flash-forward battlefield prologue and Desmond in voiceover quoting Isaiah 40: “Have you have not heard? The Lord is the God that lasts forever, creator of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak…those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.” From the outset, then, the movie announces authorially that the accomplishments on the battlefield that we will see are tied to divine aid, or at least to Desmond’s faith in divine aid, in a much more direct way than Cabrini’s significant but lowkey invocation of Philippians 4:13.

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Being in the faith film distribution business unfortunately there can be an inverse relationship to the amount of religion to the broadness of appeal. I'm sure the devout filmmakers of Cabrini would have loved to put a lot more in, however they know to many that would turn them off and thus limit its reach. Therefore there's a bit of a tradeoff here. That said, if you're as big as Mel Gibson and have the Jews attacking you and all Christians backing you, you'll probably come out ok. I'd say as good Christian film producers it's our job to touch hearts to the point that they see they do need Christ in their lives and hopefully that points them toward a church.

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Thanks for writing this second piece! I completely forgot about the extended drowning flashback, having not understood its significance during the watch at all. Now it seems so obvious but still a so powerfully unique illustration of God rescuing a soul in need.

I wonder though how necessary the preceding conversation is. Its focus on Mother Cabrini’s exemplary strength almost seems at odds with an off-screen (or on-screen but not indicated) prayer for God’s strength. Why have the conversation at all if the end goal of the scene is to show God’s saving help, not Cabrini’s inspiring perseverance? I guess the two do not have to be opposed. Maybe I’m yet again missing an obvious connection… such as, Cabrini’s impact on Vittoria could only have happened because of God being Cabrini’s animating principle? In other words, Cabrini could only help Vittoria leave a hopeless life of prostitution for a new life of helping others (and in doing so, serving/loving God) precisely because Cabrini herself is given Divine Assistance. To overstate it, Vittoria is rescued by Cabrini because Cabrini is daily rescued by God.

Now that I think about it the extended drowning flashback can be both a remembrance of how God answered her fearful prayer for rescue as well as an illustration of God answering her present prayer for strength and hope. Anyways, I’ve rambled on long enough. Thank you again for sharing your cinematic insights!

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