Religion and television

Religion and television

Recently, both national television channels and Netflix have aired shows and films related to religion. Whereas some of these, such as the recent HBO-series The Young Pope, were a big success, others were met with resistance. In this article, we will dive into four religions or religious institutions currently covered by films and series: the Catholic Church, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Catholic Church
In December 2019, Netflix released a new film called The Two Popes. The film is about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and the rise of current Pope Francis. Director Fernando Meirelles clearly shows two main contrasts. First, the popes have contradicting visions for the future of the Church. Whereas Benedict was a conservative pope, Francis is much more liberal. Another strong contrast in the film is the difference between the outskirts of Buenos Aires where Francis used to preach, and the wealthy Vatican with its palaces.[1] The film seems a success, scoring a 7.6/10 on IMDb.[2] Nevertheless, Italian newspaper Il Post has argued that the relation between Francis and Benedict is different than shown in the film. Whereas the Netflix film shows a friendship between the two men, they did not know each other well before Benedict’s resignation. Today, the newspaper claims, the two are even more distant.[3]

HBO-series The Young Pope is even more popular, scoring an 8.4/10 on IMDb.[4] The series considers how young Cardinal Lenny Belardo becomes pope, and therefore head of the Catholic Church. It is shown how Belardo, as Pope Pius XIII, seeks to challenge existing Vatican traditions.[5] The series was such a big success that it has been followed by a second series called The New Pope,[6] scoring an 8.2/10 on IMDb.[7]

Islam
Messiah is a Netflix series that aired in January 2020. The show follows a CIA agent investigating a mysterious figure named Al-Masih, who has gathered a legion of followers after proclaiming to have been sent to earth to help humanity by a higher power. The connection with Islam, but also with Christianity, can quickly be made. Al-Masih even means ‘Messiah’ in Arabic.[8] [9]

As a result, Jordan, where the series were filmed, has urged Netflix to remove the show. The country believes the narrative of the show is too controversial. However, Netflix has stated that the series are not related to any particular religion, and based on a fictitious story.[10] [11] Nevertheless, the show has raised a fundamental question: if the Messiah would come back today, would we recognise him?[12] Despite the controversy around the show, it has sparked interest around the world, resulting in a 7.7/10 IMDb score.[13]

Christianity
A Netflix comedy called The First Temptation of Christ was met with so much resistance, that the issue was taken to court. The firm was created by a comedy group in Brazil as a Christmas special. The production shows Jesus coming out as being gay, and depicts how Jesus has to deal with a smoking Mary, a jealous Joseph, and a domineering and seductive Father. Religious groups accused the controversial film of blasphemy, and millions of people signed a petition aimed at removal of the movie. Nevertheless, the film’s producers defended the production as a legit form of freedom of expression. The disagreement was taken to court, where the judge ruled that the removal of this film would not only calm the local Christian community, but would also benefit Brazilian society, which is predominantly Christian. The court argued that Christian values cannot be undermined by satire.[14] [15] [16] [17] [18] The resistance around the film is reflected in its low IMDb score of 4.6/10.[19]

Judaism
In an attempt to continue to make progress when it comes to diversity and representation, Disney has introduced its first ever Jewish princess. Actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who is the voice of the new princess, stated that she is “so excited to voice Disney’s first Jewish princess”. Disney’s new Jewish princess made her first appearance in a Hanukkah-themed episode of the hit series Elena of Avalor.

Determinants of success
Why are some series and films met with resistance, while others are a great success? Part of the answer might be found in the degree of reality. Shows sparking controversy, such as The First Temptation of Christ, may seek to create comedy, rather than depict reality. And even though Messiah is not a comedy, it relates religious themes to a fictitious storyline. On the other hand, successes, such as The Two Popes and The Young Pope, stay relatively close to the actual situation. And whereas Disney does not generally base its shows on reality, the introduction of a Jewish princess did not have the aim of parody, but rather of inclusion.

Anne Clerx


[1]Film ‘The Two Popes’: paleisrevolutie in rumoerig Rome
[2] The Two Popes (2019)
[3] Il rapporto fra Benedetto XVI e Papa Francesco non è proprio come in “I due papi”
[4] The Young Pope (TV Series 2016)
[5] The Young Pope
[6]Instruktøren bag seriesuccesen ‘The Young Pope’ er tilbage: »Jeg ved ikke, om kirken lyver. Men jeg ved, at jeg gør det«
[7] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7157248/
[8]Is Messiah anti-Islamic? Jordan calls on Netflix to axe controversial series
[9] Messiah, nieuwste kijkhit van Netflix is nu al omstreden
[10]Is Messiah anti-Islamic? Jordan calls on Netflix to axe controversial series
[11] Messiah, nieuwste kijkhit van Netflix is nu al omstreden
[12] Su Netflix La serie tv “Messiah” e la domanda: se Gesù tornasse io dove sarei?
[13] Messiah (TV Series 2020)
[14] Brasilien: Netflix muss Jesus-Parodie löschen | tagesschau.de
[15] Brazilian judge bans ‘gay Jesus’ comedy film on Netflix
[16]Brazil judge orders Netflix to remove film that depicts Jesus as gay
[17] La satira religiosa censurata in Brasile | il manifesto
[18] Netflix onder vuur voor homoseksuele Jezus
[19] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11310004/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1