Do You Believe? is now in movie theaters across America. Released on March 20, it has done well at the box office—debuting on the weekend chart at number six. So what? Well, it is also a film about Christians, made by Christians and being watched by Christians in droves. But do we believe it’s any good?
Looking at the reviews it appears that some critics had reviewed the film long before seeing it: I mean, come on, any “Christian film” must be garbage, right? The opposite extreme is equally as predictable: it’s a “Christian film” so it just must be great, right?
Stepping back from this debate, the box office has spoken. On the movie’s first weekend it grossed almost $4 million. Its receipts have more than doubled as of this past weekend, and will make still more on movie rentals well into the future. Whatever the mainstream movie business thinks, it isn’t stupid, so as long as there is a paying audience a movie is a “success,” and the larger the audience the more of a success. So this movie is as much of a “mainstream” success as any others on the box office charts.
Whether it works as a piece of drama is another matter. And this needs to be differentiated from whether it works as a piece of proselytizing. The two are not necessarily the same, but they can be.
So is it any good? First off it is beautifully shot. Throughout there is a dark brooding intensity. The characters are framed in some wonderful set pieces with the whole look and feel of the film being no different from what one would expect of a modern Hollywood movie, or something similar to the more high-end television productions. There is an intricate musical score throughout that is excellent. You know the music is good when you make a mental note to check out the composer’s name. (It’s Will Musser in case you were wondering.) The whole thing—music and look—sets the tone for the multiple dramas that unfold.
Whilst watching this, I was trying to remember what type of movie it reminded me of. Then it came to me: the disaster movies so beloved of the 1970s. Now much parodied, they were a smash with audiences back then, especially when the “smashing and crashing” involved planes and skyscrapers. But they were more than mere spectacle; they had stories to tell about those unlucky enough to be on board that doomed flight or partying on top of a skyscraper as it caught fire. Well, if you remember this genre, one that came and went with Nixon and Carter, then you get some idea of what Do You Believe? is like.
Lives that intersect and blend, that are thrown together, that demand something from those around them, this is the basis of the movie. But, unlike the disaster movies of yesteryear, this is not simply about luck or the lack of it. This movie contends that there is a plan behind all the intersecting stories. There have been other movies with a fatalist view of events, but in this movie, as one would expect, it imagines a Divine Plan. In past Hollywood movies this has sometimes been implied. Do You Believe? is explicit about its biblical message and about the cross at its center. It is this that gives the film its real meaning. Now for once that really is daring filmmaking.
When reviewers talk of a film today being “brave” oftentimes they mean the same old liberal shibboleths paraded on screen that may have been “brave” 50 years ago, but that are now so mainstream as to be positively cowardly in their conformity. Not so this movie—it is brave. From the opening to the end credits, the movie plants the cross fairly and squarely in the lives of the 12 characters that the movie depicts. It is a motif that is constantly being referred back to, making sense of the drama for those caught up in it. And what is its “drama”? Life.
Over a relatively short time span, these 12 characters go through many emotions. They struggle: they fall short, start again, and then struggle some more. You get the idea. Yes, they are almost all Christians—of varying degrees of active faith—but they are all believable and, dare I say it, real. What they are not are the Hollywood types that pass for today’s “normal.” Some claim the movie is Christian propaganda, all film is propaganda of one sort or another; it’s just when one comes along that is truly alternative it freaks out the established “normal.” This explains why some reviewers just can’t bring themselves to understand it, or to view it on its merits rather than its underlying world-view.
To be honest, that’s their problem. I enjoyed it. Running for nearly two hours, it didn’t outstay its welcome. What’s more, the 12 characters and their lives are skilfully woven together into a cinematic mosaic. There are plenty of twists and turns as they do indeed intersect in ways I didn’t foresee. The screenwriters have done a good job, as indeed have the actors with the script.
Some of the dilemmas presented are all too real. About to be sued and lose his job for praying with a man who was dying, a paramedic has a wife who doesn’t understand why he won’t just accept that what he did was “wrong” rather than lose everything—job and home. Other characters include: The couple dealing with childlessness, the older couple dealing with the death of their adult child, the ex-soldier struggling to come to terms with his return to civilian life, the older ex-con, the younger con, the pastor challenged by a homeless pregnant woman, the single mom also homeless with a child but still trying to live decently. But what you gleam, I hope, is that the film deals with many different types of people dealing with life’s up and downs through the prism of their Christian faith with all these characters somehow interconnected with each other. If there is any criticism then it is that the film makers tried to pack too much in, but then on the plus side there isn’t a dull moment as there is always lots happening on screen.
The film’s opening is especially well done. It is suitably enticing whilst keeping the audience on its toes as to what is happening and as to who is who. The enigmatic street preacher, trailing a large cross through the city streets, is especially memorable as is his encounter with a local gang of hoodlums. He returns at the end, but only as the final music plays. Pity, I would like to have seen more of this mysterious individual, not since the prophet figure in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) have we had one walk with such resonance on our contemporary streets.
The filmmaker’s former hit was God’s Not Dead (2014), and looking at their latest effort that does indeed appear to be the case on today’s silver screen. In fact, given the box office for both of these movies many more Christian films will get a chance simply because they show there’s an audience for them. More needs to be done in this area, however. A movie like Do You Believe? is a bold attempt at taking Christian film making to the world.
So is it worth going to see? It is a moving story of people’s lives, maybe not unlike yours, whose day-to-day existence is not without its trials. Yet, they face these with faith not in themselves but rather in him whose plan will at times include the cross—not a “dead weight” to be dragged around, but, instead, as demonstrated in the movie, a holy cross that ultimately carries us if we let it.
Do You Believe? I do, but, more importantly, so too does the box office.