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AMC Takes a Reverent Look at Religious Films

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Visual art, theater and many other creative endeavors have been spurred along through the centuries by humankind’s desire to give form to the otherwise intangible nature of belief.

Filmmaking is no different, as we are reminded in the intelligent and vastly entertaining “Between Heaven and Hell: Hollywood Looks at the Bible,” debuting tonight on cable’s American Movie Classics. Since the medium’s emergence in the late 1890s, filmmakers have been inspired time and again by stories from the Old and New Testaments. Packed with film clips, this one-hour documentary takes us from some of the earliest attempts at filmed passion plays through D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” Cecil B. DeMille’s two versions of “The Ten Commandments” Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” and the recent animated project “The Prince of Egypt.”

As written and directed by Larayne Decoeur and executive produced by Kevin Burns, the documentary points out that, in addition to providing stories, the Bible helped to propel advances in special effects, as movie-makers strove to depict such miracles as Jesus walking on water and Moses parting the Red Sea. (In DeMille’s earlier, 1923 “Ten Commandments,” the sea’s parting was achieved through the ingenious melting of gelatin molds.)

Of course, biblical stories pose an array of moral dilemmas, since people are easily angered when they believe their sacred beliefs are being tampered with. Movies have stirred up plenty of strong feeling, from the steamy temptations of a Christian maiden in DeMille’s 1932 “The Sign of the Cross” through the dreamed temptations of the crucified but still living Christ in Scorsese’s controversial 1988 film. In one of its few lapses, however, the documentary relies upon archival footage to present the angered parties’ sides, rather than seeking out present-day spokespersons, as it has done on other themes.

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Such minor details aside, however, “Between Heaven and Hell” takes a reverent look at both religion and film history. And though we are experiencing a period when Hollywood is largely avoiding biblical topics, on-camera commentator Michael Medved, the film critic, reminds us that between 1946 and 1959, there were six years when the nation’s top-grossing movie was a biblical epic.

* “Between Heaven and Hell: Hollywood Looks at the Bible” premieres tonight at 7 on cable’s American Movie Classics. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be inappropriate for younger children).


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