Lawrence's 'Bliss' (1985)

The 80's and 90's broaden the range of religions and religious subjects depicted, reflecting the steady continuation and growth of multi-culturalism in contemporary Australian society. While the notion of what is and what isn't an Australian production is debatabley more and more difficult to classify, as international collaborations between directors, actors, production companies and funding bodies in contemporary film increases.

Where the Green Ants Dream
(1984) Werner Herzog [PG, 90mins]

'Long before the New Age became trendy, [Herzog] was exploring non-Western philosophies, especially the dreamings of [so-called] 'primitive' cultures. Where the Green Ants Dream [is] about a confrontation between white and Aboriginal Australians over the mining of a sacred site. In the process, he contrasts Western despoliation with a 40,000-year-old attunement with nature. Herzog examines concepts [such as] the nature of being; how Western man seems to have lost direction, futile speculations about far-off universes covering for lost communion with a land it has so violated.'(1) Not received well at the time, it was criticised for presenting Aboriginal culture inaccurately, however, it should be remembered this film is fiction not fact (cp.The Last Wave).

(1985) Ray Lawrence [M, 110mins]
Harrry Joy (Barry Otto), an advertising executive, suffers a heart attack and is 'dead' for four minutes, during which he has an out-of-body experience. 'His spirit rises, hovers over him and goes through a tunnel of light to the very face of God'.' He then returns to his body a different man. 'While in hospital...he has another vision, showing him sitting in an empty church. His mother carries a cross. The minister [is] reading from the Bible the passage of how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.'' Now propelled by existential questions, and new found love for a 'child of nature' the hippie-prostitute Honey Barbara (Helen Jones), Harry eventually abandons his previous life and city-dwelling existence for the bush and growing trees. As Peter Malone writes, 'Ultimately, Harry Joy finds happiness, not in any established church or institution, but in a retreat into the Australian bush...and a sacred communing with the Australian bush landscape and its naturally religious power. Bliss provides images of an Australian agnostic belief in natural religion.'(2)

Evil Angels*
(1988) Fred Schepisi [M, 121mins, US title: A Cry in the Dark]
Not specifically religious, but notable for its presentation of an Adventist couple's trial by media during the Azaria Chamberlain disappearance. Lindy (Meryl Streep) and Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) were believed capable of murdering their own daughter largely due to the 'difference' of their religion. Due to the marginal status of Seventh Day Adventists at this time, and the Chamberlain's personal idiosyncrasies, their claims of a dingo stealing their baby was viewed with suspicion.

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey*
(1988) Vincent Ward [91mins, Australia/New Zealand]
'It is Cumbria 1348, the year of the Black Death. Griffin's older brother returns from the outside world in a state of despair, until Griffin tells of his dream and reveals their only source of survival: before dawn, make a tribute to God and place a spire on a distant cathedral. Griffin sets out on a bizarre journey with Connor and four mining friends.'(3) [They] tunnel through the earth, only to emerge in Auckland 1987, where they strive to accomplish their religious mission to ward off the Black Death from their village. While this film won Best Film of 1988, some reviewer's dismiss[ed] its religious feel and insights as pseudo-mystical.'(4)

40,000 Years is not a Bicentenary
(1988) [38 mins]
'When the British claimed Australia initially as a dump for its social and political outcasts and later as a source of wealth to exploit on behalf of the home country - they took no notice of the fact that something between 300,000 and one million Aboriginal people already lived there. In the law of the colony Australia was declared to be "Terra Nullius" or belonging to nobody. When the British decided it belonged to nobody - they of course took it for themselves. 1988 is the Bicentenary of the first colonial expedition which landed in Sydney. Ironically, recent discoveries in West Sydney have shown continuous Aboriginal occupation of the site going back for 47,000years. It is generally agreed that the first appearance of Homo Sapiens in Europe was 12,000 years later.'(5)

(1989) Don McLennan [M, 90mins]
'Critical of Christianity, churches and religious ritual', Mull is a rites-of-passage story set in St. Kilda. Phoebe (Nadine Gardner), seventeen, is the eldest of four kids. Her father, an ex-alcoholic security guard, is a born-again Christian, who leaves notes for his family with Old Testament quotations. Her mother is diagnosed with Hodgkinson's disease, and Phoebe decides to drop out school to help look after her and the family. Dragged by her father to prayer meetings, where 'the smiling pastor has strong moral views and uses the apocalyptic style to put them across', she stands up to him and refuses to come back. 'The Church is presented as being genial on the surface, harsh concerning human problems and dogmatic with answers.'(6)

A Contemplation of the Cross
(1989) Michael Lee [27mins, experimental animation]
A film which 'communicates the acceptance of Christian faith'. Lee says, "In Contemplation of the Cross, I am not concerned with presenting a dramatic re-enactment of the crucifixion - the story is already well known - nor with giving a visual impression of what the event may have appeared like all those years ago. I am concerned with the inner meaning of the event. I am making an icon. Icons are highly stylised, they do not attempt to present an historically accurate picture, they are concerned with stimulating meditation upon a sacred mystery".(7)

(1989) John Duigan [M, 105mins, USA/Mexico]
'About the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Romero. Fr Oscar Romero is a quiet, rather reserved and bookish priest in El Salvador. It is a time of military rule and the experience of civil war, the late 1970s. Rome appoints Fr Romero as archbishop of San Salvador and primate of the country. It is expected that his episcopate will not have a great impact and that he will support the status quo. As he assumes office, Oscar Romero begins to look more closely at the situation and begins to respond with critique of the government and status quo. He is especially supported by some of his clergy, especially his friend, Fr Grande. When Grande is killed, Romero is very moved and becomes more actively involved in the fight for justice. Criticised by government and military, he is arrested and tortured but continues to speak out. The military plan to kill him and he is shot while celebrating the eucharist.'(8)

Golden Braid*
(1990) Paul Cox [M, 91mins]
A drama focusing on Bernard (Chris Haywood) a watch maker and repairer, and Joseph (Paul Chubb) and Therese (Gosia Dobrowolska), a Salvationist couple who run a social service centre. Therese, 'portrayed as a woman of intellectual and spiritual substance' is having an affair with Bernard. 'Joseph, the film later suggests, is not the sort of person to satisfy her soul, nor her physical needs for that matter.' It would seem that Therese became a Salvationist not due to a spiritual calling, but rather because they were so helpful to her when she arrived in Australia, as a European migrant. In the end Therese 'outgrows' her affiliation with the Salvation Army, and Joseph. Overall, 'Cox paints a picture of the Army as if it were nothing more than a social organisation...a less than complimentary light.'(9)

Brides of Christ
(1991) Ken Cameron [TV series]
'Traces a period of radical change within the Catholic church, instigated by the Pope and the Vatican, [between 1962 and 1968], and the effects it had on one (fictional) convent of nuns in Australia. Exquisite, sharply perceptive educational piece for those who are wondering what goes on inside convents, traditionally very secluded, reclusive places of worship. Each of the six episodes focuses on one major character, and issues raised include Catholic views on divorce, abortion, safe sex and sex before marriage, versus the wider world-views on these subjects which were beginning to take shape during the social revolution of the times; other, less `worldly' (but no less important, for the participants) issues include the struggle between old-school nuns, for whom the lifestyle was all about studying and reliving archaic practices, and the new wave, who wanted the church to become more relevant to the changing society.'(10)

The Nostradamus Kid
(1991) Bob Ellis
'The semi-autobiographical product of writer-director Bob Ellis's continuing struggle with his Adventist upbringing. While [the film] portrays a cultic, extreme Adventism, its attitude to the church is somewhat ambivalent. Elkin (Noah Taylor) the main character, suffers nostalgia for some aspects of the religion which he has rejected, and, to the end, is unable to free himself from elements of his boyhood faith.'(11)

Serpent and the Cross, The
(1991) Chris Hilton [G, 55mins, documentary]
'The artists featured in this film are consciously seeking an expression that builds bridges between traditional Aboriginal spirituality ' the Dreaming ' and the Christian religion of their invaders. This attempt at reconciliation is often accompanied by controversy, because it offends cultural purists on both sides, who see it as compromising their pure religious form...'(13)

Spirit of Oz, The
(1991) Jeff Spencer [46 mins, documentary]
Starring Geraldine Doogue and Philip Adams. 'In a nation still finding its identity, what is the place of religion in contemporary Australia? A colourful documentary that explores how people find meaning and purpose in their lives.'(14)

(1992) Simon Target [M, 88mins]
The film's title refers to what some born-again Christians call the inability to maintain one's faith - 'a repeat descent into sin'.' Based on the story of a fundamentalist couple's fight with 'evil', Backsliding's opening scene shows an adult baptism, 'speaking in tongues, charismatic prayer and the leadership and preaching of the pastor. The setting has biblical overtones with...Jack and Alison, living in the desert (and the contrast of water imagery in baptism and the pastor going to the ocean). Alison believes she can rehabilitate Jack'', an ex-criminal who now runs a power-station in remote central Australia. Their mostly solitary existence is irrevocably disrupted by the arrival of a stranger Tom Whitton (Tim Roth), a drifter...hired by Jack's a handyman [for] the station.'' Prior to his arrival 'Jack was increasingly motivated by a fear of his wife's backsliding. [Now] Tom becomes the catalyst for Jack's own backsliding and his violence flaring again.'(15)

Black Robe
(1992) Bruce Beresford [M, 100mins, Australia/Canada]
Black Robe is an interpretation of Jesuit mission activity in 17th century Canada and 'the subsequent confrontation between a stern and orthodox Catholicism with the nature and mystic religion of the Algonquins'.(16) 'Father Laforgue's ill-fated mission to show the indians the 'way to paradise' dramatically alters the fate of those accompanying him and he learns, by degrees, that his mission is failing. Ultimately, Black Robe becomes more a quest for survival than a journey to redemption (even though a string of Biblical allegories would have us believe the latter).'(18)

Cult of Death, The
(1992) Geoffrey Brown [90mins]
'When crusty Irish detective Tom Shanahan is assigned to investigate the bizarre murder of the lovely Luna, he has a hunch that he is dealing with more than the death of a high class call girl. His uncanny intuition picks up a trail of clues which enable him to penetrate the secret world of the Cult of Diana, a neo-pagan religion operating behind the front of an evangelical church. He peels off layer upon layer of deception to reveal the true working of the cult, and to expose the hypocrisy of the powerful men and women who run it for profit and enjoyment...'(19)

Darra Dogs
(1993) Dennis Tupicoff [10mins, cel animation]
The animator's memories of the dogs of his childhood...with images of a very dark and unholy priest.

God's Girls: Stories from an Australian Convent
(1992) Cherie Nowlan [G, 49mins, documentary]
'God's Girls describes life in a Sisters of Mercy convent in country New South Wales from the 1940s to the present day. This courageous and clever film investigates the subtle complexities of change within a society that has been surrounded by mystery for hundreds of years. The film delves deeply into the beliefs of those women who have chosen to live a very different life from that of most women. With integrity, wit and sensitivity, it also gives voice to those who have chosen to leave the sisterhood. The stories from the women in the film reflect the often intricate paths of social, political and religious history, not only in Australia but also in the rest of the world.'(20)

Bad Boy Bubby
(1993) Rolf de Heer [R, 111mins, Australia/Italy]
Bubby has grown from a babe to a man, isolated with his mother in a dingey subterranean room for over thirty years. Knowing nothing except what his mother tells him, she has convinced him that the world outside is a dangerous place full of poisonous gas. Whenever she goes out, she dons her dysfunctional gasmask that hangs by the door, and tells Bubby not to move until she gets back. Her best deterrent is religion. She barks that 'God sees everything' (even though the crucified Christ on the wall has no head). Bubby is so scared of her (and God) that he would rather sit for hours in his own urine than do the 'wrong' thing. 'He has never met his father, who does eventually turn up wearing a Roman collar and claiming that he has been a preacher. When Bubby finally leaves his room, he puts on the collar. Befriended by a rock group'(21), embraced by a group of Salvation Army singers, chased out of shops by employees, picked up by a well-to-do woman of wealth, Bubby never stays too long in one place, continuing on his strange journey from exile into acceptance.

The Heartbreak Kid*
(1993) Michael Jenkins
A few glimpses of Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Business Of Making Saints, The
(1994) Martin Brook [G, 55mins, documentary]
'Another day, another saint is welcomed into the Eternal City. The business of making saints is booming. So begins this documentary on the complex, costly and lengthy process of making saints. It has often been said that when Pope John Paul II travels, he likes to have his passport in one pocket and a saint in the other. In January 1995 he arrived in Sydney to conduct the ceremony of the Beatification of Mary MacKillop, Australia's first saint. The Business Of Making Saints places the beatification of Mary MacKillop in the international arena. Being made a saint is a little like winning the Nobel Prize. Everyone is thrilled to have a countrywoman the recipient of such an honour, but many are unaware of what it actually means, and even fewer are aware of what the process of selection involves. This documentary places our local ceremony against the backdrop of the international, and highly political, world of making saints. The saint making business underwent a quiet revolution in 1982. It explores the winners and the losers of this revolution by looking at contemporary Causes, such as that of Josemaria Escriva, head of the controversial Opus Dei movement, the stalled Cause of El Salvador's Archbishop Romero, and the aborted Cause of America's left-wing activist, Dorothy Day. For anyone seeking to understand the saint making system, and the political and social context that confers saintliness.'(22)

Hare Krishnas: Hiders Or Seekers?
(1994) Michael Murray [60 mins, documentary]
'The fascinating story of the Hare Krishna movement and its founder - Bhaktivedanta Srila Prabhupad - a 67-year-old Hindu monk who launched a hugely successful international religion but was not present to witness its retreat from scandal and controversy.'(23) The film follows a new devotee, a young woman from Sydney. She travels to India to the group's spiritual headquarters in Vrindavan to be initiated.

(1994) Kay Pavlou [PG, 71mins]
'Mingling documentary scenes with drama, Mary tells the life story of Mary MacKillop (1842 -1909), an unsung hero of the nineteenth century who 86 years after her death was beatified by the Pope as Australia's first saint. A fiercely independent woman, Mary had founded her own order of nuns by the time she reached her mid-20s. She endured the harsh physical environment of Australia and set up a network of refuges, schools and welfare organisations. Mary's work with ex-prisoners, prostitutes and her education of all people despite their race or denomination was condemned by some members of the Catholic hierarchy. The controversy created by her achievements caused her to be excommunicated, reviled and almost destroyed. Despite this opposition, Mary MacKillop and her order, the Sisters of St. Joseph, finally received the status of sanctified order from the Pope amidst incredible obstacles'.(24)

(1994) John Duigan
A British vicar, Tony Campion (Hugh Grant) and his wife Estella (Tara Fitzgerald) arrive in Australia to start his first parish. The Bishop of Sydney greets Campion and takes him 'to the Art Gallery of NSW, where an exhibition of Norman Lindsay's (Sam Neill) works is about to open. The Bishop's concern is not with the large doses of nudity, but with the "blasphemy and profanity" of one painting in particular, 'Venus Crucified'.' He asks Campion to see if he can 'talk him round'. Campion and Estella become involved in Lindsay's world, on 'a journey towards being less hard-line in their views of life and art, though hardly to their death as the sirens analogy would have it. They are not depicted as having sold out on their faith.'(25)

That Eye, the Sky
(1994) John Ruane
'Based on the novel by the same name, by Australian author Tim Winton. It is told through the eyes of 12-year-old Morton 'Ort' Flack. He lives in the bush outside the city with his mum and dad, and older sister Tegwyn. At the beginning of he story his dad is in a car accident. When he comes out of the coma he's basically a vegetable'he doesn't respond to them at all. As though life for a pre-pubescent boy on the verge of entering high school isn't tough enough, Ort must now deal with the changing structure of his family'Enter the stranger, one Henry Warburton, who at first says he's just come to help with taking care of Sam. After he's been with the Flack's for a while though, he brings up the real reason ' he's come to bring the word of God to the Flack family. He teaches them all about Christmas, baptism, Easter and the Passover. He baptises them and teaches them about communion.'(26)

1) Scott Murray, Australian Cinema, Scott Murray (ed.) Allen & Unwin (in assoc.with the AFC): St Leonards 1995 pp. 160
2) Peter Malone, "Churches In and Out of the Mainstream" in From Back Pews to Front Stalls - the Churches in 100 years of Australian cinema. Peter Malone (ed.) National Capital Printing: Fyshwick. 1996 pp. 14 & 55
3) Murray, Caputo and Thoridnet in Murray (ed.) ibid (1995:275)
4) Peter Malone. "Catholics - Faithful, Lapsed and Hostile", Malone (ed.), ibid. (1996:25)
Radharc Films (2007)
Peter Malone, "Churches In and Out of the Mainstream", Malone (ed.), ibid. (1996:53)
7) Michael Lee, "A Contemplation of the Cross - the intentions of the filmmaker", from Bill Mousoulis, Melbourne Independent Filmmakers - a web resource. (2003)
8) Catholic Vocations Ministry Australia (C.V.M.A.) 'Movies for Discussion on Vocation Issues: Romero' (2002)
9) Brad Halse in Malone (ed.) ibid (1996:35)
10) Internet Movie Database, User Comments:, Adelaide, Australia (2003)
11) Daniel Reynaud in Malone (ed.) ibid (1996:38)
12) The AFC's Searchable Film Database (2003)
13) Ronin Films (2003)
14) Albert Street Productions, General Catalogue: Spirituality (2007)
15) Paul Salmond in Murray (ed.) ibid (1995:330)
Peter Malone, "Churches In and Out of the Mainstream", Malone (ed.), ibid. (1996:53)
17) Peter Malone in Malone (ed.), ibid. (1996:10)

18) Greg Kerr in Murray (ed.) ibid (1995:331)
19) The AFC's Searchable Film Database (2003)
20) Ronin Films (2003)
21) Peter Malone, "Churches In and Out of the Mainstream", Malone (ed.), ibid. (1996:48)
22) The AFC's Searchable Film Database (2003)
23) The AFC's Searchable Film Database (2003), Beyond International (2002)
24) Ronin Films (2003)
25) George Fisher in Malone (ed.), ibid (1996:16)
26) Oz Film Database, The Reading Room, Murdoch University, School of Media, Communication and Culture (2003)