Religious Themes at The Chicago International Film Festival

When we got to the Chicago International Film Festival, the first film I was scheduled to see was titled Layla M. I made this selection based on viewing this trailer before the trip. The trailer told me that it could be a potential commentary on religion in general if I was able to step back and look a the themes that were going on. Cinematically, it looked promising, and I felt that it could potentially be one of the winners of the Film Festival, so I wanted to see it. Enjoy the trailer.

After watching this film, I wound up giving it 4 turban-headed emojis out of 5. Cinematically, it was good. The storytelling was strong. As a movie, it was good. There were technical things that were nice. Shots that were effective. But I am a Ministry major along with being a DM major, so I wanted to step back a bit. It did provide me with some perspectives on religion. It demonstrated the struggle of being dedicated to a religion different from those you love, as the main character here felt that she was taking her religion more seriously than the rest of her family. We also saw a bit of a commentary on marriage, as she got married during the movie and then faced conflict in that relationship early on in the marriage. These are strong elements of story, but when we step back we see that they apply to people in any religion, not just Islam.

This was especially effective for me the next day when I saw The Student.  Where the main character of Layla M. was a young brown Muslim girl living in the midst of struggle surrounding her religion, The Student hit me a little bit closer to home. In the ways that Layla M. was detached from my life and not relatable, The Student was. Not that I could relate to everything in the film, but the main character was a Christian white male teenager. Dang. They’re coming after me now. For this film to have a similar plot of taking your religion more seriously than those around you was something challenging for me. Please watch the trailer now before we get any further.

Here, Venya, the main character, is convicted that his religion is the most important thing. He feels convicted of certain sins and lies that surround his daily life. Honestly, there are times that I feel that. I want to take my religion seriously. I want to be faithful. However, Venya responds to the extreme. He uses scripture, yes, but in a way that we call “proof texting.” He takes passages out of context and uses them to fit his interpretation of a situation or sin. This is a problem that the church has faced for hundreds of years, so it is not a surprise. We all fall into it at different times, but it was clear to everyone in the theater that Venya was taking this to the extreme. He became aggressive and attacking both physically and verbally. He caused trouble in the home and in his school.

The extreme to which this movie went was interesting to me, and was one of the greater challenges for me in watching this film and rating it. I settled on giving it my lowest rating – a 3 pencil emojis out of 5 – but that was not easy. I had to ask myself, do I want to rate this low because it was a bad movie or because it hit too close to home?  Am I being defensive by rating this lower than Layla M., a film with a similar plot but not as close to home? I finally settled down and realized that cinematically, it was clearly the weakest of any I saw at the festival. The storytelling was not bad, but I saw one of the larger twists coming way too soon.

Both films showed the extremes of different religions, but to me the value was found when I juxtaposed them alongside each other, providing a larger commentary of religion vs. the surrounding world. Alone they were both ok, but having seen both in back-to-back days, I can see that I learned something. My eyes were opened to each film by the other, and I would rate that aspect of my festival experience as 10 popcorn kernels out of 10.

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