The genre system has often been described as founded upon standardization. Variation may recommend a new product, but the deviation from the norm must not be so great as to make spectators feel cheated. Should this happen in a religious film, they may well not only walk out but accuse the filmmakers of the severest infraction—blasphemy. The religious film could thus be the least elastic of genres.
Whereas other genres can be seen as emerging and declining, hybridizing with others to prolong their lives, the religious film is unusually stable. Its sole durable combinations have been with two genres of which it is highly compatible, and it has surely been affected by their demises: silent melodrama and the historical epic. This fusion means that the Good-Evil distinction of silent melodrama differs from that of later melodrama in being mapped directly onto the maxims of Christianity, not just the vague, instinctual feeling that certain things are right and others wrong, which is prevalent in subsequent
The second genre cross-pollinated with the religious film is the historical epic. Silent cinema is often both melodrama and epic, as in the films of D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), particularly The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). As melodrama loses its explicit link to Christianity, however, the epic remains the religious film's lone partner in a pact to lure audiences by combining the visual impressiveness of the legendary "cast of thousands" with the authority of the text to be illustrated. The enormous crowds can become a material form of the sublimity invoked by the text, suggesting religion's world-conquering power. Such is the case in the great Hollywood biblical epics of the 1950s and early 1960s, such as The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), King of Kings (1961), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). The epic and the religious film may be potentially strange bedfellows, however, as the epic fascination by excess is often charged with threatening religious morality with prurient hypocrisy. Hollywood and the religious film are also potentially incompatible in a culture of celebrity, it being arguable that religious films should not cast actors with "star quality" but rather figures with sufficient presence, dignity, and credibility to represent (not eclipse) the "real stars," their sacred prototypes. Pier Paolo Pasolini's (1922–1975) Il Vangelo secondo Matteo ( The Gospel According to St. Matthew , 1964) is a particularly widely praised example of effective nonstar casting.
As the new site of epic experience became the science fiction film, its implicit spectator became less the adult member of a single faith community than the child animated by a generalized sense of wonder: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was the first film of a spirituality popularized still further by Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and George Lucas's Star Wars (1977). No wonder that a British census saw some householders give Jedi as their religion. As the 1960s saw the heavily touted dawning of a supposed Age of Aquarius and the Western rise of less traditional forms of religion, Hollywood abandoned the "religious film" for horror films showering frissons upon unchurched youth, the new primary audience, as in Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973). In Kevin Smith's Dogma (1999), which clearly identifies with two rebel angels striving to reenter heaven through a loophole, countercultural and youth culture urges validate rebellion. Similarly, other films may deem religion crazed, maligned, and even abusively authoritarian (e.g., Carrie , Lawnmower Man ). "Religious film" persists in its strong form only in certain Catholic or neo-Catholic directors who are mostly Italian (Franco Zeffirelli [b. 1923], Ermanno Olmi [b. 1931]): after all, no sounding of Italian society can ignore the pervasive influence of Roman Catholicism. The 1960s upheaval in the genre system may virtually bury its once most solid, predictable element: the religious film.