Traditionally, "religion" has been synonymous with "spirituality." The increasing divergence between the two terms, however—particularly within highly secularized Western cultures, where the former indicates denominational affiliation, the latter an often unchurched seeking—raises the question whether there is now a contrast between religious films and ones of spirituality. If the religious film usually promotes adherence to a single institutionalized faith, the film of spirituality may well tap various—sometimes incompatible—belief systems, respecting all but refusing to grant primacy to any one. Thus Andrei Tarkovsky's (1932–1986) career-end summa, Offret ( The Sacrifice , 1986), splices Japanese and Christian beliefs into an ecumenical spirituality to match the coupling of yin and yang on the kimono of its protagonist, Alexander, who beseeches God to save the world from nuclear annihilation. Different belief systems—primarily Christian and Buddhist—are also fused in the more mainstream The Matrix (1999). The supernatural, meanwhile, an apparently cognate category, is usually less productive of spirituality than of audience frissons , as in the ghost film.
The possibility that a cinema of religion once prevailed and then declined presents itself most forcibly in the case of American film, whose deference towards religion sinks palpably as the desired national audience comprises fewer and fewer WASPS (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Among American directors, a deeply personal approach to religious themes has been rare, and is strongest in Martin Scorsese (b. 1942), whose Catholic background may be of relevance. In Mean Streets (1973), Charlie holds his hand above a candle, imagining hell, and the possibility that his sexual habits may take him there is underlined by the cut from its flame to the orange-lit bar where he prances with a near-naked dancer. The perils of the flesh recur in the controversial Last Temptation of Christ (1988)—that temptation being the recurrent one for cinematic priests: love of a woman. The later Kundun (1997), however, shows religion free of the earlier lures and passions. Scorsese is a rare exception to the rule whereby American cinema subordinates religiosity to its governing system of genre, as when it uses priests in token fashion as avuncular light relief (in countless films) or an embodiment of the main protagonist's conscience, as in On the Waterfront (1954).