When T.J. Berden and his film crew set out to produce “Full of Grace,” they knew they wanted to do something different.
Somehow, between the time of Michelangelo and present day, a rift had grown between art and Christianity. Once one of the greatest sources for artistic inspiration, the Christianity depicted in modern art was somehow lacking to Berden and his team — it didn’t speak to them as modern men.
That’s why when Berden, Executive Producer Eric Groth, and writer-director Andrew Hyatt met in 2013 with the goal of making a Christian film (the original intent was saint films), they wanted it to be able to resonate with their own imperfect, human experiences.
“I think when people see these portrayals that are like, 'Accept Jesus, and then your life will be perfect,' it's prosperity-Gospel, it's bad art,” Berden told CNA. “It doesn’t respond to the needs that I have as a modern person, therefore it doesn’t feel reasonable, and thus Christianity seems unreasonable.”
“We wanted to take these people (Gospel figures) away from being statues, to being real people,” he said.
Producer T.J. Berden. Rather than trying to preach at the audience, Berden and crew set out to tell an interesting story. They chose to focus on the life and perspective of Mary, the mother of God, after Jesus ascended into heaven and left the apostles to establish the Church.
Many elements of that part of the Gospel story seemed ripe to resonate with modern man — dealing with the loss of a loved one, the struggle to recognize the presence of Christ in the world, a Church in crisis.
“Mary is kind of the emblem of that she never loses the memory of Christ, she’s like the keeper of memory,” he said.
“But all the guys around her are a bit of a mess, the world’s a mess, they’re trying to figure out what the Church is, there was no Church at the time, Christianity wasn’t even called that,” he said. “They just stay together out of the memory of the one that loved them.”
The film ends up being just as much a story about Peter as it is about Mary — back from 10 years’ worth of trying to evangelize the world, the film shows the first pope as still very unsure of how and where to lead the church.
It’s a kind of betrayal, Berden said, when Christian art robs saints of these human elements of suffering and confusion and uncertainty.
“It’s in scripture — Peter denied Christ,” Berden said. “He’s the one who’s the great modern crazy person — one day he’s in it and he’s in love, the next day he’s running away and he’s sad, but none of that matters.”
It’s a story that, for the most part, hadn’t yet been told.
“You always want to be able to show something that’s never been shown on screen before, that’s always a film-maker's aspiration,” Berden said. “We show for the first time on screen the dormition and assumption of Mary, a moment that’s literally never been seen on film before.”
Sacred Arthouse — a new genre of film
As the film “Full of Grace” developed, so did the idea for film as an icon, as sacred art, a genre Berden has started calling “Sacred Arthouse.”
In many ways “Full of Grace” strays from the typical structures and elements in modern-day movies — the slower pace, focus on dialogue and beautiful imagery seeks to draw the audience into the film as a kind of prayer, rather than keeping them on the edge of their seat with a loud soundtrack and explosive action.
“Sometimes a story asks you to tell it in a different way,” Berden said.
“We’ve been showing this film around with that perspective, inviting people to watch it in that way, as a prayer, as something that can help their lives, and it’s changed the experience. The film becomes like an icon; it changes you.”
They’ve even changed the way they’re showing the film, which felt all wrong in the big, boxy movie-plexes found in shopping malls. Now they are more carefully choosing settings that can prepare people to receive the film in the right way — in more intimate settings such as churches, or in beautiful art house theaters.
Berden, standing in as an extra, with writer/director Andrew Hyatt.
“We want to give people an experience,” he said. “Some of the greatest sacred art is housed inside churches, it puts you in a position to receive it.”
Sacred art is always trying to speak to men in the world, Berden said. In the Middle Ages, sacred art meant using stained-glass windows and mosaics to tell the story of Christ to the illiterate masses in church.
Today, there’s a different kind of illiteracy, a different need to which sacred art must respond.
“The man in the Middle Ages had no problem understanding that he was a dependent creature,” Berden said. “He couldn’t read, he had no access to healthcare, he lived a poor life in many other ways.”
“Today we have a lot of advantages, today, people read, but there’s another kind of illiteracy going on,” he added. “It’s an illiteracy of the heart, it’s a crisis of the person. We don’t know who we are, so who are we in relationship to this God is very confused.”
“So we want to draw on the best of sacred art from the Church, the tradition, but be able to tell it in a modern and contemporary way through the technology that we’re given and through modern man’s experience.”
That’s why it’s so essential for modern sacred art to speak with an authenticity, something Berden and his crew worked hard to achieve.
“If the filmmaker makes something for him or herself, not as a selfish enterprise but as something that really speaks to their life, that’s the only chance you’re going to have for it to resonate into somebody else’s life,” he said.
Being Catholic in Hollywood
It’s been somewhat surprising how well the film has been received in the larger world of Hollywood, Berden added.
“The bible’s hot right now, the film got picked up right away,” he said.
An actor turned documentary maker turned film producer, Berden said he originally came to the world of Hollywood with the intent of changing the culture there. It’s been a humbling experience for him to realize that God is the one who ultimately does that.
“That doesn’t work for me because I realized I can’t even change myself,” he said. “It’s only helped me to be more myself, to say that this is my story, I come from this.”
One of the most effective ways to share his faith has been through simple things like trying to create a more human environment on set, and by treating people with the dignity they deserve.
Several of the people on set who weren’t Christian even commented on how making “Full of Grace” was a refreshing experience for them.
“Someone on set who us not Christian, said, ‘If this is the Church, it’s interesting. It’s not what we understand it to be from the outside,’” Berden recalled.
For aspiring Christian artists and filmmakers, Berden said the best things they can do is to live life.
“It’s a very personal thing,” Berden said. “Every opportunity that comes is an opportunity to grow and become more yourself. And that’s the most interesting fruit of film-making, it’s a fruit of what you’ve gone through.”
Parishes interested in screening “Full of Grace” can find more information about the film and its licensing at: fullofgracefilm.com/faithevents.
Berden with executive producer Eric Groth, and writer-director Andrew Hyatt.