Three reasons why religion changes gender in Nordic films

March 04, 2019

Can religion help us rethink gender? If your gut reaction is no, you are probably not alone, but a look at some Nordic films suggest that the answer could well be yes – or at least maybe.

In films, characters are often gendered in quite traditional ways. Men tend to be imagined as more active and less emotional – if one ignores aggression – while for women, relationships and feelings play a greater role. However, some film-settings challenge prevalent representations of gender. In the case of Nordic films, one such setting is religion. I would argue that there are at least three interrelated reasons why some Nordic filmmakers have ended up reimagining gender using religious settings. Three reasons that also indicate something about attitudes to religion today. 

One: religion is different

Religion or being religious is in the Nordic context not the default position. It is of course not unheard of – most Nordic people still belong to one of the Nordic national Lutheran churches, but this does not mean that they generally consider themselves religious. Religion is often understood as a private matter and something preferably kept private. This means that those who openly identify as religious stand out. However, this also means that a religious setting can inspire unusual characters. It has for example provided us with several untraditional images of men.

In the Danish Dogma film Italian for Beginners, Andreas is the new pastor in a suburban congregation. From the start, he comes across as a sensitive and open-minded listener who with his soft ways inspire people to talk and connect. In contrast to the other male characters – a nervous hotel clerk and an angry football fan – he seems very much in touch with his feelings and comfortable with human interactions.

As It is in Heaven

As It is in Heaven

Daniel Dareus in the Swedish film As It is in Heaven is a famous conductor who returns to his home village after a breakdown and starts directing the local church choir. In time, he becomes a form of spiritual leader for the community, but he also develops from an emotionally shutdown person to an open and loving man. Daniel, like Andreas, can be contrasted to the other male characters in the film; among them, a bully and wife-beater and a power-fixated pastor.

The pastor Antti in the Finnish film Man Exposed also fits the bill. He starts off as quite unmanly according to filmic standards. He is impotent, bullied by his father-in-law and generally lost in life. The film allows him to retrieve some of his agency, but does not turn him into a macho man in turn. Instead, his vulnerability and sensitivity is retained and in the final scenes, he is shown combining his new position as bishop with an active family life.

Two: religion is female

Religion is in contemporary western societies, as discussed by Susan Palmer, Linda Woodhead and many more, turning into a female sphere. The way female characters in Nordic films are provided agency and power in connection to religious spheres can be seen as a possible indication of this. In the Norwegian film The Kautokeino Rebellion we are introduced to Elen, a young Sami woman who inspired by the teachings of the preacher Laestadius, help her people fight mistreatments. She thus becomes a spiritual leader that is shown to be strong and driven, both emotionally and physically. 

The Kautokeino Rebellion

The Kautokeino Rebellion

Stories about female pastors are also abundant in Nordic films. They do though tend to focus more on the characters’ private life than their professional life, a set-up known from many films about working women, as Yvonne Tasker has illustrated in Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema. Still, the stories do often allow the characters access to forms of leadership and open up for complex representations. In the Danish film In Your Hands, the pastor works in a women’s prison, a position that challenges her on both a professional and a private level.

The feminine aspect contributed to religion also seems to entail that male religious characters end up somewhat feminized in Nordic films: more inclined to express emotions and focus on relationships, as is the case with Andreas, Daniel and Antti described above. Simultaneously though, these representations challenge common ideas about gender.    

In Nordic films, religious settings thus sometimes offer somewhat unusually gendered characters. But this is of course not always the case. One of the key female characters in As It is in Heaven is a young, spiritual, and emotional woman, in tune with both nature and her own body. This is, as Ann-Kristin Wallengren has illustrated in her study of rural settings in Swedish films, a rather common female character; a character created to support the male lead in his development, but not allowed a great deal of development herself. In addition, next to the sensitive and emotionally intoned male pastor, one often finds an equally power driven and uncaring one. Religious groups are also often imagined to be very traditional, with male leaders and women as wives and mothers

Three: religion is inspiring

Religion then does not always inspire different images, but because of its difference in a Nordic context, religion and spirituality do still seem to fascinate. Many Nordic filmmakers, both those that identify as atheists and those who express beliefs, talk about their fascination with religion. The fact that religion is considered a private matter also means that religion is something one is allowed to play around with and reimagine. Religion can thus become a space were characters are allowed to stand out and break molds; a liminal space that can at times open unsuspected doors.

One more Nordic film example can help illustrate these points.

In Adams Apples, a Danish black comedy, a picturesque rural church is the setting for struggles between good and evil. Adam, a neo-Nazi, is to perform community service in the church led by Ivan. Ivan believes that everyone that comes to the church will be saved. His talk of god and the devil disturbs Adam, who decides to break Ivan. He first tries to do this physically, by beating Ivan bloody. Then he turns to mental abuse, questioning Ivan’s faith.

Adams Apples

Adams Apples

While Adam is the aggressive and violently inclined bad guy on film, Ivan is his caring counterpart, who never answers violence with violence. He is of course also mentally disturbed Ivan has had an awful life with childhood abuse, a wife that committed suicide and a son with severe mental and physical impairments, but denies all of this. In his world, his wife accidentally took too many pills and his son plays football in the churchyard.

In this film, religion thus becomes a setting for madness and abuse. But also for change. In the end, it is not Adam’s coldness that succeeds; it is the caring ways of Ivan. When Adam has made Ivan doubt his faith and Ivan gives up on his mission the small community in the church crumbles. Instead of leaving, Adam tries to steer things straight. In the process, he comes to see that Ivan’s caring faith was perhaps not as blind and mad, as it first seemed. 

Learning from film

What can we possibly learn from these film representations?

Films can teach us something about a society, as among others Andrew Nestingen illustrates in Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film, and Social Change, but the images they provide are never clear reflections. They offer indications, but no straightforward answers. Regarding religion and spirituality, what they capture are attitudes and common understandings, but not necessarily clear-cut perspectives. The many stories about conservative religious characters and groups point to the view that religion is considered somewhat out-of-date. But the stories that allow for alternative images suggest a somewhat different outlook. They point to a more complex view on religion, a view that goes beyond stereotypes. The films also underline the potential of popular culture to not just reflect views and attitudes, but also to inspire, to influence and to challenge how we look at the world.  

With its focus on convicts getting a second chance in a church, Adams Apples is not a very original Nordic film. This setup can be found in many contemporary Nordic film productions. But the characters at the core of Adam’s Apples illustrate the potential for a religious setting to sometimes defy expectations. This allows for new ways of conceiving both gender and religion and can possibly help us, the viewers, reconsider our perspectives and inspire us to look more critically at cultural images. Whose perspective are we provided with, whose interpretations are given center stage and what can we learn from alternative viewpoints?