Atheist Chic at the Movies? (March 2001)

March 2001

“Chocolat,” a sleeper hit based on a fable set in a small French village in 1959, proudly boasts an atheist heroine.

The audience in the packed theater in Madison, Wis., where I recently saw the film erupted in spontaneous cheers and claps of approval when the main character, Vianne, played by Juliette Binoche, gently announces her refusal to go to Mass, and is identified as an atheist.

The plot, based on a novel by Joanne Harris, revolves around the disruptions and transformations that occur when Vianne blasphemously opens a “chocolaterie” during Lent. It’s full of great supporting performances by Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Leslie Caron, and Lena Olin. Victoire Thivosol is especially appealing as Anouk, Vianne’s young daughter, who has an imaginery kangaroo named Pantouf. (It’s PG-13 but was suitable for our unworldly 11-year-old.) The film, with a definite anticlerical bent, is directed by Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules”).

If you go see this movie, better stick some emergency chocolate rations in your pockets–the chocolate scenes are mouth-watering.

Another new-release Miramax film (not so hot) that features an atheist character is “Bounce,” with Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow. Affleck’s atheism is briefly revealed when the recovering alcoholic criticizes AA’s higher-power routine. Fortunately the movie portrays the secular redemption of this atheist.

These atheist protagonists join last fall’s “Contender,” directed by Rod Lurie, whose heroine (played by Joan Allen), a U.S. Senator nominated for the vice presidency, coolly admits her atheism and support for the separation of church and state at a confirmation hearing.

And isn’t it nice that both Allen and Binoche are up for a “best actress” Oscar for their portrayals of these freethinking characters? In other Oscar atheist trivia, Steven Soderbergh, director of two of the films nominated as “best movie of the year”–“Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich”–recently replied “no” when The Onion asked him, “Do you believe in God?”

Could it be atheism is becoming chic?

–Annie Laurie Gaylor

Freedom From Religion Foundation