Religion



CINEMA, MODERNITY, AND RELIGION

If cinema issues from Western societies driven by modernity, can it ever be anything other than an object of suspicion for believers, particularly those of non-Western societies whose norms and jurisprudence invoke religious texts, aspiring to theocracy rather than democracy? One reply (from one group—the Christian one—in one part of the world—the moneyed West) may be that cinema is a powerful evangelical tool. Accept the idea that God is representable—one reading of the Christian belief that God condescended to represent himself in a man, Jesus the Christ, though fears of blasphemy may cause indirection in representing him—and cinema becomes a potential medium for fulfilling the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28:19–20 by disseminating the Good News. The films that do so will probably not be the ones acclaimed in Western multiplexes; rather, they will be produced by particular faith groups rather than big studios, and be watched as one-off events in tents—as the the very first Western films were. Their effectiveness may not be overwhelming—many Muslims will leave a film of Christ's life before the Resurrection, as they see the Crucifixion as the end of the story, and Jesus as merely a man—but the visual message can draw the world's unlettered masses as the stained glass of medieval cathedrals had done. Strict followers of Islam and Orthodox Judaism, who reject the possibility of figurative religious representation, will reject film too, as did the Taliban in Afghanistan. In practice, though, Islamists' views on cinema have not always been so theologically grounded: clerics may have burned cinemas to protest their supposed corruption of the Iranian populace under the shah, but once in power the Ayatollah Khomeini (1900–1989) incorporated film into a program of promoting "Islamic culture." In this moralistic program, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were acceptable imports, despite their origins in the corrupt West.

In recent years, the issue of cinema's capacity to convert has been raised most forcibly by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). Despite its association with Gibson, it is no typical Hollywood blockbuster production: during shooting, the industry was skeptical of a film in Aramaic, an apparently eccentric star folly. This deeply personal project by a believing Catholic

KRZYSZTOF KIEŚ LOWSKI
b. Warsaw, Poland, 27 June 1941, d. 13 March 1996

Although Krzysztof Kieślowski began his career as a documentarist, subsequently becoming a leading figure in the pre-Solidarity ferment of Poland's Cinema of Moral Anxiety, in the 1980s his work took a turn toward the philosophical, then the ethico-metaphysical, that yielded dramatizations of religious and spiritual issues of a seriousness rivalled in recent decades only by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. This spiritual-metaphysical turn is often linked to Kieślowski's first collaboration with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a Catholic lawyer, in 1985's No End , but a philosophical and metaphysical concern with chance and destiny also pervades Kieślowski's Przypadek ( Blind Chance , 1987).

The collaboration with Piesiewicz on Dekalog ( The Decalogue , 1989) marks an intensification of Kieślowski's investigation of religious, ethical, and metaphysical issues. The Decalogue comprises ten fifty-odd minute films, each loosely tied to one of the Ten Commandments, each lodging an enigmatic witness—termed an angel by some critics—in the margins of the various stories about the inhabitants of a single housing block. With the exception of "Dekalog 1," which relentlessly tracks the implications of "thou shalt have no other gods before me," the witness in each story is the series' main link to a transcendence whose purposes are unclear. In "Dekalog 1" the dialogue of faith and unbelief pursued by many religious films shapes the difference between the rationalist character Krzysztof and his Catholic sister Irena. Consulting the meteorological office, Krzysztof calculates that a nearby frozen mini-lake is safe for his son Pawel to skate. He is proved cruelly and inexplicably wrong, and the disaster of Pawel's drowning suggests the intervention of unknown forces (a computer that behaves strangely? the witness encamped by the lake? a punitive God?). The film ends with Krzysztof overturning a row of candles before an image of the Madonna in a partly completed church: like many people crying out to God or gods, he finds suffering incomprehensible. Later parts of The Decalogue are more ethical than spiritual, though the presence of the witness supplies a continual undertone of the metaphysical.

Metaphysical enigma pervades La Double vie de Véronique ( The Double Life of Véronique , 1991), about two identical girls who live, separately, in Poland and France, and experience different fates. The film leaves provocatively open the question of whether any wider order frames their stories and might render them comprehensible. Similarly mysterious is the status of the judge in Trois couleurs: Rouge ( Three Colours: Red , 1994), who is godlike, and may be God incognito, being apparently able to steer the chance encounters of a young girl (Valentine) towards a prospective lover, Auguste. Issues of theodicy loom large, however, as Valentine meets Auguste through a ferry-sinking that drowns hundreds: divine election appears to be distinctly capricious. But Red is no Buñuelian, simply blasphemous indictment of the divine, for the events remain mysterious. Kieślowski's sensitivity to suffering and his desire to pose questions rather than offer answers—particularly not pat ones—resonate with the Western spirituality of recent times.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING

Przpadek (Blind Chance, 1987), Bez Końca ( No End , 1985), Dekalog ( The Decalogue, 1989), La Double vie de Véronique ( The Double Life of Véronique, 1991), Trois couleurs: Bleu ( Three Colours: Blue , 1993), Trois couleurs: Blanc ( Three Colours: White, 1994 ), Trois couleurs: Rouge ( Three Colours: Red, 1994)

FURTHER READING

Andrew, Geoff. The "Three Colours" Trilogy . London: British Film Institute, 1998.

Coates, Paul, ed. Lucid Dreams: The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski . Trowbridge, UK: Flicks Books, 1999.

Garbowski, Christopher. Kieślowski's Decalogue Series: The Problem of the Protagonists and Their Self-transcendence . New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Insdorf, Annette. Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski . New York: Hyperion, 1999.

Stok, Danusia, ed. and trans. Kieślowski on Kieślowski . London and Boston: Faber, 1993.

Paul Coates

Krzysztof Kieślowski directing Trois couleurs: Bleu ( Three colours: Blue , 1993).

emphasizes both the nails driven through the hand of Jesus and the sword the gospels said would pierce the heart of his mother, and is shaped by Mary's agonized following of her son's Passion. Industry astonishment at its box-office success indicates the distance between contemporary Hollywood and the 1950s era of the biblical epic. While some objected to its violence, it could be deemed an inevitable part of a realistic account of the brutal arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, though some of the indignities visited upon his body do indeed lack scriptural warrant (as when the cross to which he has been nailed falls forward, crushing his body excruciatingly). Gibson cinematizes and elaborates upon the Stations of the Cross, whose medieval and Renaissance iconography he echoes at points. Many Christians found it a powerful, conscience-shaking reminder of the intensity of Jesus's suffering for the sins of the world, and Pope John Paul II reportedly averred after a viewing "it is all true." If any have been converted by the film, it has been as individuals within the ticket-buying public for a commercially released work, not as members of the communities assembled for a free screening where that kind of film evangelizes the non-Christian world, Gibson's evangelizes one sometimes seen as "post-Christian."

Insofar as cinema enters non-Western societies, it does so initially as a foreign body. Local religious hierarchies' fears of a possible Trojan horse can be soothed by pointing to such phenomena as the Indian mythological films that flesh out divine exploits for communities watching in an awed hush. The Indian mythological films are for local consumption, however, and aesthetic cogency is not their primary aim. Critical films—such as Satyajit Ray's Devi (1960), where a man's idolatry of his daughter-in-law extends into viewing her as the incarnation of the Goddess—are viewed more widely, through an international festival and art-cinema network. Their primary allegiance is not to any faith, but to the aesthetic. One result may be a cinema with a complexion like that of the New Iranian cinema, which arguably becomes enigmatic and allegorical by omitting almost completely one of the primary motivations of many Iranians—religion—to address which might endanger both film and filmmaker.

Conflicts between religious (traditional) and secular (modern) orders pervade many of the most significant films on religious topics. Religion becomes the venal ally of the czarist authorities in a Soviet film like Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). The secular-religious conflict animates the disagreements between believing knight and skeptical squire in the plague-ridden medieval world of Ingmar Bergman's (b. 1918) Det Sjunde inseglet ( The Seventh Seal , 1957), and continues—internalized—in the heart of a doubting pastor in his Nattvardsgästerna ( Winter Light , 1963), the most explicitly religious film in his trilogy about "the silence of God." A similar contrast runs between father and son in Devi : the absence in Calcutta of the skeptical son Umaprasad frees his believing father to cast his daughter-in-law as an incarnation of the goddess Durga. Such strong contrasts make for powerful dramas that are most intense when most unresolved and mysterious. Lars von Trier's dissolution of the mystery at the end of his Breaking the Waves (1996), by way of contrast, may enact a Kierkegaardian leap from the aesthetic to the religious: heavenly bells toll for Bess, who had prostituted herself for her husband and feared that the accident that sent him home may have been God's cruel answer to her selfish prayer not to be parted from him; despite appearances, and the condemnation of a sectarian church, she was a saint. A similar leap marks the end of another Danish film, Carl Dreyer's (1889–1968) Ordet ( The Word , 1955), where one character—Inge—is resurrected. Meanwhile, modernity mocks religion relentlessly in Viridiana (1961), Simón del desierto ( Simon of the Desert , 1965), and La Voie lactée ( The Milky Way , 1969), all by the Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel (1900–1983), which view saintliness as a ludicrously inadequate response to inveterate social problems.

Trois couleurs Bleu, (Three Colours: Blue , 1993), the first part of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Trois couleurs trilogy, deals with spiritual withdrawal from the world.

Despite various attempts to define what Paul Schrader has called a "transcendental style" of cinema, believers may be skeptical of conflations of the aesthetic and the religious. Conventions of seeing are arguably more important than any particular stylistic strategy: believers will see the transcendent in any pious retelling of biblical events or the lives of the saints, however kitschy, while evocations of an uncategorized ontological strangeness presuppose unchurched spectators. The formal strategies usually termed "transcendental" are deviations from norms. Schrader describes them quasireligiously, as stylistic "asceticism," and finds them exemplified in the works of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson (1901–1999) in particular. Others might see them as "modernist" rather than "religious": leaving characters on one side of the image to rediscover them mysteriously present on the other—a perceptual dislocation in the Schrader/Scorsese Taxi Driver (1976)—becomes "transcendental" only when married to explicitly mystical content, as in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia ( Nostalgia , 1983). For the theologian Amédée Ayfre, religious form and content meet in a focus upon the face, the location of the eyes so often termed windows of the soul. Such a spiritually limned cinema of the face is found in, for instance, Kieślowski, Bergman, the Dreyer of La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc ( The Passion of Joan of Arc , 1928), and the Larisa Shepitko of Voskhozhdeniye ( Ascent , 1976). It avoids mainstream cinema's dissection of a (usually female) body into fetishized parts. Its aim is agape , not eros. Meanwhile, the work of Tarkovsky—especially Stalker (1979)—often evokes a spirituality of desolation—what St. John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul"—by averting the head to show only its back, while the focus upon hands and feet in the late films of Bresson may reinforce a general absence of signifiers of the divine. Bresson's nonprofessional actors themselves are framed not as revelations, as in Italian neorealism, but as ciphers. The result has been seen as verging upon nihilism, as in L'Argent ( Money , 1983), whose reworking of a Tolstoy story omits the original's charting of the positive contagion of the Gospel in its second half.



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