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Mystery and the movies: spirituality in cinema history

30 November, 1999

Some movies do it, some movies don’t. Michael Paul Gallagher SJ identifies what is required for movies to contribute to our reflections on the meaning and mystery of our existence.

According to Walter Ong, the American Jesuit and renowned cultural expert, when humankind invented the ‘technology’ of writing, it changed our sense of ourselves more than any other invention in history. We left behind an ‘oral’ culture where face-to-face communication was the key. After the dawn of the printing press, we moved into the more private and individualist world of books.

A new oral culture
In the Twentieth Century, the art of cinema has become what novels were for the Nineteenth – the vehicle of popular story-telling and the dominant way of mirroring and exploring our concerns. Cinema is visual, but its use of voice and present-tense contact has heralded a return to oral culture in a different form. It has become a key factor in shaping contemporary sensibility and values. But if this is the case, then how does it approach the great mystery of existence?

Two or three decades ago, some great European directors openly tackled religious themes of searching: think of Bergman, Bresson, and Fellini. Hollywood seldom tried anything on this religious wavelength – although Woody Allen has always wanted to be a comic version of Bergman, confronting the great issues with a mixture of anguish and hilarity. Nowadays, that openly religious approach seems less in vogue. Instead, spiritual hungers are often embodied more indirectly in films that rise above entertainment and have some ambitions as explorations of where-we-are.

Shy about religion
Typical of this tendency would be the late Krzystof Kieslowski, the Polish director famous for his Ten Commandments series. Three Colours: Blue was a good example of this tendency to tackle religious themes with a new shyness. The central figure is Julie, a young widow who survived a car crash which kills both her husband and daughter. What is central is the slow rediscovery of compassion, initiated in the encounter with the prostitute who brings flowers to Julie.

The film moves from closedness to forgiveness, generosity, and the final scenes offer a sung Greek version of St. Paul’s hymn of love (1 Corinthians, 13), set against a collage of previous moments of hurt and disaster. It seems to suggest how love can (eventually) embrace the tragic, or how a healing music can (in time) reach all brokenness. If this is a film about a religious quest, God is hardly mentioned: instead one has a powerful human drama of the heart and its slow change towards faith. Much the same conversion process can be found in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, with its series of surprises about deep affection beyond sexuality.

There are also pseudo versions of this journey on offer, I think – films that plug into a soft spirituality of ‘feeling good’ without any cost. For instance, was the finale of ET a genuine moment of self-transcendence and spiritual imagination, or merely a manipulation of short-lived emotions?

Religion without conversion
Bertolucci’s successful film Little Buddha was even more spiritually false, a kind of New Age for children. But its version of religion was childish, not child-like. Its view of spirituality is of the do-it-yourself variety. Concentrate hard enough and you will overcome whatever demons there are. Enter deep enough into your own self and you will find illumination. The kind of religion imaged here lacks conversion of anything except consciousness, and there was never a moment of any social concern. Centuries ago it was called ‘gnosticism’, a fuzzy but attractive flirting with inner journeys. It is back in favour!

These celebration years of cinema’s centenary should stimulate a discernment of the process of experiencing a film and where that is leading us all. We need to question the relationship of influence between the visual experience and the receiving audience. It is a question of ‘discerning’ the long-term impact as opposed to the short-term impression.

The skill called ‘discernment’ is an ancient one in the Christian spiritual tradition. In modern language, it means unmasking illusion and offering skills for evaluating our experiences. Above all, discernment insists on examining the direction of inner experiences, seeking to recognise roots in terms of fruits. By its fruits you will know, as the gospels say. The quality of emotions stirred in the audience are more accurate indicators of genuineness than mere content.

So some questions that the discernment tradition pose to film would be: does this movie open or close the hearts of its audience to compassion? Does it seduce people into a vague self-trip of nice feelings, or does it point them toward an encounter with Mystery? Does it serve the spirit of poverty that knows its own vulnerability, or does it foster infantile fantasies of various kinds: power, pleasure, play? Does it avoid the pain of the world? Is it faithful to the spirit of Incarnation, which means a reverence for the holy in the human?

The question is less what is being portrayed than where does this film lead its audience: towards stereotyped immersion in familiar images and reactions, or towards the challenge of inner freedom and disturbing wonder?


This article first appeared in AMDG, a publication of the Irish Jesuits.