Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Five Great Films Of Faith

For as long as I can remember, I have loved going to the movies. When I was a child, one of my favorite places to eat in Charlotte was a pizza parlor that showed silent films by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. Along with Disney films, I also watched classic films movies my parents loved, so I got exposed to lots of musicals (Singing in the Rain, Sound of Music), comedies that ranged from slapstick to screwball to romantic, as well as great dramas (Casablanca, 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird). Some of their favorite movies became some of mine and, as I got older, I developed my own favorites and began to embrace foreign cinema. 

One category that I have struggled with the most are films listed as "Christian." Typically, these are heavy-handed tracts that bludgeon the audience (predominantly those who already believe what is being espoused on-screen) and I cringe just watching them. They always make me ask, "If I weren't a Christian, would I watch this?" The answer is typically a resounding, "NO!" These movies are too simplified, cut and dry, and offer no real struggle or complexities to what it means to have faith and, especially, to have that faith tested.

Once I went to film school, I came across these films that are both great cinema as well as deeply nuanced and complicated stories with strongly developed characters, plot and are amazing to look at. 

My first choice comes from a director who struggles with God in all of his films. Born the son of a strict, cold and authoritarian minister, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman wrestled with what he saw as the silence of God. While he has many great movies to choose from, I picked The Virgin Spring (from 1960).  Based on a thirteenth century folk song and set in medieval Sweden, this is the tale of a young girl who is raped and murdered. Her father, played by the amazing Max Von Sydow, decides he is going to take revenge on those who've done this to his daughter. While this is not an easy film to watch, it deals with the complex issues of justice, morality, the nature of evil, questioning of religious faith, and, ultimately, redemption. Bergman once said, "No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight of the soul." One experiences the truth of that statement watching this great work of cinema. 

The director Ingmar Bergman once said that his discovery of the films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky were like "a miracle." He considered Tarkovsky the greatest filmmaker because he thought Tarkovsky "invented a new language . . . as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream." High praise from a man who was lauded as a genius of cinema. Andrei Tarkovsky was the son of the poet Arseny Tarkovsky.  Unlike most directors today, Tarkovsky saw cinema as a spiritual act, much like prayer. "Modern mass culture, aimed at the 'consumer,' the civilization of prosthetics," he wrote in his meditation on film and faith entitled Sculpting in Time, "is crippling people's souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being."

All of Tarkovsky's films strives to portray the spiritual nature in a poetic manner in order to reveal the truth he has seen "even if not everyone finds that truth acceptable." Each one is his attempt to express the Infinite. "Substitution," he said is necessary because, "the infinite cannot made made into matter, but it is possible to create an illusion of the infinite: the image."

Like with Bergman, it is difficult narrowing down Tarkovsky's movies to just one, but after much debating, I settled on his 1966 masterpiece Andrei Rublev. It is a biographical film about the life of 15th century icon-painter Andrei Rublev. This is set during a violent and turbulent part of Russian history and its themes are artistic freedom, as well as religious and political identity (all of this drew the ire of the socialistic and atheistic leaders of the Soviet Union of that time who saw it as a condemnation of their own regime). 

Regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, Andrei Rublev places us in this world amidst the muck and chaos that resembles the paintings of Brueghel. Not interested in cause and effect, Tarkovsky is far more concerned about asking questions about the artist in regards to society and his religious beliefs, while not seeking to answer the questions he's asked. "In cinema, it is not necessary to explain, but to act upon the viewer's feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought," he said.  Acts of creation are mirrored by acts of destruction. Creation with the fallenness of man. With the films final moments, we see that creation wills out in a grand flourish of color as we see Rublev's paintings for the very first time. 

My third choice is a more more accessible film than the first two. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for 1987, Babette's Feast. Based on story by Isak Dinesen (author of Out of Africa), this movie tells the story of two elderly and pious sisters Martine and Phillipa. Their father, a pastor, founded an austere sect that his daughters preside over once he died. The sect is dwindling as the congregation gets older and does not draw any new converts. We are shown the sisters' pasts and the choices they made to stay with their father in their strict faith. Then a French refugee, Babette, shows up on their doorstep with an offer to work for them without pay. 

What unfolds as Babette enters their lives and, over the years, gaining their trust and respect. Then, one day, Babette wins the French lottery of $10,000 francs. She uses that money to prepare a feast for the sisters and people from their past. This sumptuous, exotic feast takes on spiritual meaning, almost like a Eucharist, as those gathered at the table begin to find redemption and forgiveness as they come to terms with their pasts and their choices. After the meal, a tearful Martin tells Babette, "Now you will be poor the rest of your life." Babette replies, "An artist is never poor!" Philippa says, "In paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be."

My fourth choice is a series of films by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski based on the Ten Commandments, entitled Dekalog. These short films were what drew attention to Kieslowski and led to him becoming one of the world's premiere filmmakers (going on to make The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours series BlueWhite and Red based on the colors and the three political ideals of France: liberty, equality and fraternity). At the time of his death, he was also working on films about both heaven and hell.  When asked about the crisis facing Western Civilization, Krzysztof Kieslowski said, "We are clearly going through a cultural crisis at the moment. It's a phase where we are trying to distinguish values of life. People are looking for a solution and perhaps they will find it. But the radicality of the search will change their view of life."

I had come to Kieslowski's work through the dreamlike film The Double Life of Veronique. Having never seen anything like it, I became a huge fan of his work, so much so that when I found out they were showing Dekalog at a film festival in Washington, DC, Danelle and I drove there to see them. I was amazed by the originality and depth he brought to the subject. Dekalog is not a film about rules, offering only mere illustrations of those who do or don't live by them, but stories that involve real people caught up in the complexities of their daily problems. Throughout the films is a single male figure. He's a young man who looks sadly on at what is taking place around him. He never speaks a word, but there is a sadness to him. Is this Christ with his pure, wounded gaze looking at the weakness and failures of humanity? 

These are not philosophical abstractions but concrete stories with real emotions. Stanley Kubrick (director of such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey) said, after seeing Dekalog, that Kieslowski "has the very rare ability to dramatize (his) ideas rather than just talking about them." How many of today's "Christian" movies can that be said of? These are films that will leave the viewer filled with questions and wanting to discuss them. 

Along with Bergman, Tarkovsky and Kieslowski this last choice is by another of my favorite filmmakers: Terrence Malick. I have loved his films from Badlands to Tree of Life (was not able to embrace his To The Wonder). All of his works have a spiritual element to them and references to biblical stories. With Malick, I was torn between three films (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life). The last one I have already blogged about Awe & Meditation On The Tree Of Life, so I went with Days of Heaven. Malick is an artist and the frames of his films are like master paintings. Throughout this film, I couldn't help but think of the work of Andrew Wyeth. The film is visually gorgeous to look at.

The story is almost Old Testament in its telling. Set in 1916, Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are lovers. After knocking down and accidentally killing his boss, they flee to Texas where they pretend to be siblings to prevent gossip. When they are hired on by a shy and wealthy farmer (played by Sam Shepard), he begins to fall in love with Abby. Discovering that the farmer is dying, Bill encourages Abby to marry him so that they can inherit his money after he dies. What Bill does not expect is that Abby will fall in love with this farmer. As the film unfolds, complete with plagues like locust and fire, so too does its story of ambition and love. This melodrama works because Malick is more meditative about his subjects and fills them with religious imagery. His contemplative style makes his films transcendent in its being elliptical and evocative. He does not feed the audience the answers but makes them work to understand the connections and depth of what's unfolding onscreen. There is a conscious deliberation to his films, rooted in his faith and his love of philosophy. His movies deal with the fundamental questions of man's existence (creation, the fall of man, the existence of good and evil - within the same person, light and darkness, human and divine love, the eternal and the natural world). 

As with the other great directors I've mentioned, Terrence Malick is not interested in easy answers but in the complicated messiness that we all struggle through in our faith to find meaning in the suffering and the joy, the heartbreak and the hope. 

All of these films portray faith as something that is tested and tried. They show the reality of the wrestling with life and with God. Each director portrays that, no matter how hard the struggle is, in the end there is more, there is hope, there is something far greater than ourselves. Their artistry opens us to awe and wonder and the daringness to ponder. Like any great art, they don't offer us the answers but, instead, help us to ask better questions.

These are my five choices for great films about faith, what are yours? Comment or e-mail me. I would love to hear your thoughts on my choices and your own.

Other recommendations:

The Mission
"If might is right, then love has no place in the world," Father Gabriel tells
Rodrigo, "It may be so,  it may be so.  But I don't have the strength to live
in a world like that."

Chariots of Fire
"I believe God made me for a purpose," Eric Liddell says to his sister,
"but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure."

Diary of a Country Priest

Tender Mercies

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