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   INTRODUCTION
 
 
 
 
 
HIGH ART CINEMA & THE LEGACY OF CHRIST
 
 
 
 
 
COPYRIGHT 2004







 

 

 

 
 

 

CHRIST  IN  CINEMA

HIGH  ART  CINEMA  AND  THE LEGACY  OF  CHRIST

by Gregory and Maria Pearse

 
(The Penitence of Magdelana by La Tour)
 
 
"God doesn't reveal Himself through mediocrity."
(from "The Devil, Probably," by Robert Bresson)
   
Apart from Pasolini's glorious "Gospel According to St. Matthew", a select group of auteur directors (i.e. directors authoring every aspect of the film, which results in a distinct individual style) have striven to communicate the story of Christ in the deepest, most personal way. These directors were less concerned with the literal depiction and more concerned with the effect that the story of Christ had on them, on their own lives. The results, as they come out on the screen, can often be striking in their diversity of approach and quite moving in their profundity.
 
Taking as his inspiration the great 19th century works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Andrei Tarkovsky was the only Soviet director to depict a crucifixion scene in his poetic masterpiece "Andrei Rublev". (In fact, the original title for that film was "The Passion According to Andrei". There is little doubt that Tarkovsky was greatly influenced by Pasolini's "Gospel...". Even his favorite Bach piece was used first by Pasolini. Tarkovsky never spoke about this, but people are often secretive about things that influence them the most.) In the tradition of Renaissance painters, such as Brugel, who set the story of Christ in their own time and culture, Tarkovsky creates a profoundly Russian scene in "Andrei Rublev", showing Christ walking towards Golgotha in the dead of Russian winter knee-deep in snow. It would make sense that a fourteen-century icon painter (Andrei Rublev) would have had such a vision, but Tarkovsky has melded with the character of Andrei Rublev, he and the painter are one (it is not out of the realm of possibilities that Tarkovsky actually was the reincarnation of Andrei Rublev). So Rublev's vision in the snow is actually Tarkovsky's vision and it lacerates the viewer with its suddenness of appearance and the impact of its individual perception. There is no doubt that what we are seeing is Christ, struggling in the Russian snow. Unfortunately, this scene is still presented with the old, distorted view of the crucifixion as an act willed by God. 
 
"Andrei Rublev" had a profound impact on the mature films of great director of the Caucasus, Sergei Paradjanov, who was in attendance at its world premier in Moscow. Although he never literally depicted Christ in his films, Paradjanov's subsequent work ("Color of Pomegranates", "Legend of Suram Fortress", "Ashik Kerib") built on Tarkovsky's breakthrough by increasingly merging poetics with a deeply spiritual point of view. Paradjanov, a self-proclaimed Christian, often depicted Christianity in striking ways: the brazen collision of pagan and Christian elements in "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors," the surreal monastery sequences in "Color of Pomegranates", the inner-conflict of being a Christian in a Muslim world in "Legend of Suram Fortress", and the problem of living according to Christ's Teaching in a godless world in "Ashik Kerib". Unfortunately, if some of Paradjanov's sublime masterpieces are marred by anything, it is the idea of martyrdom or a "necessary sacrifice", which has its origins in the Christian distortion of Christ's murder. 
 
Another great auteur director, who saw "Andrei Rublev" many times when it came out, was Ingmar Bergman, who once again never literally depicted the life of Christ, though he was offered a chance to make a film on Christ. The producers who later went to Zeffirelli (which resulted in "Jesus of Nazareth") approached Bergman first. However, Bergman's ideas about how and where to film the story (he wanted to shoot it on his bleak, remote Faro island) made them change their minds and go to Zeffirelli instead. Regardless of this mishap, themes of Christianity make up the substance of many of Bergman's greatest films. For instance, it is probably impossible to find a more profound and riveting portrayal of the crisis of faith than in his "Winter Light". When the main character of a priest confesses that the only way he can keep on believing is to shelter his God from the cruel reality of this world, then this is actually an honest illustration of the plight of most believers. Without the actual knowledge of how the Laws of Creation balance Justice with Love, there is no possibility of making any sense of the world around us. 
 
Another Scandinavian director of art films, Carl Theodor Dreyer, authored a screenplay, called "The Life of Jesus", which he also never filmed. His film was also to take place in the bleak Nordic landscape. Dreyer, however, had already used Christ in a striking manner in his film "Ordet" ("The Word"). The premise of the film is that a seminary student suffers a nervous breakdown under the duress of studying Kierkegaard and believes himself to be the Second Coming of the Lord. To the film's credit, it retains the spirit of Kierkegaard's criticism of Christianity. There is a pervasive sadness in the way that this "Christ" is depicted in "Ordet", as he observes the people around him. There seems to be a longing in the film for a path away from institutionalized religion and towards a more personal relationship with the Creator.
 
On the other side of the world, around the same time, the Spanish director Luis Bunuel was busy creating his own unique view of Christianity in his film "Nazarin". The main character of a priest, though he doesn't consider himself to be Christ, certainly tries to emulate the life of Christ. He is put through a series of trials, which test his faith, but do not break him. Then, quite unexpectedly, a conversation with one man in prison triggers a startling self-recognition: his faith has had no real impact on the world, has made no real difference to himself or anybody else. This realization crushes him and his crisis of faith is expressed in a stunning, mysterious closing scene with the giving of the pineapple. It is important to remember here that what a great director conveys through a film is usually inaccessible through words, and for that reason it is pointless to look to him for definitive explanations of his films. Tarkovsky said it best: "A film remains a mystery even to the director himself." It should be added, though, that only a truly great film remains a mystery - not in the sense of being unclear, but in the sense of having layers and layers of depth to it, which can only be probed with a live intuition. And so it is with the closing scene of "Nazarin". The pineapple, which is given to the priest as a gift of "charity" is a treasure he cannot access: walking in the desert as a prisoner under convoy, he cannot cut into it and quench his thirst. Is this not the best visual metaphor for his spiritual crisis? He has received and accepted the Message of Christ, which he thought he was utilizing in his life. But when his eyes were opened through an offside remark by a fellow prisoner, he realized that he never actually understood Christ's Message or that he must have misinterpreted It - in any case, he was unable to access the treasure within the Message, Which was given to humanity as a gift of charity from Above. This is the position most believers are in, whether they realize it or not. The degeneration of Christ's Message into one of weakness and passivity has deprived It of Its original splendor and luminosity and has derailed many a well-intentioned believer. All of us need the help of the Son of Man promised by Jesus Himself to "remind" us of the original meaning of Christ's Message, so that we can once again access the treasure It contains.
 
Christian themes are abundant in Bunuel's films. Bunuel, an avowed atheist, creates work that questions Christian dogma and at the same time leaves room for the individual to take up the quest for the Truth on his own. In his later films, particularly "Milky Way", he creates a cinema built on associations to tear apart the rigid doctrine and discover nuggets of Truth in the shreds that remain. "Milky Way" is all about the distortions of the dogma, the many offshoots of dogma that have formed over the centuries and which make it impossible for him personally to accept Christ. Yet Bunuel, like Pasolini, is an unbeliever who wants to believe. And the medium of art film is perfectly suited to express this otherwise inexpressible contradiction: not being able to believe, yet longing to find a way to believe. "Milky Way" is probably the most phenomenal example of this contradiction. Through his blazing insight into sheltered faith (sheltered from reality by careful efforts of the "believers" themselves), Bunuel comes up with astonishing insights.  For example, the messenger in a black cape, who appears to the two pilgrims at the beginning of the film, conveys two messages to humanity: "You are not my people" and "No more mercy". For what Bunuel ridicules most of all in his film is this indolence of the human spirit and its lazy thinking that accepts dogmatic concepts without personal investigation  It is about such as him that Abdruschin said in The Grail Message: "It will be easier for many who are now still absolute unbelievers to enter the Kingdom of God than for all the legions with their conceited humility, who do not really stand before God in simple supplication, but indirectly demanding that He reward them for their prayers and pious words." 
 
Questions that other "believers" resolve effortlessly, thoughtlessly cause Bunuel agony, so he deals with them in a surrealistic manner: he laughs so as not to start weeping. Achieving filmmaking on the level of virtuosity, where one association flows into another and threads of fate stretch across various lifetimes, Bunuel ridicules distorted yet well-established dogmatic concepts, such as immaculate conception and virgin birth, as well as the voluntary crucifixion of believers in their misguided attempt to emulate Christ. He goes even further and brings into question the wisdom of the recorded utterances of Christ. The miracles, in particular, do not fare well here, since Bunuel finds it utterly impossible to accept what is unnatural on blind faith. What one is left with at the end is the sense of sheer horror, when Bunuel lowers the camera to focus on the blind man's walking stick in order to show that even after the supposed miracle of being cured, the blind man still cannot see the crack in the road - thus in one stroke the whole story of Christ is brought into question, not for the sake of fun, though, but out of despair. Bunuel is absolutely right: the faith that hinges on belief in miracles and unnatural happenings is no faith at all, but a distortion or a misunderstanding of what has actually occurred in the life of Christ. (In this connection, read "Divine Miracles and Human Miracles" by Herbert Vollmann.) "Milky Way" is not a clever and funny intellectual discourse. It is Bunuel's anguish of the soul and he is deadly serious about it (unlike modern thinkers who resolve it simply by saying: "Why worry about it? It's all outdated superstition anyway."). To underline the seriousness of this matter for himself personally, Bunuel sets one scene in the time of the Inquisition, when a prisoner's life hung in the balance on such "outdated" matters. Is it not Bunuel himself, who is brought before the Grand Inquisitor and given one more chance to recant what he is saying in his film? The conversation between them goes like this:
 
Grand Inquisitor: "Recant!"
Prisoner: "...I can't... I wish I could, but I can't."  
 
Another of the great individualists in cinema history is the auteur Robert Bresson, who, influenced by the work of Pascal, shows characters which suffer in the world that is deeply hypocritical and superficial in its spiritual attitudes. In "The Diary of a Country Priest", based on the novel of Georges Bernanos, the title character is put through a grueling sequence of experiences, which include confrontations with his parishioners, his worsening health, the conflicts with his superiors - all this forms an ever-tightening noose that ages the young priest well beyond his years. When his worst fears are confirmed by a doctor and he has to accept death, the way he deals with it and his ever-strengthening faith changes the life of the one person, who takes care of him at the end. But it took the story of the misfortunes of a donkey in "Au Hasard, Balthazar" for Bresson to find a creature pure enough to act as a very loose metaphor for the suffering of Christ. Once again, the world closes in on this guiltless character until its final release in a pasture with grazing sheep. In Bresson's final film "L'Argent", based on the story of Tolstoy, his angst over a spiritually dead, ultra -materialistic world reaches its grimmest, most despairing form. In "Devil, Probably" Bresson shows the young generation confronting the church establishment, one comment being that "the Christianity of the future will be without religion." At another point in the film, the young protagonist quotes Victor Hugo, who considered the cathedrals to be very special places, where "God is present, but if a priest appears God is no longer present.'"
 
A special mention should go to a highly controversial film "Hail Mary" by Jean-Luc Godard. Possessing many outward attributes of a predictable "loser" (such as a modern setting for a Biblical story and pervasive nudity) this film actually turns out to be a masterpiece. Neither before nor after it has Godard achieved filmmaking on this level. The film is not so much an updated version of the story of Jesus' conception as it is a profound contemplation on the mystery of His birth and our relationship to It. The human body too is treated as a mystery, whose purpose we have not yet discovered. The film is put together as a stream of intuitive associations, the disparate pieces of which might appear disjointed were it not for the strongest binding force there is - the force of the spirit's longing for the Light. Nowhere else in Godard's output has the longing of his soul burst through with such intensity! The spiritual pulsing that drives this film is quite astonishing and finds its equivalent only in the greatest films ever made (it is rated No.8 on our Cinemaseekers' Honor Roll). Godard's use of music here is also unprecedented: snippets of the greatest pieces ever written on this planet flow in and out of the frames. It's all quite indescribable and unrepeatable, even for Godard himself. And in his probing into the question of immaculate conception, his intuition leads him in the right direction: the human body is used by the Light as a vessel, but in a completely natural way. 
 
Ultimately, what is more important than Christ's life is His Message to humanity. And this finds its greatest expression in the films directed by an ex-monk Godfrey Reggio. In his Qatsi Trilogy there are no depictions of Christ's life, but what Christ strove to communicate to mankind with such urgency finds its greatest cinematic form in Reggio's work. Through our stubborn refusal to familiarize ourselves with the Laws of Creation and apply Them to our lives as Christ taught, we have created institutions and lifestyles which cannot withstand the purifying rays of the Judgment and must invariably collapse.
   
   "Revolutionary events that can no longer be stayed, an abundance of signs, inevitably point us to this.
   Through the guilt of men that has arisen over thousands of years, the world is out of joint, and only for God alone is it yet possible to redress the balance.
   But in all the confusion and distress, the Message from the Grail brings salvation and help out of Luminous Heights!
   Amid the downfall of all evil, It mediates the Power for renewal and upbuilding!"    
 
(Herbert Vollmann, The Fountain of the Water of Life -
 to read the entire essay click here)