…Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali , Aparajito , The World of Apu ) suggests some of the challenges and benefits of the process. Broadly speaking, it recounts the travails, from childhood to maturity, of the son of a Brahman priest. A masterful exploration of character and milieu, the films’ religious elements are not pressed, but rather register as part of a very deep structure, fully constituted and lightly held. This is to say that its Hindu and Vedic complexities come naturally, are part of a more complex network of determinants and significations, and are bound to substantially elude the outsider.
A similar situation informs and complicates the reality and reading of Asian cinema, in which there is a widespread sensibility that derives, form and content, from Buddhist thought, particularly as it evolved in and then radiated out from China. This can justly, if very generally, be found in a meditative, presentational style, reflecting and responding to the notion that life is made up of impermanence and suffering, and that calm, kindly resignation is an appropriate response. Traces of this, explicitly and implicitly, consciously and subconsciously applied, are still found in a number of national settings in Asia. Each of these reflect the particular culture, as well as the perspectives of the individual or individuals expressing themselves therein. Here, for instance, is a root of the celebrated “sympathetic sadness” (mono no amare) in the films of Yasujiro Ozu.
But is this typically Buddhist, or a typical embodiment of Japanese Buddhism? Here are incontrovertibly and profoundly religious expressions, and realities, but they are complex, thoroughly integrated, comfortably and complicatedly coexisting with any number of other impulses and actualities. The facility, the facileness of some early religious film expressions has given way to daunting multiplicities. How can a distant observer, unfamiliar with spiritual specifics, communicate and understand?
THE CINEMA OF CHARITY
In addition to the commercial and the art cinema, in addition to documentary activity and ideological investigation, another sort of spiritual expression in film offers itself here, providing a real path through inevitable cultural incomprehensions. The cinema of charity has the power to transcend sectarian and national boundaries. It is sometimes informed by but not necessarily dependent on doctrine or creed. More importantly, at least and especially for ecumenical conversations, it reflects a more general, accessible religious impulse, one central to practically all of the great religious traditions. Its narrative and stylistic characteristics are as diverse as the religions, cultures and individuals that ply it. The cinema of charity is marked more than anything by its attitude, toward cinematic subjects and spectators alike. This attitude is courteous, compassionate, generous and sympathetic. These are films made with love.
The examples that come to mind tend to be individual filmmakers: Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Victor Sjostrom, Robert Flaherty, Henry King, King Vidor, Stan Laurel, Jean Renoir, Alexander Dovzhenko, Frank Borzage, Ozu, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Humphrey Jennings, Kenji Mizoguchi, Max Ophuls, Roberto Rossellini, Norman McLaren, Ray, Jacques Tati, Tom Daly, Wolf Koenig, Colin Low, Jean Rouch, Alain Resnais, Ermanno Olmi, Chris Marker, John Cassavetes, Stan Brakhage, Jacques Demy, Marcel Ophuls, Wim Wenders, Bill Douglas, Barbara Kopple, Charles Burnett, Agnes Varda, Abbas Kiorastami. In such lists—this one is nowhere near exhaustive, and only deals with directors—lies a challenge, even a reproof to some believers. Leo McCarey’s kindliness is undoubtedly a function and manifestation of his Catholicism. But in others artists, citizens, pilgrims, the truth one feels is rooted in traditions to which one may not be able to subscribe. There may not even be a religious tradition. Jean Renoir’s films, at least in terms of precept and practice, are decidedly secular, informed by nothing so much as his enormous generosity and his abiding humanist faith. The sectarian can make no points off of him, and will doubtless disapprove of many of his central assumptions. And yet he remains incontestably one of the most resonant, beneficent examples in world cinema of charitable filmmaking.
Here, perhaps, is the mystery of the religious film, if not of godliness. As with much sacred experience, the effects of all this diverse film work, as well as of our own cinematic and social attention and effort, are difficult to describe, the causes of said effect difficult to lay hold of. But the feelings, the result in generous inclination and charitable application, are nevertheless palpable. Charitable cinema, attending the entire history of the medium, has had and continues to have the power to smooth over cultural gaps and religious misunderstanding, to begin a binding of the heterogeneous in mutual appreciation and gratitude…