DE-& RE-STABILIZATION: RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
…Many things seem significant and deserve mention in this long closing. From the early 1960s through to his exile from the Soviet Union and death in the early 1980s, Andrei Tarkovsky’s mystical cinema not only expressed its own elusive religious faith, but it also stood clearly as a counter to and refutation of state religion. Less clearly, but just as certainly the humanism of the Czech New Wave in the mid-1960s constituted a similar response, as would affirmations of individual expression and worth in the Chinese cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. From 1968 (The Night of the Living Dead), the modern horror film emerges with intermittent effectiveness as a kind of negative image of conventional religious questioning, with its deep anxieties and pessimism attending and invigorating discussions of the usual issues.
Denominational cinema, productions made by and distributed to religious adherents by their chosen institutions, marked an important departure from and alternative to the impositions of film industries. It also identified an important point of rupture, as embattled believers found it more and more difficult to find themselves, their concerns and their consolations, in an increasingly boundary breaking-and secular cinema. A whole range of pointed, ever more explicit investigations illuminate that gap.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s contradictory parts—Marxist, provocateur (cf. the antic blasphemy of the “La Ricotta” episode in RoGoPaG ), activist homosexual, dabbling agnostic—had combined to produce, in The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), one of cinema’s most effective and moving Jesus films. Later, these contradictions contributed to a tragic and terminal spiritual progression, or rather declension. Pasolini’s path from the compassionate naturalism of the Dante-esque Accatone (1961) to the unbridled carnality of his last films, and of his last days (culminating in his brutal murder), would trace a poignant pattern that would be powerfully repeated in the 1970s.
Most pointedly in the individual works and collaborations of Paul Schrader and Martin Scorcese, transcendental impulse and aspiration would collide with an increasingly intransigent, often sordid naturalism. In films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1975), American Gigolo and Raging Bull (both 1980), the result would be an operatic, even ecstatic treatment of sin and suffering intermingled. This cinema of mortification effectively rendered the aspiration and the emptiness of the age, and it was not without its powerful hints of salvation. John 9:25, the coda to Raging Bull, provides the intended rationale, and a great measure of justification for these films and their damaged protagonists. “Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” This hard, clear vision also widened the gulf and inverted longstanding relationships between secular and sectarian constituencies. If in the 1920s Sunday School cinema unduly caricatured the sin and the sinners that it sincerely tried to portray, then fifty and sixty years later a substantial and sin-ridden cinema could make little connection with many of the believing members of an alienated audience.
The controversy over Schrader and Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1987) exemplifies this alienation. It is a brave film, full of deep conviction, as well as significant lapses in decorum and taste. The hostility with which it was met may in part have reflected the high-handed philistinism of which the religious right is capable, but it also raised real and legitimate issues. This was not just conservatism, but conservation, not just intolerance, but an awareness of the potential dangers of its opposite. Faithful factions would have it that the over-inclination to take offense has to be factored against an opposite danger, which is the inability to be offended. The Western believer’s call, occasionally answered by films like Tender Mercies (1983), Places in the Heart (1984) and Robert Duvall’s historic The Apostle (1997), echoes a basic idea of the documentary film movement. Artistry and individual expression are essential, and need to be subordinated to a sense of social responsibility, and the pursuit of the public good.
Again, as always, there are international responses, resistances, and independent developments. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Faraway, So Close (1993) reinvent Hollywood’s intervening angel fantasy, using mythological suggestiveness and metaphor, irony and a degree of humour to step back from the literalism and sometimes vulgarity of their least successful models. Set and beautifully shot in Berlin, the films also provide a preternatural preview of the fall of communism, and of the geopolitical challenges and opportunities that would follow. There is mythological metaphor, some irony and humour in this utilization of heavenly tropes. Still, for all their careful distancing, these are also graceful, informed parables about sorrow and salvation, testimonies to the power of cinema’s loving look, and finally, especially in the conclusion of the second film, expressions of gratitude and belief. Here, amidst frequent divisive rhetoric, is encouraging evidence that popular artists and high modernists can meet and be edified on the rich, still common ground of religious film.
Nearby, Gabriel Axel’s exquisite Babette’s Feast (1987), featuring strategically cast and utilized actors from the ouevre of Carl Theodor Dreyer, provides a contemplation of and a lovely reconciliation between the abundant inclinations of Hollywood religion and the severities of the art film, as well as between the satisfactions of substantial secular pursuit and the more pressing needs of the spiritual life. Folk (minkan) Shintoism is essential to the delights and substance of recent animated films from Japan’s Studio Ghibli (Hiyao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro , Princess Mononoke  and Spirited Away , Isao Takahata’s The Racoon War ). Following ample precedent, these films’ value-specific manifestations— environmentalism, the refusal of good/bad polarities in its characters, a reverence for the domestic sphere—resonate outside that value system and have an inclusive, in-gathering effect, notwithstanding, or even because of their cultural and religious specificity.
Finally, and without doubt most important to contemporary film-religious discussion, the Iranian cinema of the 1990s and 2000s recapitulates many of the issues considered here, as well as providing new challenges and opportunities for productive discussion. Nowhere is the ease and danger of intra-faith incomprehension, nowhere is the necessity of generous effort and mutual appreciation more evident than in the interactions between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world. The tradition of Muhammad’s forbidding the artistic representation of human form has contributed to a paucity of artistic production generally, and film production particularly in the Muslim world. Production there has been however, and in the case of Iran, it has become some of the most bracing and challenging in world cinema.
Clichés must be considered, and may have some bearing in the truth. Conservative, repressive forces in Iran are real, are substantially religious, and have insured that free expression in the cinema has been substantially circumscribed. (It might also be justly argued that repressive forces in the US—cf. a well-publicized refusal in 2002 to offer Abbas Kiorastami an entry visa to attend the New York Film Festival—have equally circumscribed the dissemination and celebration of this essential material.) A resulting inclination to find coded subversivities in Iranian film is appealing, and will bear some fruit. But it may not be the most productive approach to the material, particularly with regard to the current conversation. As in Hollywood’s heyday, as well as in numerous other politically restricting circumstances, limitation has sometimes served as a spur to creativity, and to urgency. There are depths beneath the seeming serene surfaces that bear investigation.
More importantly, it must also be granted that Iranian cinema is a diverse embodiment of a simple reality: perhaps uniquely in film history, this national cinema unequivocally constitutes the collective expression of a community of faith. Its formal elements are challenging, even groundbreaking. If there is here a great diversity—the homiletic cinema of Majid Majidi, the realist activism of Jafar Panahi, the diverse ministrations of the Makhmalbaf collective, the rigours, generosities and comparative secularism of Abbas Kiorostami’s intellectual art films—then it is partly a confirmation of the range of problem and possibility that religion, now too frequently caricatured as a uniformly constraining influence, can stimulate.
Inevitably there are gaps in this discussion. Where is realism, with its reverence for the everyday, its respect and patience and calls to action? Where is activist modernism, with its echoes of the medieval, its investments in issues of ultimate concern? Why so many individual names and film titles? Where are the women? What of all the other unmentioned nations and traditions? And what of the film activity falling out of the conventional systems of production and distribution? It may be the ultimate and most powerful religious film tradition will grow out of the increasing availability of digital media, and the opportunity it gives more and more people, in their homes and with their families, to record and commune gratefully over their own value-informed, loving interactions.
Through the course of its history film has consistently demonstrated its power to hold and to hog our attention. The lacunae in a summary like this, necessary in this setting and with this format, may actually resist its often unhealthy hypnotism. Films, filmmakers, even traditions and the rest, even and especially when religion is at issue, should only serve as the beginning and as a part of a greater, more challenging exchange of precept and principle, one which expands one’s outward comprehension and appreciation at the same time that it intensifies that which adheres, and abides, inside.