Arts and Culture

Cinema and the Sacred

by Father Robert Lauder

As the technological revolution transforms movies and computer-induced images seem to multiply magically, movies seem dumber and dumber. While epic battles, explosions and car crashes have increased, meaning and mystery have diminished. Still, my faith in the importance, power and beauty of film has been renewed by the 2013 Polish masterpiece, “Ida,” written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski.

In his classic “The Idea of the Holy,” Rudolf Otto reported that wherever in the world the sacred is found, it is mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that is, mysterious and frightening in its demands upon us, but also fascinating and seductive. The medium of film has the potential not only to depict the sacred but to invite us to enter into the mystery.

If the Risen Christ and His Spirit are present everywhere, then the sacred surrounds us and an encounter with God can happen at any time and in any place – even in a movie theatre. I can think of five films during the last decade that offered a profound experience of the sacred. “Ida” is the sixth.

None of these films are proselytizing. Rather their creators are looking at reality through the lens of faith, and the films, because of their beauty and truth, are invitations to viewers to do the same.

I have serious misgivings about the scourging scene in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), but clearly something special happened to many members of the audience at the first public screening of the film on Ash Wednesday 10 years ago. After watching the film, the audience was completely silent. People walked out of the theatre as though they had just had a profound religious experience in a church.

That evening, Charlie Rose had four critics on his show. None of them liked the film, and one predicted the film would disappear quickly. As it turned out, it earned almost $400,000,000 at domestic box offices! What the critic did not realize was how hungry religious believers in a secular society are for portrayals of the sacred.

When I saw “Into A Great Silence” (2005) at an art house in Manhattan, a kind of reverent attention pervaded the audience, which packed the theatre. Apparently this happened at every screening as the film’s run was extended again and again. Was the reaction merely curiosity about the Carthusian lifestyle? Was the experience merely aesthetic?

An Experience of the Divine

If the philosophers are correct about the transcendentals, claiming that every created being is one, true, good and beautiful because this is what their Creator is, then is there any experience of any reality which is merely aesthetic? Isn’t every experience of beauty an experience, however vague and limited, of the divine?

“Sophie Scholl” (2007) is a moving indictment of Naziism, but it is also a deeply religious film that challenges us to evaluate our lives. Of course, there is a tragic dimension to Sophie’s martyrdom, but the film is an inspiring appeal to deepen our religious commitment.

In the last four years, everyone, and there have been many who mentioned “Of Gods and Men” to me, was ecstatic about the film. Both religious believers and others were profoundly touched by the life and death of the monks. The creators of the film wisely showed the monks at prayer several times during the film. What the men were doing liturgically extended beyond the walls of the chapel in their ministry of witness to those believers and others among whom they lived and worked. The last supper the monks shared was a “eucharistic” preparation for their martyrdom.

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is a visually gorgeous Teilhardian presentation of evolution from the big bang to resurrection. Its use of technology to depict creation’s beauty contributes to, rather than detracts from, both the human mystery and the mystery of the divine. The film is a cinematic echo of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ claim, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

“Ida” charts the journey, both physical and spiritual, of a young nun and her atheistic, promiscuous, alcoholic aunt looking for the burial site of Jewish relatives killed during the Holocaust.

I can’t recall a film that could be discussed from as many approaches: a post-Holocaust film, a feminist film, a psychological exploration, a road movie, a detective story, but the most radical approach would be to deal with its metaphysical and religious themes. Critics have pointed out that Pawlikowski has been influenced by two cinematic giants, Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. In terms of themes, Pawlikowski presents Bergman’s questions and Bresson’s answers, Bergman’s atheism and Bresson’s emphasis on the presence of grace. The plot of “Ida” centers on a kind of Kierkegaardian either/or: Either you opt for absurdity or you make a leap of faith to Christ.

The camerawork contributes significantly to the film’s brilliance. There are many close-ups emphasizing the spiritual condition of the two protagonists but also many distant shots of the two figures making them seem small against a vast background. The distance shots might be interpreted as suggesting that we are insignificant in an indifferent environment. I think they suggest that we, finite as we are, are called to transcend toward the Infinite. “Ida” is a deeply religious film – an exceptional example of cinema at its best.

My next viewing of “Ida” I’m going to look upon as a religious activity.[hr]Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of the recently published “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).