The Resurrection of God in Cinema

By S. Brent PlateAugust 7, 2014

Religion in Contemporary European Cinema by Camil Ungureanu and Costica Bradatan

IN 1898, CAMERAMAN William Dickson trailed Pope Leo XIII around the Vatican grounds, documenting a series of vignettes of his activities. The Roman Catholic leader walked, rode in a carriage, and sat with attendants, simple movements recorded by the new technologies of the motion picture camera. The scenes were intended for Catholics in other parts of the world, especially the United States, who could see the head of the faith, fully animated, and could peek inside the sacred grounds.

This seems banal enough, but the images allowed something extraordinary. With the formation of the secular Kingdom of Italy and the capture of Rome in the 19th century, the Vatican had become a closed-off space. Pope Pius IX hyperbolically called himself a “prisoner in the Vatican,” and conflicts between church and state were fierce. Unlike Pius IX, Leo XIII was noted for his diplomatic ways and, we might add, his media savvy: he became the first Pope to have a sound recording made of his voice, and the first to be filmed. Mass media linked the Vatican with the outside world. Film became a tool through which the relationship between church and state could be reoriented.

While some of the animosity between Italy and the Vatican was relieved with the formation of Vatican City as its own city-state in 1929, the trans-European tensions between older political theologies and newer, secularized nations continue today. We all know the standard narrative: Europe has turned away from God; its citizens have stopped attending worship services, become “secularized.” As they have done so, popular cultural practices have filled the gap: sports, television, video games, web surfing, and social media all vie for rapt and faithful attention. And cinema continues to resituate and reconceive the ways citizens practice their politics and piety.

In a thoughtful new collection, Religion in Contemporary European Cinema, edited by Costica Bradatan and Camil Ungureanu, Bradatan suggests that “behind the façade of a secularized world, a wide range of ‘spiritual experiences’ gives people a new sense of belonging to a grander, cosmic order, as well as of personal fulfillment.” So, while politics and religion have undergone a trial separation in the modern West, cinema provides an arena for filmmakers and audiences to jointly partake in a “cosmopoietic” project. If anything, as the subtitle of the volume suggests, today’s Europe lives under a “postsecular constellation,” a star sign that links heavens and earth, sacred and profane, and, yes, politics and theology.

Bradatan, a scholar of European philosophy and an editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, sets the stage for the 11 contributions when he states that secular worldviews, along with the rise to prominence of the modern nation-state, are often imagined to be “intellectually insufficient and seen as offering existentially poor options.” To the contrary, cinema, as the authors here all rightly know, has always been linked with the sacred. The essays in this collection all find ways these linkages are occurring.

Many of the contributions owe a significant debt to modern continental philosophy, with liberal use made of Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, Søren Kierkegaard, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Slavoj Žižek (though strangely no Hegel). For the most part, the essays resist the use of film as some mere “illustration” of a deeper philosophical point, a method that continues to plague approaches to cinema from religious and theological perspectives. Instead, cinema here joins with philosophical projects as responses to cultural settings, at the same time as it generates its own unique cultural products. Film and philosophy both respond to, and create, sociopolitical environments.

Along these lines Catherine Wheatley looks at Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam (2011) via Nancy, arguing that “both men’s engagement with Christianity is […] interested in Christianity’s self-surpassing, its dis-enclosure.” John Caruana explores Bruno Dumont’s anti-Christ film La Vie de Jésus (1997) in light of Kristeva’s writings, to assess how Dumont is involved with an “unorthodox atheism”: the philosophical-cinematic endeavor here is not about belief and unbelief, it is about reality and the unveiling thereof. Bradatan’s entry on Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blind Chance (1981) brings Mircea Eliade’s myth of the eternal return to bear, noting how the nature of film is such that time can be rearranged in creative ways, and we can scan back and forth through past, present, and future, allowing an “escape” from the terror of history.

Other contributors argue that the filmmakers themselves offer critical analyses of religion: filmmaker as philosopher. Camil Ungureanu sees Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and Antichrist (2009) as two “religious” films even when they pit “religion against religion.” Trier gives us an experience of religion, but also protests against it; he is ambivalent, but it is a productive ambivalence. Alina Birzache discusses the trope of the “Holy Fool” in Russian film. The figure is prophetic, for example in Andrei Tarkovsky’s films where the fool criticizes socialism and capitalism alike. But in the post-Soviet era, in films like Pavel Lungin’s The Island (2006), the fool becomes universalized, able to critique anything to which they might set their gaze. In another chapter, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith goes back to Pier Paolo Pasolini, from a less secular age, to explore the sacrificial motifs in the Italian director’s films, especially his masterpiece, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). Sacrifice for Pasolini was not merely pagan or Christian, but could be useful on intellectual grounds and applied across sociopolitical structures.

Post-secular filmmakers offer creative, aesthetic models for living, but not at the expense of ethics. Paul Coates listens to the audio tracks in the films of Kieślowski, Michael Haneke, and Lucrecia Martel, finding sounds to be linkages between characters, a way of creating and connecting “neighbors.” In one of the more original pieces in the collection, Nathan Abrams charts a new type of horror film through the eyes of Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski in which horror and evil are not relegated to the supernatural world but to wholly secular means, and the challenge is to respond in human-centric ways, to take responsibility. Meanwhile, Robert Sinnerbrink uses Alejandro Iñárritu’s film Biutiful (2010) to think through a “post-secular ethics,” an ethics that centers on mortality, but also on the multicultural world that has emerged in post-secular Europe. And Jolyon Mitchell offers a long historical take on Russian film, beginning with Tsarist-era films, into the Soviet Revolution, and ultimately to the current post-Soviet age. By examining one nation’s cinema over many political shifts, we find a variety of ways religious themes are put to use for and against the powers that be.

For the most part, post-secular means “post-Christian” in these essays, but there are tinges of how it might also mean “pluralism” (though this doesn’t get explored as much as it could have). The real contribution here is by Asuman Suner, who turns to a particular Muslim spirituality in Turkish films, and specifically Semih Kaplanoğlu’s “Yusuf Trilogy.” Suner articulates a “new aesthetic form” found not in the specifics of Islamic theology, but in everyday, chiefly secular, life, what she calls “spiritual realism” in Kaplanoğlu’s films.

And here we come to one of the central themes running through these essays. In many of the films discussed, the spiritual is found in the mundane. In the slice-of-life films of Kaplanoğlu, the Dardenne brothers, Dumont, Haneke, or Kieślowski, authors see the elevation of the everyday — such sacralizing, such re-enchantment, occurs by close seeing, by watching and listening carefully. The implicit bet is that by viewing such films, a transference of aesthetical and ethical practices might be resituated in the socio-political-religious world outside the spaces of cinema.

There is little by way of audience response; these are mainly formal analyses, coupled with some genre and auteur theory. Since this is about post-secular Europe, I do wonder how many Europeans are actually watching, listening, and thinking about the implications of escaping the terror of history, confronting the nihilism of post-Christian self-surpassing, or heeding the cry of the holy fools on the fringes. But these contributors provide the reader with ways to live under the star signs of the post-secular. The range of contributions is sufficiently capacious to create the larger argument about a reanimation and reimagination of the cosmopoietic order.


One final point needs to be made with regard to Dickson’s Vatican filming: at two brief points during the process the Pope looks directly at the camera, raises his hand, and offers a blessing. The gesture has been interpreted in two ways. First, and perhaps most logically, Leo XIII understood that he was being recorded and meant for his blessing to travel to the faithful who would see it in other places. The other oft-noted interpretation is that the religious leader was actually blessing the camera itself, understanding what a crucial technological tool it would become.

Either way, within a few years of the birth of cinema, the film camera inserted itself as a vital player in religious and political life. The representational medium could become an important stand-in for presence, well beyond the isolated walls of the Vatican, engaging global politics. And perhaps, as some began to surmise, we can only live in the realm of representation, as humans cannot bear very much reality.

Early filmmakers and theorists saw the magical possibilities in the new light and image shows, a chance to enchant an increasingly disenchanted world. Two world wars, a rise in postwar affluence, and a decline in religious adherence shifted the particular modalities of cinema’s encounter with the sacred, but audiences continue to delight in the worlds of film, to find something intellectually, imaginatively, and spiritually rich.

And so in this post-secular age, filmmakers — whether professed atheist or professed Catholic — struggle with the religious dimensions of life. They find, as Ungureanu states in his final remarks, “a powerful source of values and experiences […] that a secularism focused exclusively on a immanent reason is unable to account for.” The perceived split between faith and reason, the transcendent and the immanent, may be the grandest illusion of all.


S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.

LARB Contributor

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Religion Dispatches. His books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends.


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