The Hidden God: Film and Faith

Mary Lea Bandy & Antonio Monda (eds),
The Hidden God: Film and Faith.
Museum of Modern Art, 2003.
ISBN:  0 870 70349 8
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by MOMA)

I welcomed this book, because I hoped it would break a certain deadlock within a certain kind of global cinephilia. All matters of faith – including religious belief, spirituality, mysticism – tend to be invoked (if they are invoked at all) in one of two, starkly opposed ways.

On the one hand, there is a pronounced anti-religious bias – I think it can be fairly called a reflex – which rages throughout much writing on film. It has at least two sources: Surrealism with its merrily anti-clerical ideology (best known and enjoyed from Luis Buñuel’s films); and the materialist revolution that swept film theory in the ’60s and ’70s. It is neither a secret nor a scandal that film studies, on the whole, leans more to the left than any other direction politically; and in that leaning, questions of spirituality, tagged as ultra-conservative, are often aggressively dismissed from the agenda. (One need only scan the kind of facile scorn poured for over thirty years on Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, a convenient whipping-boy in this regard.)

On the other – equally reflex – hand, there is a vague, woolly kind of religiosity that emanates from cinephiles whenever they are in the company of a certain canon of films: Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Roberto Rossellini, Andrei Tarkovsky, and more recently Alexander Sokurov and some Lars von Trier. I often find the religious content of cinephilic writing on these directors – and this includes some of the pieces in the book under review – thin and second hand, as evidenced by the slender handful of bibliographic citations and -isms referenced: Pascal, Bernanos, Jansenism, perhaps at a pinch Kierkegaard or Simone Weil. (You’ll be lucky, though, to find in these pieces very many quotes from the Bible itself, let alone any other great sacred text.) This is very specifically second hand: much of it is handed down to us from the great André Bazin which, alas, means we almost never get to learn about his almost equally significant contemporary in the realm of French criticism and theory, Amédée Ayfre.
Beyond Bazin and Ayfre, there is in fact a scattered, international, and quite large tradition of writing on religion and cinema, but it is rarely acknowledged or discussed outside its own scholarly and institutional circles. Think, for instance, of the many books written or edited by Australia’s Father Peter Malone. The Hidden God brings us a few of the major players from this scene, such as Virgilio Fantuzzi (who writes on his friend, Rossellini) and Monsignor Enrique Planas.

However, as an attempt to circumscribe an important area, this book is a disappointment. Its curatorial agenda (originally designed to accompany a Museum of Modern Art season at Gramercy Theatre in New York during 2003 and 2004) is far from rigorous. It is a book comprised (beyond the introduction) of relatively short accounts of individual films (which are also light on references and footnotes). There are no general, theoretical or survey essays, apart from the final fascinating reflection on “Devotional cinema” by avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky. (I wonder if he has ever heard of or seen the films of his Australian compatriot, Michael Lee?)

This means that a lot of useful, meaningful groundwork is simply missing: faith is adopted as a key theme, but without any probing of the types and modalities of faith in relation to belief, reason, vision, delusion, and so on; the role and history of the various institutional Churches is not raised, let alone differentiated from any of the faith-reveries; variations in faith-systems between nations and within nations are casually elided; the critique of religion, and its complex history, does not get a look-in; and there is no sense of the shifting fate of faith as a category in cinema studies and film criticism.

The book begins with those usual suspects listed above: Bresson, Rossellini … and then morphs, curiously, into what the editors call “a tour of the Hollywood genres” (12), thus bringing in odd exemplars of film-and-faith such as Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, US, 1993), A. I. (Steven Spielberg, US, 2001) and Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, US, 1992). And why not? Inclusiveness is not the book’s problem; rather, it is not inclusive enough. The editors make some attempt (truncated for practical reasons, they admit) to encompass these questions as they pertain to the cinema of Japan, Iran, Africa, Portugal, Poland … But the effort brings them only to reaffirm their initial principle of “thinking less about films than directors” (11). So, predictably, Ozu, Kieslowski, de Oliveira and Kiarostami (among others) get added to the solemn list of cine-religious favourites.

One of the problems with this sifting process is, of course, that the book ends up being massively about the God of Western Christianity – the main form of religion flirted with by Western cinephiles in their misty-eyed reveries of sacredness and mystery – and only glancingly about every other kind of religious belief and practice (and deity) on the globe and through history. This is the principal failure of the book, and is hardly acknowledged as a problem. It is striking, for example, when Dave Kehr helpfully specifies that Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (US, 1939) is “one of the twentieth century’s greatest works of Christian art” (40). But where are the similar precisions about Islamic or Jewish or Buddhist art, among many others?

This book could have covered many complementary aspects of its topic. For example, I was disappointed that, in contrast to the indulgent amount of space given over to the canon of Bresson and Rossellini, Abel Ferrara only gets one film included (US, Bad Lieutenant, 1992), thereby excluding his other overtly religious works, which are those written by Nicholas St John, like The Addiction (US, 1995). The inclusion of Buñuel – as the token anti-religious muckracker? – seems to me insufficiently justified by the bald editorial assertion that he is a director “rooted in spirituality and religion, even when his work is provocative or just about blasphemous” (Ado Kyrou, turn in your grave!) – especially when true believers like Frank Borzage and Terrence Malick don’t rate at all in the contents. (Oddly, and for no discernible or announced reason, the book’s filmic chronology begins in 1939, thus excluding a lot of relevant movies.)
And I was surprised, for instance, that there was not even a hint of the large line of films devoted to the testing of faith as a con or a mere showbiz spectacle – all those films concerning fake evangelists and miracle-workers, all the way up to the most ambiguous cases like Bigas Luna’s astonishing Reborn (Spain, 1984), as well as contemporary entertainments on this topic like Schrader’s Touch(US, 1996). There indeed is an entire area of ambiguously profane-sacred cinema – Pasolini, absent from this collection beyond the short La Ricotta (Italy, 1963), is one of its masters – that gets too tidily bracketed off by this book.

More generally, I feel that the book could have benefited – particular in its framing of the popular films selected – by focussing on how militantly godless the industrial, mainstream cinema has decided it must be in order to attract a widespread demographic – resulting in vague motifs such as searing light and even vaguer plot mysteries constituting the purported, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t spirituality of the collected works of Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shayamalan, Bruce Joel Rubin, and many others. Even more thoroughly hidden in this book is the strange, parallel industry of Church-financed religious productions around the world, ranging from the shoddy to the lush – which can be far more candid, for example, about the possibility of a fearsome Apocalyptic God than any cinephile art classic (apart from Tarkovsky’s films, as Stuart Klawans helpfully points out re Andrei Rublev [Russia, 1966]) or mainstream disaster blockbuster.

The Hidden God also boasts some celebrity contributions, but these tend to be situated at the fraying edges of the editorial agenda, such as it is. There’s Carlos Fuentes on Nazarin (Mexico, 1958), whose first release he worked on as a publicist – where Buñuel is yoked to a tradition of artists including Mauriac and Graham Greene. There’s Terence Davies being silly but fun on his inchoately sinful childhood memories of watching The Robe (US, 1953) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (Delmer Daves, US, 1954) – which serves to open the floodgates of libertarian, anti-religious sentiment in film culture, precisely where the book wants not to go. Martin Scorsese on Europa ’51 (Italy, 1952) starts out as broadly and uncommittedly as anyone can go – “God is hidden – or hides – in different ways, in order to illuminate different problems, in different films” (75) – but ends up two pages later with one of the more perceptive and suggestive definitions discoverable in the interstices of this book: “God is hidden in this film in the same way that God is hidden in life – forever immanent, provoking anxiety and inspiring hope.” (77) Scorsese, alas, writes for the book but is not written about in it, for Raging Bull (US, 1980), Kundun (US, 1997), or anything else.

All editors and curators know both the allure and the trap of a theme, or even simply a snappy title, to which a broad range of writers or artists are then asked to tailor their response. It can result in a wonderful, multi-faceted coherence – or a singularly murky and contrived soup. The hook here is that of the hidden God: the mystery that speaks in the things of the world, the divine presence that can only be glancingly glimpsed … It’s a thoroughly Bazinian problematic, with a corollary irresistible to critics: isn’t cinema, as an art, medium or apparatus, at base all about “sensing the invisible”? (This line is familiar from, for example, David Sterrit’s work on Godard – and Sterritt is back again here to cover Hitchcock and Bruno Dumont.)

The many writers to the volume take this bait in a repetitive and predictable way: almost without exception, they find themselves batting around, lamely, the paradox of the hidden god as a way of framing their remarks about their particular film. Giveaway rhetorical questions such as “so where is God hidden in this film?” recur with dismal frequency. And the worst essays simply append this question-and-answer to the end of a tedious plot summary.

But how many of these writers really care about God, hidden or otherwise? I could detect comparatively little intense learned engagement with religious questions in the book – whether on the plane of philosophy or ethics (P. Adams Sitney is among the sterling exceptions). The religion in this book often registers as a posturing, skin-deep kind of religion: the kind you feel you’re having in the cold glow of a Bresson or Sokurov movie. Some writers seem embarrassed by the obligation to drag God in at all, piling up the cagey qualifiers, or simply evading the subject altogether (Phillip Lopate here being the worst culprit).

It is interesting to watch the dances, sometimes tortuous, that some of these writers get into around the central theme of faith – even (or especially) in pieces that are highly perceptive about other, non-religious subjects. God – even downgraded to an abstract, conceptual, small g god – is not always so easily accommodated into these critical reflections; sometimes he only scrapes in as a forced association. Mario Sesti writes that American fantasies of the ’80s and ’90s explore the “suspicion that behind the calm façade of small-town life hides an invisible presence or god (in both The Truman Show [US, 1998] and Pleasantville [US, 1998] it’s television)” (206). Presence or god – which is it to be, exactly? Similarly, Drake Stutesman remarks that, since The Blair Witch Project(US, 1999) breaks down divisions between us and them, evil and good, and foreign and home, it also implies that “to know thyself is to know god” (228). But what in the film authorises such an extension? Within this context, the straightforwardness of the clergy can be refreshing and reassuring: Planas, for example, mines Three Colours: White (France/Poland, 1994) as a lesson about God’s love and forgiveness, and its consequences for erring mortals.

Finally, there are also some brilliant, ingenious testaments by minds that try to remain detached from the (to them) disturbing spell of religion (or the Church), while nonetheless grappling with its historical problematics – like in Godard’s Contempt (France/Italy, 1963), a problematic usually poised between a Godful past and a Godless twentieth-century modernism. (And why are there no Godard films in this book?) Jean-Michel Frodon (current Cahiers du cinéma editor), in one of the book’s highlights, analyses Alain Cavalier’s unfashionable Thérèse (France, 1986) as a work that stages the “extreme tension” between the “visible, concrete, and authoritarian” God of its central character and the “invisible, ideal, and wonderfully free” God of Cavalier himself (173-4).

Raymond Bellour, for his part, theorises the challenge of faith as a meta-cinematic question, the nurturing of a “virtual double vision” (56) in Rossellini’s exploration of a communications technology that demands “faith in the effectiveness of a machine” (52). Bellour – in an essay on L’Amore (Italy, 1948) that is sure enough of itself to scarcely reference God – makes the most candid intellectual move in the whole book:
… there is little sense in worrying much, as some have, about whether or not Rossellini was really Catholic. It is more interesting to try to understand how, within a film simultaneously whole and bipartite, he takes into account the coexistence of, or maybe the relationship or even the passage between, a religious dimension and a technological one, apprehended in two places at the same time. Just such a relationship constitutes his own art. (53)

Adrian Martin

Created on: Friday, 3 December 2004 | Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 December 2004

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is all posts by Adrian Martin →