Religion and Film: An Introduction

Melanie J. Wright,
Religion and Film: An Introduction.
I.B.Tauris, 2007.
ISBN: 978 1 85043 886 1
US$26.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by I.B.Tauris)

The subtitle of Melanie Wright’s study of the treatment of religion in film suggests a textbook, but although Religion and Film has pedantic stretches, it is a mostly thoughtful and often insightful consideration of how film has – and should – deal with religion. Early on Wright insists on a major point: studies of religion and film must pay attention to the cinematic aspects of films about religion, not just their thematic aspects. She sticks to her position consistently, if not exclusively, and it is in those passages – I wish there were more – which consider cinematic aspects that her study is most interesting.

Rather than attempt a broad survey of religion-themed films, Wright selects just six for detailed examination. Considering their small number, the range of her selections is impressive: Carl Dreyer’s silent La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (France 1928); Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments (USA 1956); Robin Hardy’s quirky The Wicker Man (UK 1973); Udayan Prasad’s underappreciated My Son the Fanatic (UK/France 1997); Edward Norton’s Keeping the Faith (USA 2000); and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Bollywood extravaganza Lagaan (India 2001).

Because I had seen only one of the six films, and that one long ago, I decided to read the book a chapter at a time, viewing each film either before or after reading the chapter on it. I found this not only a helpful way to do justice to a book under review but in this case surprisingly rewarding. Each chapter offered at least one insight, frequently several of them, that helped me notice and consider elements or aspects of the film that I might otherwise have missed, or dismissed. I’ll give an example for each film and chapter. Without Wright’s analysis of Dreyer’s seemingly inordinate use of close-ups in Jeanne d’Arc, I probably would have become impatient with them instead of recognizing and soon yielding to their relentless power. She helped me appreciate the special effects in The Ten Commandments, which to the modern eye can seem rather crude, and she prepared me for the analogies that De Mille intended to suggest between the Jews’ ancient flight from Egypt and the desire for freedom among mid-nineteenth-century oppressed societies. Her account of the pagan imagery in The Wicker Man helps the viewer recognize the perverse parallelism the film intends to draw between the protagonist’s Christianity and the paganism he encounters. By calling attention to a key image near the end of Keeping the Faith, Wright makes this overly talky, rather tedious film a little more interesting. Lagaan is nearly four hours long, and I dreaded sitting down to watch it, but Wright’s account of the film’s Hindu aesthetics helped transform the four hours into an enjoyable, almost exhilarating experience.

And even though I dispute her interpretation of My Son the Fanatic, her analysis served as a kind of foil to help me interpret the film quite differently from the way she does and to see more in it than I might have otherwise. For Wright, the film privileges the culturally adaptive father, who wants to fit comfortably into the England to which he has immigrated, and distances the son, who is drawn to a fanatic, violent branch of Islam. True, the film spends much more time with the father, and seems sympathetic to him, and we see the son mainly through the father’s eyes, but I am reminded of The Searchers (USA 1956), where for narrative reasons we empathize with the white search party, including their leader Ethan, but are given many clear indications along the way that Ethan is frighteningly disturbed and that his antagonist Scar, conventionally the evil villain, has just as much reason to hate the whites as they have for hating him. In other words, Ford tells us we are following one side of the story, but that the other would be equally compelling. Similarly, in My Son the Fanatic, the protagonist’s son, although given little screen time or subjectivity, lays several charges against his father and British society that are unanswerable and true: the father’s infidelity, the decadence of British society, the West’s lack of spirituality. The film is far richer than Wright recognizes, yet her blindness to its deeper resonances helped me to pinpoint them. I am grateful to her for introducing me to this wonderfully complex and humane film.

The book is not without flaws. Wright strives a bit too hard to show that she is conversant with varying approaches to film study. She bends too far and apologetically in her attempt to transcend her western cultural background. She too carefully demonstrates her political correctness, as when she inserts a [sic] after a use of ‘man’ for ‘human’ in a line she quotes from half a century ago. The reader who wants to do full justice to her book will have to look up words like ‘appoggiatura’ and ‘apotropaically’. But she more than compensates for these distractions by the freshness – e.g., she notes and rejects the critical tendency to equate sparseness of style with spirituality – and overall integrity of her study.

For those interested in films and spirituality, Wright’s book might be fruitfully paired with The Hidden God in Cinema (edited by Antonio Monda and Mary Lea Bandy, Museum of Modern Art, 2003), which focuses on the portrayal not of religion per se but rather its object (God, the Supreme Being, the ineffable) and how filmmakers try to get at the inexpressible.

Whereas Religion and Film investigates six films in detail, The Hidden God covers over fifty in short essays of roughly three pages each. And despite its far larger selection of films, The Hidden God is severely Western in orientation. It is a provocative book, but nicely balanced by Wright’s more deeply probing and culturally inclusive study.

D.B. Jones,
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Monday, 3 December 2007

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →