Christians and cinema, a long companionship in Europe
At the next Venice Film Festival in September 2018, SIGNIS will be celebrating 70 years of appearances at film industry festivals. At Cannes, Berlin, Warsaw, Karlovy Vary, Locarno and Kiev, Christians award a prize to a film from among the official competitors. This presence, discreet yet constant, goes hand-in-hand with a secular tradition.
Christians have always been associated with the world of artists and the arts, relying on them to build their churches and cathedrals, create their stained-glass windows, illustrate the Bible and the Gospels and accompany religious ceremonies with song. Since the birth of the cinema, Christians have adopted this new form of artistic expression, which is also a force of popular media to be reckoned with.
As is often the case, Christians have different attitudes towards the cinema: some demonise it while others consider it a useful tool for evangelism. To the latter, it is an art form in its own right that allows people to escape from the closed worlds in which they live and gain access to a superior form of Beauty, to enable themselves to be touched by a mystery that brings them closer to God.
A presence at the heart of the world
The enthusiasm of numerous parish priests throughout Europe has enabled them to develop an interest in the cinema in generations of young people, showing films in youth clubs and, later, dedicated halls, some of which are still going to this day and have become local community cinemas. A culture of film critics has emerged, some of whom, asserting their Catholic faith, created specialist magazines, a few of which are still in existence (in Italy, Germany and Belgium, in particular).
Under the influence of the Catholic campaign, the International Catholic Organisation for Cinema (OCIC) was founded in 1928. Recognised by the Vatican, OCIC was headed for many years by Father Jean Bernard (Luxembourg).
This historic figure, whom the Nazis released from the Dachau concentration camp with the aim of forcing him to convince the Church to support the Nazi régime, was himself the inspiration for the film The Ninth Day (2004) by German director Volker Schlöndorff. After the war, Jean Bernard continued to lead OCIC, which had by then become a true European network for the promotion of film criticism. He also established the first Catholic juries in film industry festivals, starting with Venice in 1948 and Cannes in 1952.
A closeness that is still relevant
This companionship also relates to directors who, throughout the 20th century, have portrayed the mysteries of faith and belief in film. By bringing to the screen the mystical dimension of all human life, Robert Bresson (France), Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia), Ingmar Bergman (Sweden) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Italy) have given an additional layer of nobility to the cinema. It is no longer possible to count the versions of the passion of Christ or the life of Joan of Arc that have been made, some of them by film-makers who are far removed from any religious affiliation, such as Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999).
In the early 21st century, directors in Europe are still questioning the phenomenon of religion, but more to denounce an incomprehensible violence, such as Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men (France, 2010) or Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (Romania, 2012). Alternatively, they portray a world devoid of all mystical or spiritual dimension, a lack that haunts all the works of Andrey Zvyagintsev (Russia).
It is often artists who call themselves atheists or agnostics who dare to tackle the themes that lie at the heart of the Catholic religion, such as Stations of the Cross by Dietrich Brüggeman (Germany, 2014), The Confessions by Roberto Andò (Italy, 2016), The Prayer by Cédric Kahn (France, 2018) and The Apparition by Xavier Giannoli (France, 2018). This is an indication that European artists’ relationships with religion have changed in recent years – without taking anything for granted and far from the anti-clerical clichés of the previous generation, they question the message and the practices.
An important aspect of European cinema?
Without any explicit reference, European cinema remains strongly marked by the specific influence of Christianity, especially compared with other cinematic traditions. The early European film-makers place it in its artistic dimension (Murnau in Germany, René Clair in France, Dreyer in Denmark), whereas those of North America prefer popular entertainment or excel in musical comedies.
Certain themes, such as guilt and redemption, recur so frequently in European cinema that many directors have forgotten from where they originate. And when the Italians first used “neo-Realism” to denounce an intolerable social situation, were they, like Ken Loach (United Kingdom), not driven by the very Christian quality of compassion?
Today as in the past, Christian culture is still all-present in the collective imagination of Europe, and continues to fertilise it.
Magali Van Reeth
President of the Cinema department of SIGNIS
Translated from the original text in French
EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.