Of Film and Faith

Now, the reason to be… in Vancouver.   As I mentioned in a previous post, I was at Regent College for two weeks in May to learn the language of film, and its interface with elements of theology.  I came home much gratified.  I’ve delayed writing about the course per se because it would mean the difficult task of capturing the Genie of ideas back and recapping the bottle.  But I know I need to do it sooner or later, for I want to record down a learning experience that’s, well, let’s just say epiphany is not too far-fetched a word.  It could well be that the little I knew initially made it more gratifying as I could gobble up more to fill the empty vessel.

My thoughts are random here, but that might be the best way to capture whatever that comes to my mind that I think is important and meaningful.  Allow me to ruminate freely.

The language of film is multi-faceted, but it more or less can be condensed into the phrase mise-en-scène: what the director puts into the scene by means of setting, camera angle, lighting, staging, wardrobe, blocking… all the cinematic elements.     Like the artist of a painting, the director conveys his point of view and aesthetics through a frame or a scene.  And for us viewers, it’s a matter of honing the skill of observing the obvious, and the not-so-obvious.  Our pleasure is to decipher and savor that which is created on screen.   It all relates to the Auteur Theory, the director as the author, the concept of caméra-stylo, the camera as pen.

The power of the cinematic pen is mighty indeed.  Take the Disney movie Bambi for example.  The screening of Bambi resulted in a huge decrease of hunting licenses sold after it was released, and subsequently the term ‘Bambi Effect’ was coined.  Or, the movie Billy Elliot, which resulted in a significant increase in ballet school enrollment.


Knowing the history of motion picture is essential to appreciate films, and this is the major emphasis of the course.  I’ve come to appreciate the pioneers of motion pictures whose works have become the exemplars and the artistic foundations of modern cinema: Vincente Minnelli, Preston Sturges, Charles Chaplin, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Orson Welles, Frank Capra…

Fjilm Noir Third Man Alley

Further, it’s most interesting to trace the influence of German expressionism has on Film Noir, how the idea behind Edvard Munch’s The Scream can effectively be transformed into cinematic expression, revealing the inner state of modern man.

Over the intensive two-weeks, we’d only have time to cover mostly black and white features, savoring their richness in techniques and their multi-layered meaning.  I’ve come to understand why the years 1930  to 1946 are called “The Golden Age of Cinema”.

And where does theology come in?  While knowing some Kierkegaard and Buber might help, but basically the content is very accessible.  Herein lies the ingenuity of the auteurs and their works.  The process of exploring the transcendent in the movies viewed by the populace is just fascinating.

Citizen Kane

I’ve learned how Citizen Kane (1941, produced when Orson Welles was just 24!), generally considered one of the best movies of all time, like the Vanitas still life of Vermeer’s time, expresses the theme of Ecclesiastes, and asks the question, “So one has gained the whole world, then what?”

Another theological element is the archetype of the Christ figure, and I’m surprised to find it quite prevalent in many of these early motion pictures.  I admit I’ve never watched a Charlie Chaplin movie in its entirety until now.  In The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931), the savior figure is humorously portrayed in the story, and the concept of unconditional love warmly illustrated.

City Lights

This archetype also appears  in Frank Capra’s  Meet John Doe (1941), where a main character declares the universal significance of the first John Doe two thousand years ago dying for all John Doe’s.  Visually, I’ve learned to identify the Pietà and the crucifix image in the composition of a frame in several of the features, an example being How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford).

M by Fritz LangMotion pictures are an effective medium to convey the human condition.  In Fritz Lang’s thriller M (1931), the letter obviously refers to the murderer, a child killer that the whole town was after.  The not-so-obvious is the depiction of universal depravity, from the police to the masses, the message that we’re all complicit in the moral fabric of our society.  Similarly, Mel Gibson puts himself in his movie The Passion of the Christ (2004) as the Roman soldier nailing Christ on the cross.

Fast forward to the 80’s, I was introduced to the renowned Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski.  It’s amazing how in Decalogue (1988), the essence of The Ten Commandments and their relevance in contemporary society are transformed into ten independent, one-hour stories and broadcast as a prime time TV series in Poland.  Decalogue is an artistically crafted and poignantly executed production that has won numerous international awards.  But would we see such kind of meaningful work as a prime time TV program here in North America?  The answer is obvious.

On the last day, I’d the chance to savor Babette’s Feast (1987), a highly acclaimed movie from Denmark (Oscar Best Foreign Language Film, 1988).  Based on a story by Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa), Babette’s Feast is a cinematic metaphor of goodness and freedom.  Its unique story and powerful visual images richly convey the theme of grace and mercy, and the liberating power of compassion.  The table prepared before us is free, sumptuous and abundant, but it takes an open heart of full acceptance and gratitude to fully enjoy it.  An inspiring film to wrap up my sojourn, creating resonance for the journey ahead.

Babette's Feast