Unlike most of the other great art forms, cinema is a child of our secular, rational, post-Enlightenment age. What does it mean, then, that so many of the masters of the Western tradition were renowned for bringing intense spiritual feeling and inquiry to the screen, and were also deeply invested in the power of religion in their own lives? In his latest book, Believing in Film: Christianity and Classic European Cinema, London-based critic and scholar Mark Le Fanu explores the tension between film’s profane origins and the sacred resonances of some of its most enduring works. Over the past four decades, he has written eloquently about classic auteurs such as Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Bergman, and Mizoguchi—including for a number of Criterion editions—and though his tastes are eclectic, he has a unique understanding of directors whose work evokes the profound human longing for transcendence. His thought-provoking new critical study is the culmination of the many years he has spent contemplating the intersection of film and spiritual life. I spoke with Le Fanu about the book, which traces the complex, sometimes underappreciated ways that European filmmakers, through a wide range of styles and cultural contexts, have grappled with the influences of Christianity and modernity.
How long have you been interested in writing this book, and how did it come about?
I’m not what you’d describe as a prolific author. In a writing career that goes back to the beginning of the 1980s, I’ve only written three books, but in one way or another they’ve come out of each other. My previous book to this was on Kenji Mizoguchi, and though on the whole I think it stands up as a work of film criticism, one of my leftover regrets was my feeling that I hadn’t tackled the religious dimension of his achievement as cogently as it merited. So when I began to think about engaging with our own European cinema and saying a few things about this topic that I think haven’t on the whole been said before, religion was one of the key aspects that I was determined to go into properly.
My feeling was—and is—that people have forgotten how to talk about this vital dimension of experience and culture in a simple and compelling way. Its existence is deemed an “embarrassment” in our secular age, at least in certain quarters—not everywhere, of course.
As for what triggered the actual writing of the book—the putting of pen to paper, so to speak—that happened in the autumn of 2010, when I finally came back from more than a decade of teaching in Denmark. There was a somewhat Russian flavor to the adventure. Tarkovsky has always been one of my favorite directors, and I knew of course that he called himself a Christian; I wrote my first book on him. But it was my rather belated discovery around this time that Eisenstein was a Christian too—though few have ever said this in so many words—that set me off thinking that surely there’s something to be explored here in greater detail.
Can you describe an early moment in your moviegoing when you felt deeply moved or directly addressed as a believer? Was there a point in your life at which cinephilia and your own religious experience began to intersect?
I’m not sure, even today, how much of a Christian I am. Belief is a complicated thing, by definition. Yet I’d like to think I know what’s at stake in the matter. As I say in the book, I had a Christian upbringing, and it sticks. For me, the greatest film that shows the power and depth of religion is Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet. My first encounter with this masterpiece—I can’t remember how many years ago—was an overwhelming experience, as I know it has been for many other people too.
That film is so profoundly religious on the one hand and totally blasphemous on the other. There’s nothing orthodox about it. The idea of a miracle bringing the dead back to life in a modern context—and of it happening by virtue of belief—is such an audacious thing. In the utterly austere, brooding, sincere way that Dreyer brings it out, the events are so strong that you almost can’t work out what has really happened. Do you believe it? Does Dreyer believe it?
I had the privilege of seeing the film’s cinematographer [Henning Bendtsen] speak twenty years ago at the college in Denmark where I was then teaching, and what an incredible experience it was to sit and listen to this man. At a certain point he was so overcome with emotion that he even stopped talking and started crying!
Is there something intrinsic to cinema that allows it, in spite of its secular origins, to evoke the sacred in a way that other arts do not?
The older arts have stronger sacred roots: that can’t be denied. But cinema’s own popular origins, back in the 1890s, were always linked to melodrama, and melodrama, in a certain understanding of the concept, was always somehow linked to redemption. One could argue that because of this, Christianity was part of cinema’s original DNA. Also—and it’s easy to sound pretentious talking about this, so I can only gesture toward it—there’s a complicated thing about the way light works. The luminosity and numinosity of the screen seem to be profoundly linked in some way.
I was struck by a phrase that you use in the book with regard to Bresson’s films: “the breath of religion.” You move across such a rich and varied history of filmmaking. I’m wondering what characteristics unite these disparate films for you and fill them with that sense of a “breath of religion.”
My phrase, the “breath of religion,” is meant to separate films that merely “talk about” religion, of which there are many, from movies that, in some mysterious way, are religious in their essence—the latter category, naturally, being rather rarer than the former! The breath of religion is perhaps easy enough to recognize when you come across it: a certain simplicity, a certain sincerity, an openness to kindness and wonder. These qualities obtain in the great humanist films too—the works of Satyajit Ray, for example—converting the best of them, almost against their wishes, into something it wouldn’t be stupid to call “religious.”
Can you explain why you find, as you claim in the book, that Bresson’s later films lack this “breath”?
The chapter on Bresson is quite a polemical one, though the polemic isn’t explicitly spoken. I’m engaging with prior critics and writers who are mostly secular and don’t seem to make this particular religious distinction between Bresson’s earlier and his later work. It seems to me logical that one of the first things one would think about when considering Bresson is the extraordinary difference between the engagement with the spirit in films like Diary of a Country Priest and Les anges du péché, and the later films, where there doesn’t seem to be any religion at all. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, and I even argue with myself about it in the chapter, but that’s my conclusion: L’argent is a nihilistic film, and I can’t see that there’s any pity in it, any mercy, any charity. It’s with the arrival of the color films at the end of the 1960s where things start to go wrong, if you can even say it’s going “wrong”—for some people it’s quite the opposite. Some of my critic friends would probably say, at last, Bresson sees with lucidity the stupidity of religion!
This might be a good point to turn to Buñuel, who was famously an atheist but serves as the focus of a whole chapter in the book.
Like the Bresson chapter, the Buñuel one is polemical, though I hope in a good-tempered and ironical way. He is a favorite subject of rationalist and atheistic critics, who mainly see him as a blasphemer. I just wanted to rock the boat a little bit without saying anything too outrageous—it’s not like I’m claiming he was a believer. But I think it’s reasonable to talk about the way in which the Catholic tradition he grew out of continued to affect how he thought about life. I wanted to show how affectionate Buñuel was. He was a tender human being, and I think the morality of his films is always impeccable. He was a brilliant psychologist, in his teasing way. And I don’t think that’s been spelled out enough. I don’t hear enough about the profound empathy he had for suffering, for the underdog. People seem content to call him a cruel ironist.
This is a book about religion, but it’s also a book structured on nationhood, national history, and, therefore, politics. Can you talk a bit about the political reverberations of some of the films you talk about?
Religion and politics are two separate things, or at least they ought to be. Nonetheless the two forces do of course overlap in certain contexts. Catholicism and communism were traditionally always at loggerheads in Italy. Who “owned” neorealism? The left or the right? Or was it perhaps both of them? From this distance of time, these debates can come to seem rather abstruse and academic. I wanted my own say on the topic to be simple in the first place but at the same time endowed with sufficient nuance, detail, and excitement to keep the reader interested—I hope I have succeeded. As for the Soviet Union, the state’s official—and, of course, malignant—hostility toward religion makes dealing with its cinema in some ways a special case—especially complicated, you could say. That’s why I have two chapters on the subject. I needed that extra space to tease out the paradoxes involved.
How has religious thinking informed the way film gets written about? You go into this a bit in the chapter on French cinema.
Most likely you are referring to the passages I devote to the French writer and editor André Bazin: indeed he is the only “theoretician” of film that I deal with at any length in my book, which sets out to be deliberately—if I can put it like this—anti-theoretical. Bazin happens to be about the best film critic who ever lived, and it is probably true that part of his unique authority—or perhaps I should say his wisdom—must be attributable, at some level, to his simple Christian faith.
The book made me curious about how your faith informs the way you experience films rooted in other religious traditions or in atheism, agnosticism, and secularism.
I’m a fairly omnivorous filmgoer, as you’ll have gathered by now! My first allegiance as a writer and critic is always to the artistic coherence of the movie in question, not to its ideological identity. Some of the greatest works of modern cinema are not by any stretch of the imagination “religious” entities. I think of a movie like Edgar Reitz’s Heimat, for example. Does it matter that this great chronicle of the modern German nation makes so little of Germany’s complex religious heritage? Reitz—a product, you could say, of the revolutions of the sixties—is an absolutely secular human being. But at the same time he is a poet, a humanist, and a thinker. And of course his film is a masterpiece. Does its lack of sustained attention to Christianity constitute a flaw? One wouldn’t want to say so.
Is there something in particular that you hope secular readers will get out of this book? Did you feel, as you were writing it, that you were working to rectify a loss of religious literacy among Western viewers?
I don’t think I write to correct error. It’s not new to anybody that religion is in decline. But it hasn’t declined entirely. When I was young, I was dismissively atheistic, as a lot of people were. But a century and a half after Nietzsche, religion is a language that still makes sense. How can that be?
I would modestly hope that people would be intrigued by the book and would be open to the arguments, but I don’t have an evangelical bone in my body. Religion needs to be understood metaphorically and poetically. If you understand it in those terms, you can understand it completely. The great religious traditions are all powerful expressions of basic human desires and aspirations.