Cinéma Divinité: Religion, theology and the Bible in film

by
02 November 2006

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SCM Press £19.99 (0-334-02988-0); Church Times Bookshop £18

The Promised Land on a screen near you: Stephen Brown brings the lens of theology to the subject of film

I MUST declare an interest: the seeds of this book were sown at the 1998 Leeds Film Festival symposium that I chaired and helped organise. St Deiniol's Library subsequently hosted seven gatherings (none attended by me) of those interested in theology and film. Lectures given are reprinted here. The ten contributors note the concerns of the kind of movies that are watched, and use them as a means of addressing and delivering theological understanding.

Most such books - there are many, believe me - disregard film theory. This one boldly goes where few have gone before. Opening chapters strive to outline some theoretical approaches to film. This is all right, but a genuine theology-film dialogue would make more use of those whose actual work is movies. While appreciating such treatments as Brian Baker's cinematic critique of The Ten Commandments (1956), these chapters have the feel of sending a boy to do a man's job. Imagine the converse: a professor of film studies writing a commentary on Isaiah.

The section on films and filmmakers is often interesting (Melanie Wright's take on Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc; George Aichele's view of Blade Runner and our humanity), but others are less so. That's the fun of this book. Like a box of chocolates, "you never know what you're gonna get" ( Forrest Gump). A real film critic, Tom Aitken, here heavily outnumbered, skilfully differentiates sacrilege from blasphemy in Buñuel's Viridiana, refutes the idea of Harry Lime's being Judas (he's much worse), and suggests that Psycho was influenced by Robert Mitchum's sadistic preacher (The Night of the Hunter).

Cinema is Hollywood, in most of the papers reprinted here, the possible exception being spaghetti Westerns. Peter Francis fascinatingly equates the Wild West with the Promised Land, interpreting the Hebrew word for salvation ( yasha) as the provision of wide-open spaces where we can create a future. But, in applying this notion to specific Westerns, Francis resembles Dudley Moore's one-legged man auditioning for Tarzan: his left leg fails to follow up his right leg's grand entrance.

Eric Christianson makes an interesting comparison between For a Few Dollars More and the story of Ehud in the Book of Judges. He employs the book's text-boxes style to recall the movie, but assumes everyone knows the biblical story, or where to find it.

Cinéma Divinité is aimed all too often at fellow-Christians; some-times just the academic ones - Jeffrey Keuss is unlikely to win a Plain English Crystal Mark for his chapter on American sects. The theology rarely strays beyond Christianity and Judaism, and more than a quarter of the pages are devoted to biblical films.

Jews, Judaism, the Passover, Peter, and Judas in films are treated admirably by William Telford. Only one foreign-language version gets attention (Pasolini 's), and, but for de Mille, he ignores the silent era. The book ends with most of the authors' discussing Mel Gibson's Passion. What's extraordinary is their virtual silence over the resurrection scene. Admittedly it lasts only nano-seconds, but it would have perfectly fitted their discussions of Gibson's guilt-ridden atonement theories.

The Revd Stephen J. Brown is Priest-in-Charge of Ripley, in Yorkshire.

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