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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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