THE BFI London Film Festival (4-15 October) has several religious-themed movies, kicking off with Breathe. The screenplay by the Roman Catholic writer William Nicholson (Les Misérables, Shadowlands) tells of a polio victim’s fight, one involving the hospital chaplain, to live a normal life.
Apostasy, directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s Witness, concerns a family torn between disowning a teenage child or being expelled. Ostracism also features in Hagazussa — A Heathen’s Curse. When a 15th-century Austrian community shuns Albrun for having an illegitimate child, she finds dreamlike respite in paganism.
The influence of Tarkovsky, one of cinema’s spiritual giants, is unmistakable, as with Little Crusader, in which a boy’s inner reality merges with knights of old. Barbet Schroeder’s highly topical documentary The Venerable W follows a Buddhist leader’s anti-Muslim campaign in Myanmar. Walk with Me chronicles the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh at his French monastery, practising and teaching contemplation. Benedict Cumberbatch narrates.
The Forgiven shows Forest Whitaker playing Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He’s sorely tested when faced with Piet Blomfeld, a murderer who seeks redemption from God.
The celestial court is at the heart of Powell and Pressburger’s newly restored A Matter of Life and Death (1946). This outstanding film, in which David Niven’s fighter pilot’s very existence hangs in the balance, is showing at the Festival before general release.
Sheikh Jackson looks to be a fascinating Egyptian picture about a Muslim preacher devastated by the pop idol Michael Jackson’s death. He reconnects with the self he was before joining the Salafists, who censure music. The documentary Becoming Who I Was traces a young boy’s perilous but spiritual journey from India to Tibet, seeking a monastery in which to dwell.
Exploring Psycho: a still from 78/52, which is a case study of the work of Alfred HitchcockBilled as a morality tale, Equilibrium concerns a Neapolitan priest taking on the Mafia, while Manifesto is a paean to artistic pioneers. Cate Blanchett plays, as well as 12 other parts, a housewife whose evening prayer leads to monumental creativity.
All in all, this is an impressively spiritual feast; but don’t be fooled by some other titles. Word of God is a Danish comedy involving a dominant father. Even so, the very fact that he’s nicknamed God tells us quite a lot about how characters perceive the divine nature. The biblical connotations aren’t entirely absent from Promised Land, either. Instead of Moses in the wilderness, we have followers of Elvis crossing the US, shining a light on its people’s beliefs.
Saturday Church also draws on religious terminology to describe a sanctuary for troubled teenagers run by volunteers with names such as Heaven. A Prayer before Dawn is an intriguing name for a story regarding a British drug dealer serving time in a horrendous Thai prison. So Help Me God is a documentary featuring Anne Gruwez, a judge. Hearing all those violent cases, day after day, she probably needs some divine assistance.
These are all films using religious language in a mainly secular way. Fair enough; but, for my money, I’m more interested in those that don’t appear to be particularly spiritual and yet are full of Christian imagery.
Much has been made of how Alfred Hitchcock’s Catholicism informs his movies — none more so than Psycho, with its shower scene redounding with baptismal motifs. Alexandre O. Philippe has directed a case study of this sequence, 78/52, in which a repentant Marion literally dies to the old self. It is nuggets such as this that make film festivals the glorious occasions they are, not least for those of a religious persuasion.
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