Seeing through a glass, darkly

by
02 March 2018

On the eve of the Oscars ceremony, Stephen Brown concludes his exploration of theology in film

Photo 12/Alamy

The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Seventh Seal (1957)

A STRONG contender for the title of the Greatest Ever Film Director is Ingmar Bergman, who died in 2007. The centenary of his birth, in Uppsala, Sweden, is being celebrated this year. The son of an unyielding Protestant minister, he blew lukewarm to cold about God. More important to him, probably, than whether God existed was whether this divine Father (if he did exist) was any more loving than his earthly one.

His film The Seventh Seal (1957) concerns an encounter between a medieval knight (Max von Sydow, later to play Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told) and Death (Bengt Ekerot). The title is a reference to Revelation 8.1: when the seventh, final seal is broken, there is silence in heaven. Bergman’s films wrestle with the dilemma whether God is silent (and, if so, why) or altogether absent.

The theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s notion (in his book The Crucified God) of the Sonlessness of the Father and the Fatherlessness of the Son remains significant, I think, in Bergman’s works. Thus the harrowing of hell becomes a necessary prerequisite to any ultimate notions of salvation; or, as another theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar put it, only through undergoing a process whereby God feels his absence, silence, or non-existence are godlessness, abandonment, and death finally conquered.

Through a Glass Darkly concludes with the words: “I don’t know if love is the proof of God’s existence or if love is God, but suddenly the emptiness turns into abundance.” Winter Light, though more pessimistic, draws a contrast between Tomas, the priest-turned-atheist who is merely going through the motions of religious ritual, and his mistress, Marta, for whom love validates God’s existence.

By the time he made The Silence, Bergman was asking how to live meaningfully, if all human attitudes were worthless. Words cannot grasp what it is that we yearn for. In Persona (1966), Elizabet, an elective mute, asks why we speak, “when all we ever tell each other are lies”. Some critics hold that, by this film, Bergman has taken leave of God, but this may not be so. God is, at the very least, a metaphor that Bergman cannot do without. There is a sense that it is no longer God who is on trial, but humanity and its devastating record of cruelty.

 Everett Collection Inc./AlamyAndrei Rublev (1969)

IT WOULD be inaccurate, however, to cast Bergman as the Gloomy Swede. Despite all the angst, his films were rarely without glee. The Devil’s Eye, for example, is a comic take on Don Juan’s being recalled from hell to seduce a virtuous woman. All his efforts are in vain. Love conquers all. It is as if Screwtape turns into Desmond Tutu.

Bergman’s version of The Magic Flute (being re-released soon) is, similarly, a celebration of love’s (or Love’s?) redeeming work. Fanny and Alexander (1982) — his last major piece — has delightful, idyllic moments of spiritual freedom which contrast sharply with the oppressive character of organised religion. The problem is not so much Christian faith as those ecclesiastical institutions that distort it.

Bergman’s screenplays were often initialled “SDG”: Soli Deo gloria, or “Glory to God alone”. Right up to the end of his career — through comedy as well as tragedy — he was examining life, death, and human personality from a metaphysical viewpoint, albeit as through a glass darkly.

Along with other giants of cinema, Bergman was telling us part of that never-ending story about faith and film. Subsequent directors are the grateful beneficiaries of this inheritance.

Archive PL/AlamyIngmar Bergman behind the scenes of The Silence (1963)

BERGMAN’s influence is by no means restricted to the makers of arthouse pictures. Woody Allen is a case in point: he cannot leave God alone, if only to cast doubts on his existence. His methodology is by way of contention. A parallel can be drawn between Allen and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who, in his poem “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend”, sees himself as “Time’s eunuch”, who fails “to breed one work that wakes”.

Towards the end of Allen’s film Manhattan, the character Isaac, alone again, slumps despondently on his couch while tape-recording the things that make “life worth living”. These include music and Swedish films (Allen’s Interiors is a direct homage to Bergman, and his Deconstructing Harry borrows heavily from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries).

Interestingly, one of the pieces on the Gershwin soundtrack is “Someone to Watch Over Me”, with all its longing for overarching love, care, and protection. It is tempting to suggest to Allen — the self-styled “biggest neurotic in the world” — that Isaac’s list is self-indulgent: by restricting his quest for meaning to so limited a range of resources, he is programming himself for failure. Perhaps; but, in a sense, he is asking, with Manley Hopkins, for the “lord of life” to “send my roots rain”. The problem (and it is a problem for him) arises because he cannot bring himself to take the risk that, instead of a void, there may be an everlasting mercy whom he can address.

It is hard to tell with Allen how far he — writer, director, actor — overlaps with the parts played by his alter ego, but the suspicion is that the real Allen has spent a lifetime as a God-botherer. Take Crimes and Misdemeanours, in which an ophthalmologist colludes with the murder of his mistress. He imagines a scene of rabbinical proportions, where friends and relatives discuss the relationship of God to morality.

In a vast repertoire of films, Allen returns time and again to these questions of ultimate concern. Match Point (2005) posits — not very successfully — the antithesis to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which only Christ can finally redeem our sins. Believing (note this word) that there is no God, Allen’s protagonist Wilton, unlike Raskolnikov, sees no prospect of redemption.

The lack of any absolutes to live by renders Allen’s position no match for Dostoevsky. Without God, existence descends a slippery slope of relativism, and principles can be jettisoned when they no longer suit us. It is a sentiment expressed in the current release Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Mildred (Frances McDormand), a Roman Catholic, encounters a deer, to which she suggests that without God there is no other means of holding communities together.

ScreenProd/Photononstop/AlamyWoody Allen, Love and Death (1975)

WE CAN be thankful, though, for Allen’s skill in keeping the rumour of God alive, especially when, in the process, he presents us with divine comedy — although he is not alone in this. The veteran comedian George Burns plays the eponymous lead in Oh God! (1977), in which a hapless John Denver is chosen to spread the gospel. On the face of it, he is no more successful than Jesus, but only time will tell.

Bruce Almighty (2003) puts us in the position of discovering what godliness must feel like: intolerable, as we rapidly encounter the human limitations of understanding, compassion, and ability to act. We’re back in Bergman territory. In so anguished a world, is God rendered speechless? Has he switched off? Or is Bruce, representing the rest of us, drawn into God’s eternal struggle to ransom, heal, restore, and forgive his people?

The Coen brothers’ films often plough a similar furrow — none more so than A Serious Man, a black comedy based on the book of Job. Bad things befall a good man. Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) might well wonder why all this is happening to him. By the end, we are left pondering: is he cursed, or is he blessed?

The Judaeo-Christian strain can be detected in many other films. Steven Spielberg’s work often depicts the equivalent of Edwin Muir’s poem “The Good Man in Hell”. Liam Neeson, in Schindler’s List, and Tom Hanks, in The Terminal, Bridge of Spies, and The Post, play people whose actions kindle “a little hope in hopeless Hell”.

Elsewhere, Spielberg delights in pointing to things in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in others’ philosophies. His futuristic films (for example, War of the Worlds) and those ostensibly made for children (The BFG) examine truths that underlie any surface lack of realism. His science-fiction films — Close Encounters of the Third Kind, A.I: Artificial Intelligence — invite us to dream of worlds that transcend our mundane existence.

Entertainment Pictures/Alamy2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)

CINEMA is unafraid of employing mythology. Whether it be sword-and-sandal epics, Nordic sagas, or Game of Thrones, the public has an insatiable appetite for blockbusters in which good battles against evil. The Star Wars and Star Trek franchises do much the same thing, only in outer space.

All this may seem a far cry from Bergman’s quest for meaning in an apparently pointless world, but several serious film directors have found science fiction a convenient image through which to explore faith and doubt. Stanley Kubrick scrapped Alex North’s commissioned score for 2001: A Space Odyssey and replaced it with a personally chosen assortment of other pieces, among them Ligeti’s Kyrie, played as we behold the enigmatic monolith, and juxtaposed with Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Kubrick’s widow described the film as an agnostic prayer. On the one hand, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is suggesting that the human race does not need a god to enable it to transmogrify into a superior version of itself. On the other hand, is Kubrick recognising (or at least hoping) that we are ultimately reliant on some Everlasting Mercy for this to be achieved? The use of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz as the rocket-ship traverses space suggests a celestial harmony. The music of the spheres assures us of a purposeful creation.

The film 2001 is often mentioned in the same breath as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which was made a few years later. Tim Cawkwell (in The New Filmgoer’s Guide to God) describes the director’s heroes as “seekers of meaning, who find it in innocent faith, in reconciliation, in sacrifice, even in holy foolishness”. Solaris explores these things in the context of questioning what passes for reality and rationalism. Space travel lends credence to the part played by the unconscious when we are divested of our earthbound existence.

Bergman’s influence is evident in Tarkovsky’s films, although Tarkovsky is more confident than his mentor that faith is the necessary instrument for bringing order out of chaos. Andrei Rublev perceives icons as harbingers of truth: of art’s power — which the Church has largely relinquished — to reveal our inner souls.

The Mirror is a beautiful film, subject to extensively held shots as it randomly reflects on the life of its main character, Alexei. It is in effect a study in contemplative prayer.

Pictorial Press Ltd/AlamySolaris (2002)

LIKE Bergman, Tarkovsky has many admirers in the film world, but most avoid his artistic excesses, plumping for more straightforward storytelling. Directors such as Steven Soderberg — who remade Solaris, starring George Clooney — have a keen eye for how far one can go before bewildering, and losing, audiences.

Terrence Malick, notably with The Tree of Life, positions daily human experience within the context of eternity. As Kafka put it, we have tasted of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but have yet to sample that other tree planted in Eden.

Discovering life in all its fullness was a preoccupation of Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose series of films on the Ten Commandments, Dekalog, would alone have secured his reputation for reinterpreting the essentials of a spiritual life. His subsequent output, which included the Three Colours trilogy, merely sealed it.

 

THERE is no need to worry that, once Bergman’s centennial year is over, cinema will revert to consideration of more superficial issues. The likes of Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), Martin Scorsese (Silence), Darren Aronofsky (Noah), and John Michael McDonagh (Calvary) in the mainstream, and less well-known directors such as Eugene Green (Son of Jacob), Dietrich Brüggemann (Stations of the Cross), and Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida), have received the baton from Bergman and are running with it.

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