National Catholic Register

Commentary

In the Best of a Century of Cinema, a Foretaste of Heaven

BY Guy Bedouelle OP

December 15-21, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/15/96 at 1:00 AM

 

WHY IS IT that crowds are so willing to brave the elements and spend hours in line for a chance to visit the major shows of paintings in Paris, London and elsewhere, only to whisper rapturously upon encountering the works, once inside this Holy of Holies? Why is it that during concerts, when you have the misfortune of coughing a bit loudly during the symphony, you meet with so many stares expressing indignation at such sacrilege?

It is because in our era of reversed values, art seems to have replaced the sacred that once filled the churches. These now stand mostly deserted, as secularization has wreaked havoc. Still, whether it's to be fashionable or out of a subconscious search for the supernatural, the public isn't wrong to trace the arts, such as they are, to their sacred origin. Ancient mythology had an intuitive sense about this, as expressed in the nine muses, the daughters of Zeus, the author of Life and Memory, with mythology itself born out of the union of heaven and earth. Theater, dance and music were born with the sacred and for the sacred, while the more recent disciplines, like photography—freezing a moment in a kind of eternity—and the cinema remain true to that origin.

In 1995, the world observed with pomp and circumstance the centenary of the invention of cinema, the celebration driven by the vague notion that film has managed to capture and express the ups and downs of the 20th century. For the Church, the occasion was all the more reason to reflect on the relationship between Christianity and the arts.

We must acknowledge that the Gospels, indeed the entire New Testament, say nothing about art, as if it were a realm left untouched by the Good News. Paradoxically, however, in the history of both Western and Eastern Christendom, no single text has been studied, scrutinized, illustrated, set to music, expressed in sculpture, painting, theatre and film like the Bible. Christianity has never stopped calling on beauty to express itself, its liturgy and its tradition, the efforts of iconoclasts notwithstanding. The Church continues to do so today.

Why is it that the Church finds in art (and not just in works it commissions or which explicitly express its faith) a spiritual dimension, demanding of it a sanctifying function? The sanctification of sound by music; of the body by dance; of space by architecture, sculpture and painting; the sanctification of words, and also of movement—which is the proper meaning of the word “cinema.” Cinematography means the scripting of movement.

Film-making is an unwieldy art; often it's an industry, beholden to commercial interests, rather than a cry hurled into the universe. Often enough, it has difficulty keeping up with the older arts, painting and music, as these soar to spiritual heights. Many films simply stick to amusing the audience, which is fine if the entertainment is honest. Even so, more often than they are given credit for, movies do participate in the spiritual function of art, which, at bottom, can be defined as “the revelation of creation.”

Art reveals the hidden, implied, beauty of ‘creation: It arranges, renews and transcribes the infinite play of sounds, colours and images; it also explores all of humanity's desires and aspirations. Like the mother caring for her children and the worker carrying out his daily tasks, the artist, as co-creator, adds to the world's beauty, order and joy; or brings consolation amidst chaos and sorrow. We are always just witnesses, through suffering endured or shared, through emotion which inspires us to embrace the human condition, and through the search for meaning that characterizes us as the rational and spiritual beings whom God the Creator has generously installed as free stewards of creation.

Hence the Church has to make amends for its deeply-rooted tendency towards kitsch; it is not the job of Churchmen to pronounce on the orthodoxy of this or that work of art—except those that form part of the liturgical space—nor is the Church called to judge artists' aesthetic merit. The Church can, however, based on its experience of grace and its intuitive grasp of the theological virtues, detect the authenticity of love—because there is no true work of art without love.

Filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini, Francois Truffaut or Wim Wenders, who was awarded a doctorate honora causa by the University of Fribourg in recognition of the spiritual value of his work, think of films as dictated by love. Jean-Luc Godard dared to compare the movie screen to the veil of Veronica, who, wiping the disfigured Holy Face, reveals Christ, our Savior, in whom all of creation is reconciled and recapitulated—the visible as well as the invisible world, whose unimaginable beauty we will one day discover, but of which, in art, we already have a presentiment.

Father Bedouelle is based at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.