From a Far Country Comes A Catholic Craftsman

It’s rare that you find one of the world’s most celebrated filmmakers to be a faithful, high-fidelity Catholic. Krzysztof Zanussi is that rare find. Interview by Edward Pentin.

It’s rare that you find one of the world’s most celebrated filmmakers to be a faithful, high-fidelity Catholic. Krzysztof Zanussi is that rare find.

Polish by birth and a friend of Pope John Paul II, he was one of the first producer-directors to make a film of the Polish Pope — the acclaimed biopic From a Far Country (1981). He would later bring Our God’s Brother, one of the late Holy Father’s plays, to the big screen.

Renowned for his masterful cinematography and direction, he has won numerous awards and has written several books on filmmaking. He also teaches at colleges in Poland and Switzerland.

In October, Zanussi traveled to Rome to attend the Catholic film festival “Religion Today.” He took some time away from the proceedings to speak with Register correspondent Edward Pentin.

Can you tell us a little more about this festival, “Religion Today”? What is its significance?

“Religion Today,” as they call this festival in Italy using an English expression, is a chance for various filmmakers from various countries, of various religions, who try to express religiosity in film, to meet. And it’s very precious because we can see films that are inspired not only by Christianity, but also Muslims films, Buddhist films and films inspired by the Jewish religion. So I think it is quite unique and very precious.

The festival has a very clear character: It’s not syncretistic, it’s not preaching that all religions are the same. It’s very clearly saying that Italy, for example, is a Catholic Christian country and that is its identity — but it also welcomes other kinds of expressions of religiosity. So the festival gives us a chance to know each other better, to serve each other better.

I’m a little bit reluctant to use this word “dialogue” in connection with this festival because I’m afraid this word can be easily misinterpreted or even abused, because there’s no real exchange. I’m not going to cede anything of my faith. Things are divided and different but we find what we have in common and what we don’t have in common. That’s very necessary, I think, for all of us.

At a time of globalization we’re exposed to all religions at the same time and it’s not a question of little elites. Everybody today can travel and see how other people worship God and so we should try to understand what is their kind of worship and what it says about ourselves. We can see ourselves in a mirror, which is also very helpful.

Since you are a practicing Catholic film director, what is your opinion of Hollywood’s growing desire to produce films that appeal to “people of faith”? Do you welcome them?

I would quote André Malraux (a French intellectual who lived from 1901-1976) — although I know from his daughter that this quote is incorrectly attributed to him — that the 21st century will be either spiritual or there will be no 21st century. Today we are in the 21st century and we can see his prophecy was right.

It is becoming more spiritual because simple-minded materialism is somehow dying out in our days; there is a certain religious revival. But one cannot say it is really an overwhelming process. We need to go much, much further to discover a new form of religiosity adequate for a time of globalization, an era of high technology, a time of computers and trips into space.

But I hope it will come. I am optimistic about it.

And do you think film will be a primary medium through which this spiritual renaissance will come?

Well, film has a tremendous capacity to express what mystics were expressing in their writings — but in vain. Mystics are impossible to read unless you have had a similar experience. I’m being sarcastic, but I know how much I suffer when I read the writings of St. Teresa of Avila.

At the same time, when I see films that are intellectually not so precise but sensually transmit the feeling of mystery — as Stanley Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey or The Matrix, and especially the first in that series, did to me — they portray a mystery which opens me up to religion.

So I think cinema is capable of doing that. In Europe, we had a few great masters like Bresson, Bergman, Fellini and Tarkovsky, who isn’t particularly well known in the United States. But these are masters of very spiritual cinema that touched the public and I think proved that cinema may be used for such purpose.

It’s often said that, when Hollywood filmmakers make a film about religion, there’s always at least one major mistake. Have you found this and does this irritate you?

When I see films that are pretending to be religious but at the same time are clumsy, I don’t care very much because I believe they’re aimed at people who have no idea what religion is like.

Even if something doesn’t fit with the orthodoxy of religion, I would say the effect is negligible because it’s not addressed to people who know very much, so it won’t mislead them.

I don’t mind [these films] being shown in my country, where you hardly find someone who doesn’t know the Gospel well enough to understand that they are apocryphal — not valid interpretations of the Gospel, just a variation: “What could have happened if — ?”

Hollywood is sometimes silly, but well-intended films do little harm.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.