Sunday, May 10, 2009

Films tackling religion

Controversy sells. As expected, Ron Howard is looking for some reaction from the Catholic Church regarding Angels & Demons. If the awful The Da Vinci Code is any guide, the bad guy will turn out to be simply a misguided soul. Today's NYT has an article on this topic and it rightly points out that a summer blockbuster is not likely to present any sophisticated critique of religion - especially if it involves jumping off the papal helicopter without a parachute.
Hmm...ok. Instead the best analysis is usually provided by simpler films:
Movies that are genuinely interested in faith — specifically the Roman Catholic faith — tend to be simpler and to focus on mysteries that can’t be solved by breaking codes or diving from moving aircraft. You can learn a lot about the agonies of doubt from Robert Bresson’s stark, affecting “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951), or about the comparable torments of unswerving faith from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s transcendent “Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), which pits the heroine, who believed herself a messenger of God, against the medieval church at the height of its institutional power, to the sorrow of both. Mr. Brown’s exciting-mystery concoctions don’t go there, and probably shouldn’t; this is territory where even angels, rightly, fear to tread.
The article also talks about some fascinating movies made by Luis Bunuel:
Strangely, he made some good ones himself, including two affectionately comic portraits of saints of the holy-fool variety, “Nazarín” (1959) and “Simon of the Desert” (1965). He also made, in 1968, a prankish ecclesiastical picaresque called “The Milky Way,” which consists almost entirely of violent theological debates on some of the tastier heresies in church history: a Jesuit and a Jansenist fight a duel with swords; a mad priest, sitting by the fire in a cozy country inn, refutes an objection by throwing coffee in his interlocutor’s face. It’s hard to avoid thoughts of Mr. Donohue and Mr. Howard, going at it with sabers and piping-hot beverages instead of pamphlets, blog posts and the inevitable cable-news talk-show appearances.
I have seen several of Bunuel films but not Nazarin or The Milky Way. But Simon of the Desert has just been released as part of the Criterion Collection. It is about a saint who lives on a pillar for 6 years, six months, and six days to prove his devotion to God. The topic may seem really weird, but it is based on early Christian ascetics, called Stylites or Pillar-saints. The most famous of them was Saint Simeon Stylites who climbed on a pillar (about 15 meters high) in Syria in 5th century AD, and lived on it for 37 years!! I find it absolutely fascinating. As expected, Bunuel's movie takes this basic premise and explore questions not just about religion but also about those who follow it. And of course, adds his surreal touch to it. Here is a Slant review of Simon of the Desert and below is the whole film (it is 45 minutes long) - if you can tolerate a youtube quality.

Of course, there are many more movies that have tackled different aspects of religion. Here is a helpful list of philosophical films subdivided by topics (not a complete list by any means).