[… continued from the last post …]
In The Modern Theologians one of the chapters I looked at first is titled “Theology and Film,” because that’s a topic that really interests me (old habits die hard). Author Jolyon Mitchell has done a nice job of sketching out the history of the encounter between organized religion and the movies. And he is certainly right when he says:
Few directors have studied theology in depth and few consciously attempt to articulate theological themes through their work. Their intention is rarely, if ever, explicitly theological. By attending to specific scenes, films, or directorial statements it is possible, however, to discern how even directors can express themselves like creative theologians. Directors can be seen as visual storytellers grappling with theological issues in new and original ways. Their craft is neither primarily text-based nor rooted in logical arguments, but rather partly dependent upon the skillful juxtaposition of images, sounds, and dialogue to create a narrative.
Consequently, I was disappointed that out of all the directors Mitchell might have highlighted, he picked Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Mel Gibson. Now Bergman is certainly a defensible choice, but Coppola (for The Godfather) and Gibson (for The Passion of the Christ)? Mitchell apparently foresaw that he might take some flak for these choices, because he included the following preemptive response:
Any account of directorial theology is inevitably selective. There is not space here to consider the theologically rich work of directors such as Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson or Andrei Tarkovsky. Bergman, Coppola, and Gibson are only three out of a whole pantheon of film directors who have expressed theological narratives and themes cinematically.
Mitchell doesn’t say so, but I suspect that the fact that Bergman, Coppola, and Gibson are more recognizable names to present-day moviegoers than Dreyer, Bresson, and Tarkovsky, was a big factor in their favor. I do see the merit in trying to engage readers by discussing films that there’s at least a decent chance they’ve actually seen. But when the topic is “Theology and Film,” the works of Coppola and Gibson simply don’t belong in the same category with those of Dreyer, Bresson, and Tarkovsky, and it’s no use pretending otherwise. In the other chapters of The Modern Theologians I don’t see noticeable concessions to popular taste. Rick Warren, for example, has probably sold more books than any of the theologians mentioned in the The Modern Theologians, but he’s nowhere to be found in this book (and, in my opinion, that’s as it should be). Why should movies be treated differently?
So here are my marching orders to you, dear reader: If you think you might like to see great movies with spiritual themes and content, films that will challenge you to actively respond to them, films that won’t cater to your passive desire to be “entertained” – then forget what’s showing at the local cineplex with the 24 screens. They’ll never be showing what you need: Dreyer, Bresson, and Tarkovsky (there are others too, but you can start with these). Netflix should have most, if not all, of their films. If you’d like a suggestion about which film (or films) to start with, ask me, or do some searching online for opinions.
Of course, you may decide after viewing one or two of them that you dislike these movies intensely and that theology and film don’t mix!