The Fading Cross: Christianity in European Cinema #CriterionBlogathon

Babette

(This is my entry for the Criterion Blogathon, which looks at films in the Criterion Collection.)

There’s no question that the 20th century, particularly the second half, was when Christianity saw a major decline as a political, social and cultural force in Europe.

It’s not hard to understand why: with two generations largely lost in the two World Wars, their descendents grew up unmoored from the traditions and teachings of their parents and grandparents and embraced anti-religious “intellectualism” and utopian leftism instead. As humanity has moved into the new millennium, and Christianity has continued to grow and flourish on every other civilized continent, what used to be the main driving philosophy behind European culture has been reduced to empty pews and only mentioned in European popular culture as an outdated figure of mockery. But looking at the films produced in European cinema during the 20th century (many of which were made by nonbelievers), there are some common themes that suggest where modern European society broke with traditional Christianity, and what Christian values they continue to celebrate.

Note: I cannot discuss these films without describing how they end, so spoiler warnings going forward.

1.Resisting Temptation

Chloe

The overwhelming temptation to sin has been integral to Judeo-Christian philosophy (and to human nature) since the very beginning, and European films capture the frustrating power of it better than most. Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, a key part of the French New Wave of the ’60s, all deal in one way or another with men (mostly Catholic men, like Rohmer himself) dealing with the temptation that comes with a more sexually liberated age. While talky and slowly paced, they offer an interesting look at the clash between traditional Christian morality and postfeminist sexuality. (Chris Rock, of all people, remade one of them recently).

Another French New Wave film that deals with this theme is Leon Morin, Priest (1961). Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, who normally made hard-edged crime dramas, “Leon Morin” chronicles the complicated relationship between a priest and a widow living under the Nazi occupation. The widow, an outspoken athiest and communist, nevertheless asks the priest to baptize her Jewish daughter to save her from being taken away by the Nazis. The priest (well-played by French superstar Jean-Paul Belmondo) challenges the widow’s beliefs, even while an unspoken attraction grows between them, and the entire film is like one big dance between these two diametrically opposed people to see which one will compromise their principles.

WOD

Probably the most well-known religious European film that deals with temptation is Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), a visually stunning story about an angel (Bruno Ganz, who later famously played Adolph Hitler in “Downfall”) living in Berlin who falls in love with a mortal woman. At the end, he gives up his divine mission and his immortality to be with her (with the help of another fallen angel played by a scene-stealing Peter Falk), deciding a finite life with love is better than an eternity alone. (It was later remade into the inferior Nicholas Cage movie City of Angels, which while adding alot of Hollywood melodrama at least kept the original theme intact.)

Another fine example of decent men and women tempted by immorality is in Krizstov Kieslowski’s excellent The Decalogue (1989), which is sadly not a part of the Criterion Collection yet. The 10-part miniseries tells a series of short stories involving the Ten Commandments in the lives of everyday Polish citizens.

The heroes of these films usually are able to overcome the temptation to compromise what they believe in (the priest in “Leon Morin”, for example, eventually converts the widow to Catholicism while not giving into his lust for her) but the temptations depicted are a potent, powerful force that these faithful men will continue having to deal with for the rest of their lives. For the postwar Europe generation, the wordly temptations seem to have been too much for their traditional religious values to endure.

2. The Sacrificial Life

Joan

Another value integral to the Christian faith is sacrificing oneself for others, not only in your everyday life but in Jesus’ sacrifice of himself for all of us, and European cinema gives us some striking depictions of it. Carl Dreyer’s gorgeous silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), anchored by an incredible performance by Maria Falconetti as Joan (Pauline Kael called it “the finest performance ever recorded on film”), tells the story of her trial for heresy and execution in stark, visually-stunning detail. As Joan is encouraged to renounce her beliefs by her corrupt interrogators and retains her faith even while enduring a brutal execution, it is difficult not to be reminded of the trial and death of Jesus (which the title is an obvious allusion to).

And while we’re on the subject, Pier Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1962) offers a truly unique take on the life and death of Jesus Christ. A gay Marxist agnostic infamous for depicting some of the worst and most decadent perversions of humanity in films like Salo and The Decameron, Pasolini was probably the last person anyone expected to make a faithful Gospel film. But in a real-life twist of events worthy of a Christian fable, he was invited by Pope John XXIII to attend a seminar with other non-Catholic artists at a seminary. Sitting in his hotel room in Assisi, he read the Gospels and was inspired to film them. The resulting film is likely the most realistic depiction of the Gospels that we’ll ever see on film, made in a stark, minimalist style using nonprofessional actors, it is almost as if there was a documentary crew filming Jesus’ life as he lived it. Though Pasolini didn’t consider himself a Christian, he made a film surprisingly respectful of what Jesus stood for and what he sacrificed his life for. (Sadly, he didn’t take the film’s message to heart, and died of murder 10 years later in a slum of Rome, a victim of his own decadent lifestyle.)

On the other hand, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) offers a very different look at the concept of sacrifice. Told in the straight-forward, simple way that a Biblical fable might be, it follows the life of a beast of burden, a donkey named Balthazar who is treated cruelly by almost everyone around him (with the exception of his kindly owner, Marie). Using a donkey as the film’s subject is a strange but oddly effective choice: Balthazar is the epitome of innocence and purity, behaving decently no matter how he is treated by those he encounters. Parallels with the lives of many saints are plain to see.

Breaking the Waves
A more recent example of the power of sacrifice is in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Emily Watson is unforgettable as a young Scottish woman of almost childlike innocence. When her oil-rig worker husband (Stellan Skarsgård) is badly injured in an accident, she comes to believe that she can help heal him by inviting his pain onto her own body. Though everyone around her is convinced she’s going crazy, she maintains her faith to the end, effectively offering herself up as a martyr, and the film ends with not one but two miracles proving her right.

Like alot of European cinema, these films can be dark and challenging, but they go straight to the heart of why sacrifice is such an important tenet of Christianity – the value of putting others before yourself, even at a great and painful cost at times. Living this way in our everyday lives is not easy, but is an essential part of what it means to follow Christ’s example.

3. Judge Not Less Ye Be Judged

One important theme of Christianity is living your life focused on your own salvation, rather than piously judging others through supposed moral superiority. Who can forget Christ’s condemnation of the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his time as judgmental hypocrites? Or, for a popular example from American pop culture, think of the town council in Footloose (1984). European cinema offers a number of examples of this as well:

Gabriel Axel’s Oscar-winning Babette’s Feast (1987) explores this theme in its story of two daughters of a Lutheran minister in a small and deeply devout Danish village. Both daughters choose not to marry the men they love because their pious minister father objects (echoes of “Fiddler on the Roof” here), and grow up to be a pair of elderly spinsters. Their main source of companionship is with each other, and the friendship they develop with their French housekeeper Babette (luminously played by Stéphane Audran) a Catholic who lives a less stringent but equally faithful lifestyle. Babette happens to win the lottery, and to pay her employers/friends back for their years of kindness, she offers to cook them a magnificent feast in honor of their late father’s 100th birthday. What follows is one of the most delightful dinner scenes in film history (if you like French food, it’s a must-see!), and also a touching and heartfelt story about living a life of both faith and joy in balance.

Ordet

Similar in theme is Carl Dreyer’s Ordet aka The Word (1955), a beautifully-filmed masterpiece based on the play by Kaj Munk, a Danish clergyman (who, incidentally, was murdered by the Gestapo a decade before the film was made). The plot involves the various denominational squabbles and disagreements among two families living on farms in the Danish countryside while one of their sons, who has gone mad and believes himself to be Jesus Christ, laments that the people around him let small differences get in the way when they should be focusing on the basic truths of Christ’s teachings – the “word” of the title. The film ends with an incredible act of divine intervention that seems to suggest he has it exactly right.

And no discussion of these themes in European film is complete without mentioning Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel. A socialist and no fan of organized religion, Bunuel’s work is bursting with anti-Christian sentiment (although since it’s contained within such entertainingly surreal comedy, it’s alot easier to take than a more serious and preachy film would be). In particular Viridiana (1961), about a young nun-to-be who has her faith ruined by the hypocrisies and immoralities of the outside world, and The Milky Way (1969), which is basically a free-form mockery of Christianity, his condemnation of the religious beliefs of others knew no bounds. Even in films that weren’t about religion, like his masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), included an utterly clueless (and possibly perverted) Catholic bishop among its bizarre cast of characters. Despite how heavily he went after the Church, Bunuel never really came off as a bomb-thrower; he simply enjoyed tweaking whatever group he considered to be the elite of society, and included organized religion (and what he perceived as its hypocrisies) among his targets.

4. Struggling to Keep the Faith

SS

Another constant theme (which makes perfect sense, given my earlier discussion about Christanity being on the wane in Europe) is characters struggling a “dark night of the soul”, fighting to keep their faith. Probably the most well-known and striking example of this is in the work of Ingmar Bergman, the famous Swedish filmmaker (and son of a priest) whose existential films often expressed a deep frustration with trying to keep one’s faith in a world in which God chooses to hide Himself. The Seventh Seal (1957), which its extraordinary story about a knight (Max von Sydow) returning from the Crusades and playing a chess game with the Grim Reaper, while desperately trying to find some proof of an afterlife before he dies, is the quintessential example. Likewise, his Silence of God Trilogy of the early 1960s (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence) all deal, in one way or another, with characters trying to maintain their faith in a God that they feel has abandoned them. There’s no contempt for faith or for religion here, just an underlying anguish at wanting to refill that daily cup of belief but finding it harder and harder to fill.

If Bergman was ever to attempt a big-budget commercial movie, the result would probably be along the lines of Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus (1947). One of the most visually-striking films you’ll ever see, it stars the great Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, the leader of a group of British nuns who travel to the Himalayas to establish a convent there. They clash with the locals, who plainly tell them that they don’t want them there, and with their own church leadership, which
is depicted as stubbornly rigid and corrupt. Sister Clodagh eventually finds herself questioning both the value of the convent and her own deeply-held principles, and eventually concludes that the whole idea to come there was a mistake.

Blk Nar

Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1954) explores similar thematic territory, touchingly telling the story of a young parish priest living in a small town in the French countryside. To say his lot in life is a harsh one is an understatement: the locals reject him and his attempts to bring God into their lives, he is suffering from an unnamed but painful ailment, and he is questioning his own faith. Yet he chooses to devote his life to God and to his church, to the bitter end, and the film celebrates that devotion as a triumph in itself.
Country Priest

Taken as a whole, these films give us a complicated but fascinating look at Christian faith during the 20th century: something beautiful, important and sometimes transcendent, but unwilling to change quickly enough for a continent in an awful hurry to change itself. Who knows what the next century of European film will look like?

11 comments to The Fading Cross: Christianity in European Cinema #CriterionBlogathon

  • […] Threedonia – Christianity in European Cinema […]

  • You’ve put a lot into this essay, detailing the diminishing Christian faith and the films that consciously (or unconsciously) explore this trend. This is a thoughtful analysis, and there’s much food for thought.

    Thank you for joining the Criterion Blogathon!

  • Beautiful and well researched post. You encapsulated how Christianity is portrayed through art film and what it says about social perceptions of religion. It is interesting how some of the filmmakers are not Christian (some probably hostile towards it) while others were devout. Probably my favorite Christian film in the Collection, at least the one that moved me the most, is Ordet and I’m glad to see it covered here. I am not positive about him personally, but based on his work, Dreyer seems to be a believer. Bergman has a more complicated relationship, and I think ultimately was not a believer even if he came from a religious family, yet he has some of the more beautiful portraits of the religion and constantly dabbles with the themes you outlined.

    Thank you for participating. This is such a fantastic topic and you covered it with grace. This has been a great week with lots of terrific writing, but this is one of my favorite posts of the week.

  • Great insightful piece, not surprised 🙂 a welcome angle on these movies and for the blogathon. A few of these films I haven’t seen and reading all these posts this week have given me a big to-watch list of “greats” that I really need to get to now. Thanks for joining this event, appreciate it and talk to you soon!

  • Scott M.

    Love “Babbette’s Feast”.Jimmy, have ever seen “Jean de Florette” and its sequel,”Manon of the Spring”,with Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu?You migh find them interesting.

  • Rufus

    I believe President Obama has said, “Black Narcissus” was his mother’s favorite film.

    • Interesting. It’s a beautiful film, but also a soulless one, much more concerned with tearing down than building up.

      Darren Aaronofsky considers it his most influential film, and its visual style influenced everything from Martin Scorsese to “Frozen”.

  • Rufus

    JimmyC,

    I second all the comments here regarding your post! Thanks for putting the time into this. I have a list of movies to look for now!

  • I enjoyed Babbette’s feast, but foreign films, in general, lose something for me. Downfall, The lives of others and Life is Beautiful were engrossing and easily overcame the language barrier, though I did have to watch each of them twice, once to read the dialog and once to watch the acting. I may try some of your suggestions, yet. Though on The Seventh Seal, I had high hopes for years ago, but it just didn’t hit me.

    In any case great coverage of the subject matter, Jimmy!

    • Thanks, LGH. I know European movies aren’t for everyone – they’re beautiful to look at and can be very affecting, but can be very slowly paced and usually don’t spoon-feed you a message like Hollywood movies do. That said, I would highly recommend The Passion of Joan of Arc to anyone. An incredible film, and because it’s a silent film the subtitles aren’t a problem.

      The Seventh Seal hit me like a ton of bricks. I watched it in college, and it actually put me in an existential funk for a while. Each to their own, though.

      • Rufus

        I typically enjoy foreign films more than domestic films. When the Mrs. and I have time to see a movie we’ll typically pick a foreign film we know nothing about rather than the latest blockbuster that’s bombarded us with advertising.

        We are disappointed sometimes, but at least we’re almost always surprised. I can’t stand formulaic scripts, unless it’s a comedy, then who cares about the plot as long as it makes one laugh.