• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Thursday, April 12, 2007

    Book Review: Religion and Film: An Introduction - Melanie J. Wright

    Having previously written "Moses in America" and "Understanding Judaism", Melanie J. Wright has broadened the scope of her work with her latest book "Religion and Film: An Introduction". So far this century there has been an explosion in the number of books written in the area of faith and the cinema this century, and Wright introduces her subject with a critique of the available literature to date. She highlights four significant weaknesses. The first is that much work in this area has been far too apologetic. All too often, faith and film books open by attempting to justify their existence within either serious academia or the Christian publishing industry.

    Secondly, much analysis is overly dependent on narrative, and contains little discussion about the visual aspects of the films being considered. "Could it be that – despite the growing bibliography and plethora of courses - film is not really being studied at all?"1

    In addition to these criticisms, Wright also notes that analysis has been too unfocussed. The choice of films examined by these books has tended to be driven by what appeals to the author, rather than a consensus about which films are particularly significant.

    Finally, this has been exaggerated by a failure to take into consideration a film's reception, by both critics and audiences.

    In answer to these four weaknesses Wright proposes taking a cultural studies approach. This enables greater dialogue between the various specialist disciplines as well as a broader context from which to draw. Noting that writers should not "seek to do everything in an account of a film",2 she reveals that the rest of the book will discuss the films it explores in four areas: "narrative; style; cultural and religious context; and reception".3

    The rest of the book deals with 6 films that are specifically about religion (as opposed to alluding to faith or religion in passing or in some symbolic way). Devoting a chapter to each, then, Wright tackles La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Christianity), The Ten Commandments (Judaism and Christianity), The Wicker Man (Paganism), My Son the Fanatic (Islam), Keeping the Faith (Christianity and Judaism), and Lagaan (Hinduism).

    In addition to covering a number of major religions, the films selected also enable Wright to expand on particular aspects of the four areas listed above. For example, the chapter on The Wicker Man (1973) is particularly concerned with the way in which the film's reception shaped the film itself. Initially unpopular it was heavily cut, but gaining cult status has allowed fuller versions to be released on DVD.

    Likewise, Wright's chapter on The Ten Commandments (1956) is especially concerned with genre. It is this chapter that is of most relevance to this site, and Wright's previous work on this film has been influential in this regard. Here she tackles autership, the inability of an auteur to control a film's reception, the influence and changing nature of trailers, the Christianisation of this originally Jewish story, the way in which the Cold War influences the film, as well as comparing it to The Prince of Egypt.

    On top of this, the author also comments on the condescending manner that many film critics take to such "spectacle" films. This idea is expanded in chapter VII (Keeping the Faith) which looks at the way popular films are often ignored by film commentators simply because of their popularity. From a cultural studies point of view this is a mistake.

    In a slightly different vein, chapter VIII (Lagaan) discusses the Hindu concept of darsan - "experiencing the presence of the divine through the act of seeing a god or saint".4 This offers a very different religious perspective to much western analysis where artists such as Dreyer and Schrader consider transcendence to be related to austerity.

    Wright closes with a brief consideration of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. By outlining the combination of factors which led to its financial success as well as "the importance of the [audience's] gaze"5, Wright arrives at a significant conclusion to one of the book's frequent questions: "what constitutes a 'religious film'?"6 Citing the "many religious adherents (who) have known all along... that 'religion' is not a 'thing' but a mode of being",7 Wright redefines 'religious film' as a process of exchange between images / sound and viewer activity/perception. Hence, she argues, film is not only something that can describe religion, or that can act as a vehicle for religious experience, but it is something that can be "religion itself".8

    The emphases on viewer activity and the idea that film can be religion itself are most welcome. Whilst this thesis is, of itself, interesting, it also evokes the T.S. Eliot quote "The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time". One suspects many faith and film commentators have known this deep down but have been unable to articulate it. Thankfully Melanie Wright has done so.

    Notes
    1 - p.22
    2 – p.30
    3 – p.29
    4 – p.151

    5 – p.169
    6 – p.170
    7 – p.172
    8 – p.172

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