Among the Believers

10 12 2009

'The Wicker Man'

A few weeks ago it was my girlfriend’s birthday. To mark the occasion we had a nice Italian meal and a bottle of wine, then sat down to watch a policeman being barbecued alive inside a giant wicker statue. We were watching The Wicker Man of course, and we were doing so partly to mark the passing of Edward Woodward, the film’s star, who died in November at the age of 79.

In The Wicker Man, Woodward plays Sergeant Howie, a strict Presbyterian copper who visits a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Initially finding the locals somewhat uncooperative, the policemen soon uncovers sinister forces at work on the island. To his shock and evident distain, he stumbles across people worshipping phalluses, dancing naked around bonfires and engaging in all kinds of unsavoury pagan activity. “Have ye not heard of Jesus Christ?” he asks some schoolchildren at one point. But it’s evident that neither they, nor their parents, nor the barman’s sensuous daughter (Britt Eckland) have been brought up on the Good Book, a fact that continues to rankle with Howie even as he fights his own, newly-awakened desires. 

The film was made in 1973, and even then Howie would have seemed like a character rather out-of-step with the times. Now, 36 years later, and with Western societies both more multicultural and more secular than ever, it’s hard to imagine that any contemporary character would be so shaken to the core to see his or her religious beliefs challenged.

Indeed, even the idea of a film about religion seems curiously old-fashioned. If Christianity appears in the cinema at all today, it’s generally in the context of a force to be struggled against, its institutions repressive, its doctrine damaging to the spirit of the free individual (see Breaking The Waves, The Magdalene Sisters or Bad Education). True, many of the great 20th Century directors – Dreyer, Bresson, Buñuel, Bergman –made films that examined and challenged Christian dogma. But even if their work is still admired today, there’s a recognition that society has changed profoundly, and that religion is nowadays, to put it charitably, peripheral. What has all but disappeared is the idea of the religious life as an experience in itself, worth exploring and documenting on film.  

Recently I saw Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1954 film Ordet (The Word) for the first time. It is a powerful, brilliantly-realised work, from a film-maker who is clearly in command of his medium. But, at the same time, to modern eyes its story of Protestant schisms and miracles in rural Denmark seems almost impossibly remote from everyday experience. Its characters attend packed churches and argue about doctrine, and faith is an intrinsic part of their lives in a way that it simply isn’t for most people today. ‘Very old and hard to understand’ was the verdict of ‘A Customer from Hastings’ on the Lovefilm website. Could a film like Ordet be made today?        

'Ordet'

Well yes it could. But film-makers who want to explore these kinds of overtly religious themes increasingly have to go to the furthest frontiers of modern society to do so. So in Peter Weir’s Witness (1985), the simple faith of the Amish stands in sharp contrast to the mainstream, modern world. And in Silent Light (2007) Carlos Reygadas sets a Dreyer-like story of faith and renewal among a similarly old-school Mennonite community in rural Mexico. And then there’s the 2005 documentary Into Great Silence, for which director Philip Gröning spent six months living among silent monks in a remote Alpine monastery.

Cinema, of course, reflects society, and it would be very odd indeed to see a film like Bergman’s Winter Light remade in, say, modern inner-city Britain. Matters of the spirit, for better or worse, no longer have such a hold over the individual, and screenwriters, inevitably, struggle to find much scope for dramatic activity in them.   

'Into Great Silence'

Instead, today’s film characters have crises rooted around matters more material. They worry about relationships, money, social status, crime, punishment and revenge. Pre-credit crunch, we even saw the suggestion – in Sex and the City: The Movie – that a new handbag could solve most of life’s problems. The believers of various sorts have become the outsiders, the slightly weird secondary characters forced to the edge of the frame.

This trend has only been bucked, at least in the Western world, by the emergence of a new Evangelical cinema in – where else? – the USA. Increasingly with the support of the big studios (who know a good market opportunity when they see one) Evangelical film-makers have set out to tell the kind of affirmative, instructive, God-fearing tales that appeal to church-going audiences in the Midwest. But while this sort of cinema may reflect a certain current of thought in America’s ‘culture wars’, its characters are about as far from the questioning, doubting, suffering inhabitants of a Bresson or a Dreyer film as it’s possible to be. 

But do we really need these kinds of characters today? Do they speak to us still? Or are the spiritual possibilities of modern cinema being quietly worked through with other stories, in newer, less blatant ways?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

 

So I’ll let them get on with it, while I get back to Big Momma’s House 2.

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