Arts & Books Books

Why art-house cinema can’t escape the Bible

Diary of a Country Priest is 'central to any discussion of cinema and Christianity'

In a secular age, art films are haunted by Christianity, argues Sebastian Cody

Believing in Film
By Mark Le Fanu,
IB Tauris, 368pp, £60/$78

Film critics live in the dark, often literally underground – in basement screening rooms and other burrows – but they are hoping for light. How disappointed they must be. John Fowles, in his novel Daniel Martin, says of the commercial cinema: “One can no more enter the game innocently than a house with ‘Bordello’ in neon lights across its front.”

This serious and sober, even somewhat austere, book by the distinguished film writer Mark Le Fanu sets out in a different direction to tackle the paradox that, in an increasingly secular age, religion, and specifically Christianity, plays an active role in more films than one might expect.

Le Fanu accepts that secularism is “the fact” of our epoch. Yet this subtle, careful, insightful thinker – who “endured a Catholic upbringing during the 1950s in the north of Scotland”, then adulthood as a Nietzsche-reading secularist – now enjoys Eamon Duffy and Francis Spufford and recognises that thinking about Western art means “being open to the latent and still-living truths of Christianity”.

Indeed, Le Fanu writes, “the great European film directors, often against their will even, have been brushed with the profound knowledge” that the Bible contains “everything we need”.

Note that with his subtitle, Christianity and Classic European Cinema, Le Fanu restricts himself to Europeans. By European, Le Fanu certainly doesn’t mean British films, with their anti-cultural, good-night-out aesthetics, class obsessions and, above all, preoccupation with Our Glorious Past. The one line by François Truffaut which many film fans know is his comment, in conversation with Alfred Hitchcock, that there is a certain incompatibility between the terms “cinema” and “Britain”.

Le Fanu is here concerned exclusively with European art cinema and the greatest directors who have ever worked in film. In this context he asks boldly “whether and how it is possible for a modern artist to be a … believer”, despite a relentlessly trivialising and banal public culture in an era when both high art and the academy have been captured by the irrelevancies of language games and gesture politics.

Rather than consider the inherent nature of film as such – dreams tending to meditation, perhaps – Le Fanu’s primary mode is to investigate the Christian (and the not Christian) inscape of specific films.

The book begins and ends with Tarkovsky (“the most important modern Christian film-maker”) about whom Le Fanu wrote a significant monograph 30 years ago. He then investigates other celebrated Russian directors, particularly Eisenstein, and finds much of value to say about three Polish directors – Wajda, Zanussi and Kieślowski.

In a luminous chapter headed “France” Le Fanu writes about just one director, the great Robert Bresson. Applying a passing but necessary corrective to an ironic Roland Barthes and his “barbed condescension”, the heart of the book is a beautiful nine-page discussion of the film “central to any serious argument about cinema and Christianity”, Diary of a Country Priest. “In front of our eyes we witness a conversion,” Le Fanu writes. “Has this ever happened before in cinema, I wonder?”

In a chapter on Scandinavia, Le Fanu sheds light on (inevitably) Bergman but importantly also on Dreyer, with his silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and the later Ordet (1955).

Spain is represented by the negative capability of the determined – but in Le Fanu’s view affectionate – atheist Luis Buñuel, particularly Nazarin (1958) and his wonderful The Milky Way (1969).

In his closing chapter Le Fanu returns to Russia, not to classics this time but more recent work, usefully noting that, despite decades of enforced and nationwide Marxist-Leninism, “the memory of religion brushes everything that is deepest in life, even in atheist societies”.

Clearly and thoughtfully written, with thankfully no film studies jargon, this book is one to be truly grateful for.

Throughout one senses a writer tiptoeing around questions of faith (only at the very end of the book is there a coy admission that Le Fanu went to Ampleforth, and even that is offered in code). Perhaps he fears upsetting atheist friends or trespassing into the realm of professional theologians. But any writer who can go to the cinema and find “the sweetness and piety and hope” of miracles deserves our attention.

It would not be responsible to close without drawing attention to the book’s disgracefully high price. Le Fanu – who repeatedly notes “I wish I had more space” – has been restricted to an agreeably short volume (less than 300 small, but elegantly produced pages), for which the publishers
are asking an astonishing £60 ($78). One can only hope that a reasonably priced paperback edition is in the works. I would certainly buy a dozen copies of that for my cineaste friends.