By Susan Murphy
For me, religious films are films that genuinely touch the great issues – love, forgiveness, morality, justice, humility, compassion, realisation – that the great religions claim as their great concern, but without necessarily having any direct religious reference.
Using Russia’s greatest icon painter, Andre Rublev as a character and pretext, Tarkovsky invites us to journey not only through a fascinating and complex landscape of medieval Russia trembling under the impact of Mongol invasion, but also and equally, the moral landscape of the human heart. No-one who has ever seen the film can possibly forget the film’s extraordinary culminating sequence of the forging and testing of a massive cathedral bell, under the direction of the utterly untested teenage son of the (now deceased) master bell-maker.
Another astonishing Tarkovsky masterpiece, this time set in a vast, desecrated post-industrial wasteland, where some unnamed incident has happened to create a mysterious ‘no-go zone’. We travel with a Poet and a Philosopher into the midst of this place, under the strange care of a Stalker – or person who has learnt how to do the impossible and get past the guards who defend all entry to the Zone. Why? Because at its core is a room where your deepest and possibly darkest wish will become fulfilled. But who can know their own heart clearly and thoroughly enough, to trust themselves with such a possibility?
Another Russian setting, but this time the filmmaker is the great Kurosawa, mapping the profound (and historic) friendship that formed between two unlikely people – the captain of a military mapping expedition in the taiga forests of northern Siberia, and the local indigenous Goldi hunter who was employed as a guide. We may admire Arseniev, the Russian captain, but it is Dersu who commands the deepest respect and love – and sorrow, for all that is sacrificed in such an encounter, and all that is lost in such a collision between two implacably different worlds.
Au hasard Balthazar
Can the suffering of a very ordinary, endearing and dutiful French village donkey, and the young girl Marie who loves him, gradually acquire the resonance and weight of the suffering of Jesus Christ, and of Mary his mother? Those who can bear to love Bresson’s rigorously pared-down moral fable of the gratuitous violence and abuse dealt to ‘dumb’ animals and gentle people tend to say yes, it can, even though how that happens remains completely embedded in the small, plain details of ordinary life, rather than in any grand allegorical schema.
The Gospel According to St Matthew
Casting non-professional actors – peasants from the part of Spain in which he filmed – Pasolini took the Gospel of St Matthew as a way to try to unearth the strange, fierce beauty and grace of a politically revolutionary Jesus. Something about this film touched me very deeply as a teenager, and has kept its hold on me. There’s nothing gentle, apologetic, sentimental or proselytizing here – just the scorching directness of the spiritual implications of ‘the last shall be first’, which are left for you to sort out in your own heart. Pasolini remains as chaste as his Jesus, in this regard.
This is the best evocation that I know of the way grace passes between people in harsh circumstances. Naturally, it is a comedy, and therefore can deal with the most serious of things – forgiveness, justice, mercy and the many forms that love can take. Along the way, it manages to also make clear what an artist must do, in order to live and breathe. All this, on a bleak coast in late eighteenth/early nineteenth century Denmark, as two elderly sisters take in a foreign asylum seeker as the only natural response to someone in dire need.
Burnt by the Sun
What does an ordinary man – former hero of the Soviet Union, brimming with vigor, and in the midst of irascible family summer holiday life – do when the one who will betray him enters the house, bringing with him what he knows will be his death sentence in a newly paranoid Stalinist moment of history? How does he choose to live out the last possible happy day of his life, even under such a cloud? (And what does this mean for the way we might choose to live any so-called ordinary day, every one of which is also scorched by the unrelenting sun of a strictly mortal existence?)
Into Great Silence
A long and yet compelling film with neither spoken dialogue nor added sound effects, this documentary set in a Carthusian monastery takes us right into the heart of the experience of contemplative silence, that people may taste and learn to relish in a long meditation retreat. Such silent observance is a demanding ritual of paying attention and withholding judgment, and the film rises well to meet this in its own aesthetic and editorial choices. It is a pleasing footnote that the Carthusian monks themselves, who took 16 years to consider and respond to the request to film their daily lives in this fashion, loved the film that resulted.
Ivan Sen’s superb first feature simply follows what happens when a young Aboriginal girl who can pass for white and can no longer stand her claustrophobic circumstances, crosses tracks with a young Aboriginal man who has recently escaped on impulse from a correctional facility when he learns from his sister that his mother may be dying. They form a temporary, mistrustful partnership of the road as they make their way from rural wretchedness towards the big city. But the real journey, as they travel alone together beneath clouds is the one that we sense happening minutely and almost silently within, from a prison-house of unspoken forms of pain to a single, brief, blessed moment of sufficient trusting tenderness, that can thaw into tears.