The Cave of Enlightenment
by Dwight Longenecker
As I enter a darkened cinema I'm sometimes reminded of Plato's myth of the cave. There people sat in darkness watching the shadows of the real world shimmer across the wall before them. In the cave of the cinema audiences are also entranced as bright images of the world flicker before their eyes.
Plato's cave dwellers had only shadows. The cinematic caveman, on the other hand, enjoys technologically brilliant interpretations of reality. Out of the flickering light real people appear who enact the conflicts of society and the terrors and joys of the human heart. In the cinema Plato's cave is merged with that other Greek legacy-- the theatre. As a screenwriter and film critic I find that the darkness, drama and discovery of the cinematic experience runs parallel to my religious experience.
It is no co-incidence that the earliest drama was part of the tribe's religious cult. When primitive people don masks and dance out the stories of the gods they are being religious. Likewise the Greeks attended the theatre as part of their communal religious observance. There they experienced a redemptive catharsis as the dreadful stories of human destiny were played out before them. In successful drama a transaction takes place between artist and audience. By identification with the hero they are taken beyond their subjective experience into the realm of universal verities and unchanging values.
This lifting from the individual to the communal; from the personal to the universal and from the petty to the heroic is also one of the functions of liturgy, prayer and catechesis. In a unified society, drama and religion are sisters. They complement one another--the religion specifies what the drama left implicit while the drama incarnates and enacts the religious truths.
I'm not the only one to sense the religious quality of the cinematic experience. The film director Martin Scorcese wanted to be a priest when he was a boy. He writes, "...I soon realised that my real vocation, my real calling, was the movies. I don't really see a conflict between the church and the movies ...I can see great similarities between a church and a movie house. Both are places for people to come together and share a common experience."
What I find frustrating is the yawning chasm between the world of cinema and the church. When I offered to write an article for a major film magazine on how Jesus had been treated in the cinema, the editor commented, "If I took an article like that my ordinary readers wouldn't be interested and I would offend the religious people." His stark assessment was right. Typical movie fans are not interested in Christianity while Christians seem down on movies.
This suspicion of cinema is part of the Puritan curse on our culture. Before the Reformation popular drama and popular religion were complementary. If the mystery plays were sometimes bawdy and gory they were only communicating the human realities of the faith in an entertaining, down-to-earth way. Like all good drama the mystery plays fleshed out the religious truths. But Puritanism put a stop to that, and the Puritan distrust of drama has been woven into our culture in both Catholic and Protestant circles.
Religious folk usually complain about cinema on three counts. The clever ones regard movies as beneath them. The moralists object to the sex and violence in movies, and the earnest grumblers believe movies communicate anti-Christian values. But these criticisms are often made by people who do not understand drama and rarely attend the cinema. Too often the judgements are superficial and shrill. Instead of understanding and affirming this influential art form too many Christians stand aside and turn up their nose.
In doing so they reject a form of social communication which has the power to express moral values in a popular way. For millions who do not 'connect' with organised religion, the cinema may be the only place where they share a communal experience and confront the eternal questions of good, evil and redemption. One writer has observed that 'the cinema is the modern confessional' for there in the darkness the film-goer participates in the struggle to overcome evil. While this is an overstatement, it is true that a great film affirms moral truths and helps the cinema- goer see himself and the world in a fresh way. This process is engaging and deeply personal. When it works the chemistry can produce a shattering moment of enlightenment.
In The Shawshank Redemption Andy Dufresne-- a detached and dispassionate man-- is wrongly jailed for murdering his wife. After decades of wrongful imprisonment, torture and abuse he says to his friend, "I killed her. I never pulled the trigger, but I killed her because I didn't love her enough. That's why she went off with that other man. Her death is my fault." When the hero comes to that point of terrible self-awareness every soul in the audience suddenly remembers the people they haven't loved enough, and how that lack of love is a tiny act of murder. There in the darkness we haven't seen shadows of reality, but reality itself.
Such filmic moments transform individuals and society. The communication of one such truth redeems all the shallow, base and foolish moments of cinema-- towering over them like a colossus in the desert. When a film works effectively it hammers truth into my head through my heart and I leave the darkened cave purged--having shared in an implicitly religious experience.
Scorcese agrees: "I believe there's a spirituality in films, even if it is not one which can supplant faith. I find that over the years many films address themselves to the spiritual side of human nature... movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious. They fulfil a spiritual need that people have."
Aristotle said a society could be judged by the state of its storytelling; and cinema is our form of storytelling. In my experience of at least one movie a week, the judgement is on the positive side. As in any art form there is much dross, but from the dross more and more gold is being produced. Behind all the glamour of Hollywood I believe more film-makers are attempting to create entertaining films which score high in positive human values. If they are to succeed they cannot be cut off from religion. The two sisters need to hold hands: cinema must be enlightened by religion and religion must be delighted and challenged by cinema.
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Copyright © Dwight Longenecker. All rights reserved. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic writer and broadcaster working and living in England. Check his website
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