This week's topic in my Theories and Method's seminar was Religion in (and?) Film. As was usual, I prepared a short review report on the readings (or in this case watchings) assigned for the seminar discussion. Unfortunately, it turns out that we were not required to submit a review paper this week which means that my wonderful piece of scholarship (haha) will forever be ungraded. Since I can't stand to do something and not have at least some feedback on it, I'm taking a giant leap of faith and posting here the text of my review in the hopes of receiving some feedback from you my faithful readers. Yes, I am a grade whore, I am sorry.
Religion and Film: Brief Reflections on The Life of Brian and The Sacrifice.
In looking at Religion and Film (or perhaps Religion in Film) we experience one of the great advantages of Religious Studies, that of interdisciplinarity.Not only do we get to look at films as expressions of religious ideas and ideas about religion, but we also get to take a page out of the literature scholars’ book and look at films as literary objects. Combining these two perspectives hopefully will provide us with a deeper understanding of what these films are saying and how they are trying to say it.
In The Life of Brian, there are many instances of commentary on religion expressed through a satirical examination of religious behaviour. In this film, the example which stands out most for me, is the “Sects of Brianism” sequence, where the various followers of their supposed messiah (Brian) express their faith through different practices (taking off of a shoe, lifting up the gourd, etc). Each ‘sect’ zealously promotes what it perceives as the true way of showing their devotion to the messiah. Here, the Python crew are satirizing the rigid sectarianism that often characterizes the major religions of the world; one of the most famous ‘sectarianisms’ is the Catholic vs. Protestant division within Christianity. Satire is the means through which religion (particularly Christianity) is criticized.
After viewing this film, I wondered what the motivations of the filmmakers were in producing this work. My first thought was that, as purveyors of entertainment, the filmmakers were simply attempting to use the (relatively) common knowledge of Christianity to provide a few good laughs and ultimately turn a profit. On further reflection, I began to wonder if there wasn’t some deeper motivation driving the filmmakers. Perhaps, I thought, they aren’t only interested in making a buck (or a quid) but in prompting change in people’s attitudes towards religion, for better or for worse.
In Tarkowski’s The Sacrifice, a much more subtle commentary on religion and religious behaviour is presented. Through the eye of the camera, we see the expression of one man’s religious beliefs in his life. Though the commentary on religion is not quite so explicit in Tarkowski’s film, it is most certainly present.
I think in making this film, Tarkowski was attempting to explore several aspects of religious belief. Most importantly, I think he explored how, as a result of their religious beliefs, people commit acts that they would ordinarily be considered unusual or even criminal. Much like Abraham in Derrida’s The Gift of Death, the main character in The Sacrifice becomes a criminal in response to the demands of 'The Other'. Regardless of whether or not his experiences are real or imagined, the main character makes the decision first to sleep with ‘the witch’ and second to destroy his house and family to satisfy his bargain with God. While it may not be understandable to an outside observer, this character’s response is entirely consistent with his experience of God whether his experience is real or imagined.
After viewing The Sacrifice, I also wonder if Tarkowski isn’t attempting to comment on the mysterious nature of religious experience. From the opening sequence of the film (the planting of the dead tree), to the final sequence of the mute boy speaking, those experiences of the characters which can be characterized as religious are shrouded in mystery; they are not fully accessible to either the characters themselves or to the audience. It seems that Tarkowski is saying that religious experience is in and of itself unfathomable by anyone, including its practitioners.