Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Film as Cultural Transcendence

Watching this year’s Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, A Man Called Ove, I was deeply transformed by the experience. This Swedish film dealt with some very profoundly human existential questions, namely, our need for other people and their need for us. Our life has meaning and we are all in this together. The town curmudgeon, Ove (Rolf Lassgard) recently lost his wife and his job and believes there is nothing else to live for so he decides to end it all to be with his wife once again. His attempts to end it are always foiled by someone who needs him. Reluctantly he grows close to his new neighbors, and the woman befriends him and helps him to see the beauty and value of life. After watching this comedy/drama I felt a new surge of being a presence of hope in this digital age, to share with those who are lonely that they are never really alone. There is always the greater human family. It was a transcendent experience for me, and led me to reflect more deeply on my life and vocation.  

What exactly is transcendence? It is something that goes beyond normal human experience. It takes us beyond to another realm—a spiritual realm.

Film has the power of transforming us from within by involving us in a visual, emotional and spiritual experience. It does this through sounds, images and stories, where we find deeper meaning for our existence and how God works in the world. It is by grappling with what it means to be human that we often come to an awareness of the Divine. Through the medium of film we discover theological themes such as evil, violence, grace, temptation, sin, forgiveness and communion. Even within the genres of horror, science-fiction and fantasy we can enter into the darkness of humanity to come back out into the light of grace[1].

John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, writes, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”[2] De Profundis films, as Fr. Peter Malone, international film critic, calls them, search the depths of human sinfulness to convey the need for redemption. De Profundis is from the opening lines of Psalm 130, Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord hear my voice![3] Expanding our understanding of the rational to include imagination can often help humanity cope with the tragic and unexplainable circumstances of life.

Some truly amazingly transcendent films are ones that deal with the struggle to survive, facing one’s darkness, and overcoming tragedy. Some of my favorites are: True Grit, The Godfather II, Gran Torino, Birdman, Shawshank Redemption, Cinema Paradiso, Gravity, The Dressmaker, Hidden Figures, Sea of Trees, and Before Midnight. These films give us pause to ask what deep existential yearnings do they express? What is happening in these films? What is the movie’s point of view? What values are being portrayed or ignored? How is the human person depicted? What existential desires are expressed? Is there a resolution or does it leave us in ambiguity about human existence and the meaning of life? What does this film say about the supernatural existential, that human desire for “the more”? Does the film have a transcendent quality? If so, what is it? How can viewing this film lead us to God? What were the signs and symbols used and how do they convey grace or a deeper meaning.

The world of cinema can lead us to know ourselves more profoundly and so realize the humanity that gives God glory. Film often addresses the lights and shadows within the human person sometimes offering hope that darkness does not have the last word, such as in The Dark Knight which shows the good still present in humanity despite the evil that terrorizes humanity. The existential questioning persists in films such as Cinema Paradiso, Moonlight, Arrival, Henry Poole is Here, Silence, Manchester by the Sea, Groundhog Day and many others. Many film noir movies hold us in the shadows without resolution, such as No Country for Old Men, Blue Jasmine, Doubt, Lost in Translation and The Wrestler. God’s grace is continually at work bringing humanity out of the darkness into the light of God’s embrace.

Many films seek to address the heart-wrenching and aching emotional pains of human living. Most of these have to do with relationships that can bring us the greatest joy and the deepest sorrow, such as in The Painted Veil when Kitty (Naomi Watts) becomes bored with her dull doctor husband (Edward Norton) and seeks fulfillment in another man, until he takes her to China on a medical mission trip. It is there that she discovers the beauty of their relationship and married love. We are called to be in communion with God, ourselves, and others and yet this is often our Waterloo as human beings. As a culture, we prize individualism, that is, taking care of ourselves, seeking our own good, doing what we want, making sure we are happy. But, true life comes only when we give ourselves in love to others, when we give love away—freely and unconditionally. Our sorrow and pain come from relationships when we hold onto our selfishness, pride and fear to engage in the risky business of humble, self-giving love, as is depicted in Marvin’s Room. Only when the two sisters Lee (Meryl Streep) and Bessie (Diane Keaton) reconcile after the revelation of Bessie’s cancer diagnosis does the relationship change from continuous contention to selfless love. We are social beings and so seek connection, intimacy and union.

[1 Cf. Jeff Sellars, Ed., Light Shining in a Dark Place: Discovering Theology Through Film, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishing, 2012), xviii.
[2] Pope John Paul II, “Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists”, (Vatican, 1999), No. 10.
[3] Sellars, Light Shining in Dark Place, 34-36.
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Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul, the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles and a Media Literacy Education Specialist. She has degrees in Communications Arts and a Masters in Theology and Arts. For over 25 years, Sr. Nancy has given numerous media mindfulness workshops, presentations and film retreats around the country to youth, young adults, catechists, seminarians, teachers and media professionals helping them to create the dialogue between faith and media. She is a contributing writer for Fuller's Reel Spirituality website and a board member of CIMA (Catholics in Media Associates), a member of NAMLE (National Association of Media Literacy Educators) and SIGNIS (International Organization for Media)

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