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A Closer Walk With Thee

A number of film directors--mostly Europeans--have seriously pondered humankind's relationship with God. Hollywood just sugarcoats the subject.

March 09, 1997|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

A curious thing about Lars Von Trier's film "Breaking the Waves" is that its central character never appears on screen. On one level, of course, the story is driven forward by Bess, a naive girl played by Emily Watson, who makes a pact with God in a desperate attempt to save the life of her injured husband. On a deeper level, however, it is God, or at least Bess' idea of him, who turns the narrative wheels of Von Trier's movie.

Bille August's new film, "Jerusalem," for instance, has much in common with "Breaking the Waves" in this regard. The film, the true story of a group of Swedish religious pilgrims who emigrated to the Holy Land in 1896 to live closer to God, centers on people whose every action is a reaction to him.

At a glance, it would be easy to assume that this fascination with theological questions is peculiar to Scandinavian films, but in fact, it is a subject that comes up in movies nearly everywhere but America, where film history is marked by a curious reluctance to tackle the big questions.

August, however, tackles them head on in "Jerusalem," which examines the fear, superstition and confusion of a community of simple farming people who interpret everyday occurrences as instruction from the divine, and search in vain for guidance that never seems to come.

The film, based on a 1915 novel by Selma Lagerlof, is as remarkable as "Breaking the Waves" in its evenhandedness. Neither film functions as a morality fable, nor does either attempt to prove that God exists. Rather, they operate as open-ended inquiries, and they make no bones about the fact that one can't address the question of God without simultaneously acknowledging the brutality of human existence.

The God of "Breaking the Waves" is a harsh one indeed, and he hangs Bess out to dry even as he keeps his promise to her. In light of the film's downbeat conclusion, it may be surprising to learn that Von Trier is a practicing Catholic who converted five years ago.

Conversely, August's film ends on a note of optimism. So it's equally surprising when the director says in an interview: "Although I have the deepest respect for faith regardless of what form it takes, I don't believe in God, nor was it my intention to raise the question of whether or not he exists. The people in this story were fanatically obsessed with what they believed, and for me it's a tale of human imperfection and disappointment.

"This Swedish cult had its roots in Chicago. A group of people there believed the Great Fire of 1871 was the first sign of the apocalypse, and one of the leaders of the group went to Sweden to recruit people for their commune in the Holy Land.

"Part of what drew me to this story is my belief that such a thing could easily happen today. When societies lose their idealism, they become vulnerable to Svengalis, and I think most people would agree we're living in a time of profound disillusionment. The book was intended as a cautionary tale by its author, Selma Lagerlof, who was a close friend of Ingmar Bergman's father, who was a Lutheran minister. The book has always been important to Ingmar Bergman, whose films obviously are concerned with questions of faith."

The route is indeed fairly direct from "Jerusalem" to Bergman's 1957 film "The Seventh Seal," a harrowing meditation on faith in 14th century Sweden. Set against the backdrop of a plague that ravaged Sweden during that period, Bergman's story suggests that death is the meaning of life, and that the significance attributed to all that precedes it is erased upon death's arrival.

"To believe is like loving someone in the dark who never answers," says a knight played by Max Von Sydow, who has come to the conclusion that man's fate is a bitter one and attempting to understand it is futile. Closing his film with a shot of a young couple blissfully unaware of this fact, Bergman implies that ignorance is the most we can hope for.

Bergman's 1960 film "The Devil's Eye" was similarly bleak in its suggestion that we are born stained and weak, the trials of life strengthen us, and God torments us for his own amusement. "No punishment is too severe for those who love," observes one of Bergman's typically bummed-out characters midway through the film.


Taking an even more jaundiced view of all things theological was Spanish Surrealist Luis Bun~uel, whose entire output as a filmmaker is seen by some as an attack on the Catholic Church. Outraged by the absurdity of imposing a structure of logical order on a chaotic universe he felt was clearly being run by nobody, Bun~uel made the hypocrisy of organized religion the subtext in all his work.

He attacked these sacred cows head on in his third film, made in 1932, "Land Without Bread," and in such subsequent films as "Nazarin" (1959), "Simon of the Desert" (1965) and "The Milky Way" (1970).

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