Tom Jolliffe takes a look at films about crisis of faith…
The subject of faith in cinema has been around since the beginning. Whether this is faith in a religious sense, or spiritual, or of the self, it is in that test, or crisis of faith which sees a character put through a quest to either re-attain that faith, or finally come to terms with its ultimate passing. Something about a protagonist going through this crisis, evokes a feeling of empathy from the audience. The faith in question might be religious as an example, but even if you’re not religious, that feeling of hopelessness, in having lost a feeling of security the faith gave you, rings truth for most.
Cinematically there have been many directors to deal with the subject. Some in fact have a particular fascination with crisis of faith as a central theme. Ingmar Bergman’s films, many of which had a strong Christian backdrop, would often feature a protagonist who would be at an impasse. Bergman’s faith trilogy in particular is famous for this. Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence.
If we look in particular at Winter Light for example, a local Pastor (Gunnar Bjornstrand) has found himself feeling disconnected with God in the time since his wife’s untimely passing. The wife of a morbid and depressed fisherman (Max von Sydow) asks the pastor to assuage her husbands macabre fascinations with Atom bombs and the Chinese. In a more recent example, First Reformed is almost a semi-remake of Bergman’s Winter Light, following many of the same arcs and outcomes (and whilst engaging, perhaps less enthralling and subtly so than Bergman’s masterpiece). That faith doesn’t just magically re-appear in either case, with tragic consequences along the way but it’s also as much about that lack of faith also bringing with it the drawing back of a curtain. A clarity in their respective outlooks that have altered the way they feel. They’ve accepted the new outlook as truth, as their new reality. In a way it can be seen as similar Neo leaving the Matrix. Once you’ve left it, can you go back? Will it be the same?
Bergman’s most iconic film, with the late great Max von Sydow, was The Seventh Seal. Another dealing with themes of religion, faith and mortality. Sydow’s soldier finding himself targeted by death itself, and feeling a need to come to terms with his loss of faith and hope against the backdrop of a plague sweeping the land. From a young man who left to fight battles, returning to a land that feels alien, to becoming a person who feels he’s lost the idealism he used to have. It’s in that knowing of losing that part of himself (the inner peace of his youth) that he is inevitably resigned to his fate and takes his dance of death to what comes next (perhaps where his faith might be restored).
With Andrei Tarkovsky, faith and religion was also a central focus to a lot of his brief filmography. In Andrei Rublev, the titular religious iconographer has felt his artistic channel to God almost severed. His inspiration, his faith in not just religion but his own art has been affected by the toils of war. He seeks to find a resolve and to slowly rediscover his ability to paint.
Stalker also offered another example of Tarkovsky’s fascination with crisis of faith. Three central characters, travelling into a cordoned off expanse known as ‘the Zone’ are each facing their own battle for faith in themselves (and others). The Writer has lost his creative verve, and questions his own place in the world (and his talents). The Professor has put a lot of faith in Science, but finds his own scientific belief, and perhaps even integrity, challenged by his fascination (and belief) in the (unexplained) higher power which may be prevalent in ‘the Zone’ and it’s central point, ‘the room’ where wishes can come true. His belief in the power of the room further calls into question his lack of faith in man. ‘What if the next Hitler finds this place?’
Most striking of all journeys is the Stalker himself, the guide tasked with taking people through the treacherous zone, to finding the room. He wants to reclaim faith in people. He wants to reclaim the faith he once may have had in his own importance. He never (knowingly) uses the room for himself (though you could read aspects that suggest the ‘zone’ and ‘room’ have affected him and his family) but he takes pride in being able to take people to fulfil their dreams. In ‘the Zone’, which is an almost abstract concept or place, he feels most at home. In reality, it feels alien, but his faith is tested and belittled by most of the men he takes there. Stalker never finds that solace. He never restores faith in himself, in a higher power, or in man.
One of the most infamous examples of a crisis in faith, which holds an ultimate bearing on life or death, is in The Exorcist. A young priest holds the key in contending with the possession of a young girl, but as his own faith has faded in light of his own personal circumstances, he struggles to overcome it, which only strengthens the demons resolve. Even by definition of the existence of an ultimate evil, he still struggles in re-finding the faith in an ultimate good to save the girl. William Friedkin’s masterful horror terrorised audiences, but at the core, one man’s struggle with his faith makes the film dramatically engaging.
There are countless more examples, but this dramatic search for lost faith is a cinematic staple. It’s a character journey that is prescient and dramatically engaging (when done right of course). That quest, whether successful or not, is one of cinema’s (and humanity’s) ultimate and most of us are feeling it right now.
What’s your favourite film about crisis of faith? Let us know in the comments below or on our twitter page @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/