erasing clouds

Book Review: The Hidden God: Film and Faith, edited by Mary Lea Bandy and Antonio Monda

by dave heaton

Published last summer, in advance of the currently running film series of the same name, The Museum of Modern Art's book The Hidden God seeks to examine films where issues of faith and the idea of God are present but not named. In brief essays by an international cast of critics, writers and thinkers, set out to show the disparate ways that film addresses the central spiritual concerns of humanity - why are we here, what role does a supreme being play (or not play) in our lives - even when those themes aren't especially evident on the surface. Such an open-ended project leads to a book that's rather amorphous in scope and tone yet still quite interesting. It's impossible to summarize the writer's overall take on film and faith, as nearly all of the writers have different perspectives and definitions. Yet that variety is exactly what makes the book so readable. The films chosen by the writers range from the obvious (films and directors always associated with spiritual themes, like Bresson and Rossellini) to the less so…and the essays themselves similarly range from those which state the obvious or essentially relate the plot and situations to those which deftly illustrate themes and ideas which moviegoers might have missed in the film.

The Hidden God opens with two essays on Bresson's 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar (one of which also discusses 1977's Le Diable Probablement) , sectioned off from the bulk of the book because the film is what prompted the editors to undertake the project. Both of those essays, a detailed one by James Quandt and a brisker one by Gilles Jacob, are exciting and full of observant moments. Along with Tony Pipolo's astute consideration of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light and The Silence and Michael Wood's cogent summary of the themes of Dreyer's Day of Wrath, the Bresson essays stand out as some of the only Hidden God pieces to take on obvious choices and not seem redundant. Many of the other essays on films by directors often thought of as spiritual or philosophical add nothing new to the conversation; Phillip Lopate says next to nothing about Ozu's Late Spring that has anything to do with the notion of a hidden God, while pieces on the films of Tarkovsky, Fellini, Kieslowski and Rossellini say little that will shed new light on the films for people who have already seen them.

Some of the most enlightening pieces are those about films which wouldn't immediately strike readers as likely subjects …Drake Stutesman's piece on The Blair Witch Project, for example, or Dave Kehr's striking summation of Leo McCarey's Hollywood classic Love Affair. The other highlights are those written by people not known primarily as critics, because their approach is more open-ended, less bound to the formalities of movie writing. Those include Terrence Davies' colorful take on Hollywood Bible films of the 1950s (The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, Stan Brakhage's abstract meditation on A.I., Carlos Fuentes' piece on Buñuel's Nazarin, which casts its net widely enough to give a deeper perspective on its subject than many of these essays do with theirs. There's also several essays on films I previously knew little about which do a grand job making me want to seek the films out (Donald Richie's essay on Fire Festival Andrew Sarris's on Odd Man Out being the two most prominent examples).

A far-reaching book that includes everything from Groundhog Day to Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Hidden God is most notable as simply a collection of writers' insights into films that they feel enthusiastic about. It works best when that enthusiasm is most evident and when the insights are fresh. There's no overarching idea that readers will take away, but like any worthwhile book about cinema it encourages readers to watch films more closely and think about them more deeply.

{The Museum of Modern Art:}

Issue 20, February 2004

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