What am I doing here?

Renée Falconetti as Saint Joan in Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Every time I start a new blog, I’m forced to ask myself “why am I doing this?”. It’s a fair question. There are so many blogs out there. I’ve had at least ten of them in the last decade. And when it comes to film blogs, well, there are just so many of them vying for attention, it can be hard for me to convince myself that I have anything to add to the conversation.

But recently, I realized there was something that is constantly lacking from my film blog reading. And that is the question of religion. It’s not the issue of morality or ethics where we fall short – we love to dissect the intricacies of historical ethics with the cudgel of modern morality – but when it comes to religion, we have a major blind spot. (I am talking specifically about Christianity here both because it is the dominant religion of Western storytelling and because it is what I know, but I think the same goes for all major religions depicted in world cinema and analyzed by American critics.)

To see some evidence of what I’m talking about, read almost any discussion Carl Dreyer. Dreyer’s universally revered masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a work of blatantly religious significance, yet nearly every author who discusses the film seems to have a reflexive need to mention that Dreyer fell somewhere on the spectrum between nonreligious to devotedly agnostic (the exact wording depends on who you are reading). From there, the conversation turns to how Dreyer shoots his actors, the intensity of Falconetti’s performance, and the brevity of her film career. And, yes, these are all important factors in the importance of the film. But lost in all this is any mention of the religious significance of the story or the parallels drawn between Joan’s trial and the life of Christ which is, after all, the reason the film is called The Passion of Joan of Arc in the first place. Sure, it may be true that the concept of The Passion is virtually unheard of in an aggressively secular modern Hollywood, but in Catholic France or Dreyer’s Lutheran Denmark of 1928, everyone, even a nonreligious to devotedly agnostic Carl Dreyer would have known it intimately.

Now, I am not saying that the technical aspects of a film are irrelevant or that religious films are somehow more valuable or important than secular ones. Far from it. I think – and I know I’m not alone in this – that we get ourselves into a lot of trouble when we slap a “Christian” label on a glorified MadLib of a script and expect churches to bus their congregations to the cinema out of a sense of “duty” (I’m looking at you, Pure Flix). What I am saying is that there are religious elements and even downright laudable lessons to be found in secular cinema that are lost either through modern culture’s relative Biblical illiteracy, or worse, our own pietistic unwillingness to look for them.

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