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Film as Hierophany

  • Michael Bird


Within the discussion of religious art there arises the fascinating question of how art can engender the awareness of those special (hierophanous) moments in culture where the sacred dimension breaks through into otherwise profane experience. This question requires a consideration of the peculiar relationship which a given art form has to its world (e.g., imitation vs. interpretation, recording vs. transformation).

The special potency of cinematic art in its relationship to physical and spiritual reality, and to surface and depth, is the subject of the present article. While religion-and-film discussions frequently focus upon religious themes in film, the purpose of the following analysis is that of considering a theology of film, taking account of fundamental questions of cinematic theory. Among thinkers whose systems suggest possibilities for dialogue are theologian (Paul Tillich), a phenómenologist (Mikel Dufrenne) and a “school” of film theorists, including especially the followers of André Bazin.



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1 Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), pp. 11–12, 2024.

2 Ibid., p. 11.

3 Ibid., p. 11.

4 Ibid., p. 12.

5 Ibid., p. 12.

6 Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology, I (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 85.

7 Tillich, Paul, The Religious Situation (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), p. 39.

8 Tillich, Paul, The Protestant Era (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 60.

9 Tillich, , The Protestant Era, p. 68. In the field of artistic expression, this self-transcending realism becomes most evident when form is shattered in order that depth may become visible (cf. “Existential Aspects of Modern Art,” in Carl Michalson, Christianity and the Existentialists, pp. 128–147).

10 Ibid., p. 78.

11 Ibid., p. 79.

12 Dufrenne, Mikel, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (Evanston: The University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 55.

13 Dufrenne's work is characterized by Edward Casey as the fulfillment of a trend: “In this respect, it is by no means accidental that his Phenomenology brings the decade to a close. For it represents a return to that fundamental and most concrete level of human experience which the Greeks had called aisthesis: ‘sense experience’. After Baumgarten and Kant, aesthetic experience had become increasingly divorced from sensory experience…. In opposition to such aestheticism, Dufrenne attempted to restore a measure of the meaning of aisthesis by providing a base for aesthetic experience in the open availability of feeling and perception” (Casey, Edward, Introduction to Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, p. xvi).

14 Dufrenne, , Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, p. 336.

15 Ibid., p. 534.

16 Ibid., pp. 376-377.

17 Ibid., p. 377.

18 Ibid., p. 549.

19 Ibid., p. 549.

20 Arnheim, Rudolf, Film As Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 157.

21 Ibid., p. 8.

22 Ibid., pp. 157–158.

23 Ibid., p.35.

24 Lindgren, Ernest, The Art of the Film (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1967), p. 79.

25 Pudovkin, V. I., Film Technique and Acting (London: Vision, 1958), p. 86.

26 Sadoul, Georges, L'Invention du Cinéma (quoted in Kracauer, p. 31).

27 Bazin, André, What is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), Vol. I, p. 13.

28 Ibid., p. 13.

29 Kracauer, Siegfried, Theory of Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 39.

30 Ibid., p. 301.

31 Bazin, , What is Cinema? p. 15.

32 Kracauer, , Theory of Film, p. 23.

33 Bazin, , What is Cinema? pp. 165166.

34 Ayfre, Amédée, “Conversion aux Images?” in Agel, Henri, Le Cinéma et le Sacré (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1961), p. 12.

35 Bandelier, Alain, quoted in Ayfre, Amédée, Cinéma et Mystère (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1969), p. 86.

36 Ibid., p. 108.

37 Ayfre, , Cinéma et Mystère, p. 16.

38 Quoted in Ayfre, , “The Universe of Robert Bresson,” in Cameron, Ian (ed.), The Films of Robert Bresson (London: Studio Vista, 1969), p. 8.

39 Agel, Henri, Poétique du Cinéma (Paris: Editions du Signe, 1960), p. 59.

40 Quoted in Agel, , Poétique du Cinéma, p. 14.

41 Ibid., p. 50.

42 Bandelier, , “Cinéma et Mystère,” in Ayfre, , Cinéma et Mystère, pp. 8081.

43 Kracauer, , Theory of Film, p. 233.

44 Ibid., p. 309.

45 Ibid., p. 298.

46 Ayfre, , “The Universe of Robert Bresson,” p. 11.

47 Ibid., p. 12.

48 Ibid., p. 12.

49 Durgnat, Raymond, “Le Journal d'un Cure de Campagne,” in Cameron, Ian, The Films of Robert Bresson, p. 47.

50 Ibid., p. 48.

51 Quoted in Durgnat, p. 48. Bazin has elsewhere described this scene as the culmination of a spiritual pilgrimage: “The spectator has been led, step by step, toward that night of the senses the only expression of which is a light on a blank screen” (What is Cinema? Vol. I, p. 140).

52 Albeit one of the cinema's more restrained examples of the principle.

53 Durgnat, , “Le Journal,” p. 48.

54 Bazin, , What is Cinema? p. 133.

55 Bandelier, in Ayfre, pp. 115–116.

56 Agel, , Poétique du Cinéma, p. 8.

57 Quoted in Agel, p. 24.

58 Ayfre, , Cinéma et Mystère, p. 17.

59 Adams, James Luther, Paul Tillich's Philosophy of Politics, Culture and Art (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 98.

60 Dufrenne, , Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, p. 339.

61 Agel, , Poétique du Cinéma, p. 28.

62 Dufrenne, , Le Poétique, p. 75 (quoted in Agel, p. 8).

63 Agel, , Poétique du Cinéma, p. 8.

64 Eliade, , The Sacred and the Profane, p. 11.

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