On holiday, I went to a multiplex cinema with my wife. I was astonished at the size of the establishment. There must have been twenty screens.
With the height of the atrium and the sweep of the foyer, it had the feel of a postmodern church. And indeed in the United States, many suburban mega churches do meet in malls and theatres.
Cinema-going is a secularised religious experience, with supplication, worship and meditation, served by the ushers and mediated by the silver screen like a contemporary iconostasis.
Actually, there has been a spate of religious films lately. Hardly a full-on Pentecostal revival, but an interesting signs of our times.
The film we saw was “Life of Pi”. The movie revolves around a story that the narrator claims will make you believe in God. I am not sure that it fulfils his promise.
The upshot appears to be that it doesn’t matter what story you tell yourself, so long as it helps you cope with the vicissitudes of life – more of a Hindu-style myth-making than Christian theology.
While the magical realism of the film lends an aura of mystery to the tale, it is surely not satisfactory to believer or unbeliever that faith should be reduced to our aesthetic preference instead of truth.
In contrast, “Les Miserables” is explicitly Christian in content if not intent. Victor Hugo, author of the novel, was of course part of the Roman Catholic, romantic, reaction against the French Revolution.
But it was surprising that the emphasis was carried over to the musical, even if a little mawkishly and melodramatically.
I would have expected the demands of musical movie making to have swamped the spirituality with schmaltz.
As it is, the final scene portrays a revolutionary fervour, which Hugo was actually trying to critique. Probably, the writers could not abide the otherwise overtly Christian entry in to heavenly bliss.
Terence Malik’s movies are also unambiguously religious, even Christian, films. He himself is an Assyrian Christian, and his faith suffuses all his pictures.
He is also one of the last authentic movie auteurs, controlling all aspects of the film-making process in accordance with his own creative vision.
His latest production, “To the wonder”, has just been released; and has been criticised by critics for its manifest religiosity, which was obviously too much for their secular appetites.
I remember cinema-goers leaving his last movie, “Tree of life”, at the end of its two-and-a-half hours marathon run, exhausted and relieved to escape into the sunshine of the outside world.
But the symbolism of Malik’s films, from the standpoint of the ordinary believer, is fairly generic and non-specific.
The meaning of individual images and scenes is hard to pin down, and needs careful deciphering, through a kind of visual sacramentalism.
Paradoxically, because of this oblique methodology, Malik’s pictures provide genuinely cinematographic openings to the transcendent.
In contrast to “Life of Pi’s” new age subjectivism and “Les Miserables”’s religious romanticism, Malik’s creations present accessible entrypoints for spiritual seekers in a secular age.