Why do people enjoy films? What is it about the cinema that we find so captivating? What draws us to sit in a dark room with strangers or alone on our living room sofas and stare at a screen for hours—sometimes experiencing a story we’ve visited many times before? From the first public film in 1895 to the thousands of films per year produced in 2017, audiences show up time and time again to watch light dance across a screen and tell someone else’s tale. Why? It can be argued that, initially, the human fascination with cinema stemmed from a sense of wonder at the possibility of harnessing and projecting moving images in the first place. It may not have mattered what was on the screen, for the very fact that a moving image was, in fact, on the screen garnered interest and allure. A century after film’s origination, this reasoning cannot explain why film is an 88-billion-dollar industry. While there are certainly still people who regard the ability to harness, manipulate, and project light an amazing feat, the vast majority of film-viewers must be drawn to the medium for alternate reasons. I suggest that the human captivation with cinema exists not because of what film is—controlled shadows and light—but because of what film does—sacramentalize existential human experiences.
I, myself, am intrigued and repeatedly fascinated by film’s ability to sacramentalize human experience. Having dabbled in the field of film production for several years, I appreciate the artform and understand the unique combination of creative instinct and technical skill required to produce a film. However, having more thoroughly immersed myself in the field of theological study, I am continuously intrigued by the myriad ways that these two areas of study illuminate each other. In doing theology, I often study God by studying God’s creation—creation that includes the wondrously multifaceted being referred to as “human.” While the human is just one being among many interconnected and mutually dependent creations, I have found a focus on the human (albeit not exclusively) to be beneficial to understanding how God works in the world. Viewing films with a framework of theological anthropology allows any film that captures human experience and shares it on screen to also provide a window through which one views the divine. It is this opportunity to witness film’s sacramentalizing effect on human experience that repeatedly draws me to the cinema. It is this invitation to experience humanity from different perspectives that encourages me to watch and re-watch my favorite films. It is this convergence of storytelling, life-experiencing, and meaning-making that captivates me, as a theologian, and insists that I participate in the ongoing love that humanity has for the cinema.
For the theology scholar, film offers “a compelling alternative route to religious experience at a time when we desperately seem to need it, with film functioning either as proxy for religion (Lyden, Plate) or a means of enhancing or perhaps even revealing existing faith (Sison, Nayar)” (Joseph Kickasola, John C. Lyden, S. Brent Plate, Antonio Sison, Sheila J. Nayar, Stefanie Knauss, Rachel Wagner and Jolyon Baraka Thomas, “Facing Forward, Looking Back: Religion and Film Studies in the Last Decade,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 32: 53). Storytelling, life-experiencing, and meaning-making are all things that can be achieved through a written narrative, as well. But, there is something different, and I argue advantageous, about participating in this process via film. Using film in theology allows one to explore major theological themes in a contemporary climate, reminds one that theology has an unavoidable and important public dimension, and enables one to awaken the emotional and aesthetic aspects of faith that are often left unstimulated when reading text on a page: “Precisely because film as a medium works through the creation of an emotional response first and foremost, as a reaction to the visual image presented, film invites theological reflection to begin through an emotional channel” (Clive Marsh, “Film and Theologies of Culture” in Explorations in Theology and Film, 32-33). Viewers experience the material sensually and then think about it, instead of encountering the material intellectually and then being asked to apply it to lived experience. The primacy of sensory experience allowed by incorporating film into the study of theology provides a new way with which to engage theological material that is beneficial to the rigorous theology scholar and the non-scholar, alike.
Film’s power of visual imagery results in great influence over modern society. People are often likely to have more vivid memories of something they see and hear than something they read. Because of this, film’s influences naturally persist outside of the theater complex: “Film has stepped down from the screen to infiltrate political, social and religious lives. The argument here is that religion and film leave the temples and theatres, synagogues and living rooms, and meet in the streets, stairways, parking lots, weddings, funerals, cities and deserts of the US” (S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World, 79). People do not leave their filmic encounter at the door of the cinema. Once experienced, it unavoidably informs their lived experiences from that point forward. In a sense, our film viewing experience is nothing short of sacramental.
Stephanie Clary serves as the Manager of Mission Outreach and Communication for the Diocese of Burlington and the Assistant Editor of Vermont Catholic.