Film manifests the divine

By  Oaria Di Paolm, Catholic Register Special
  • November 20, 2006

TORONTO - The media today, whether it be newspapers, radio, TV, the movies or the web, is a pervasive, and, some might add, invasive fact of life in the 21st century. Is the incredible influence that the secular media have on our lives all the more evidence that we are turning our backs on God?

Not so, according to Fr. John Pungente, a Jesuit media studies scholar and host of Scanning the Movies on Bravo! television. Pungente delivered the 2006 Chancellor's Lecture at Regis College on Nov. 10. Pungente boldly asserted that, in fact, the cinema is the contemporary church.

Throughout history religion has been arguably the greatest inspiration of all for art, so it is not all that surprising to hear that movies and television, our modern equivalents of story telling and drama, might at times be divinely inspired. According to Pungente, "the experience of cinema has taken on for most of our culture the effect and resources of religious worship."

Pungente's challenge to us to understand how God's Word is put into action through film and media not only reaffirms God's presence everywhere, but also requires us to be highly critical and media literate. He points out that we should not confuse what we see in films with reality because we interpret what we see through our creative imagination. He argues imagination is the divine in human form and "what we see on the screen is God in so much as it creates and defines what is real for us." This applies broadly, from the most profound and thoughtful films to the most exploitive and banal.

Not only are films manifestations of the divine, they also provide many clues in our own search for who we are. As an example of this, Harry Potter's struggles against the evil Voldemort, his parents' murderer, are a metaphor for our own painful journey of self-discovery from the innocence of childhood to the self-knowledge and independence of a mature adulthood. Likewise, the demons and monsters that Buffy, of vampire slaying fame, faced each week were also metaphors for what we all face when we search for who we are. The road to self-knowledge requires that we become aware of our dark side and learn the painful truth of our fallen nature. Pungente refers to Buffy's return, or redux, in the title of his lecture to emphasize that our quest for self-knowledge is never ending. In the series she dies but is resurrected by the magical intervention of her friends. Having been plucked from heaven to return to earth Buffy finds that she is lost again in a new hell and has to start her search for self-knowledge all over again. Other TV shows, such as Joan of Arcadia, make the point less subtly as God talks directly to Joan and teaches her about life and how to find her true self.

The powerful image that Pungente uses of cinema as church is balanced by an equally strong one of film as Scripture. Just as the Word reveals God to us, film reveals us to ourselves and by learning about who we are we also learn about God. We find God in the darkness of the world, and we find ourselves in the darkness of film. Just as the darkness of the world does not overcome God, the darkness of film does not overcome us. As the light from the projector shines through the celluloid and reveals to us our own reality, light shines in the world and reveals God.

(Di Paolo studies at the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto.)

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