Stories and Signs of Hope in Cinema

Ecumenical Film Seminar in Iasi, Romania, 2-5 October

A life-long fascination with the theology of the cinema urged me to cancel an invitation to attend the Pusan film festival and accept instead Hans Hodel’s offer to participate in the Iasi Film Seminar on "Stories and Signs of Hope in Cinema". I had been fascinated by the possibilities offered by an interpretation of the icon in cinematic expression ever since reading back in 1951 an essay in Cahiers du Cinéma by French critic André Bazin on Robert Bresson’s Le journal d’un curé de compagne (Diary of a Country Priest) (France, 1950). Specifically, he underscored the spirituality of the cinema: "For the first time, the cinema gives us a film in which the only genuine incidents, the only perceptible movements, are those of the life of the spirit. Not only that, it also offers us a new dramatic form that is specifically religious - or, better still, specifically theological: a phenomenology of salvation and grace."

Later, when I viewed Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (USSR, 1964-66, 1971 release in the USSR) at the 1969 Cannes film festival, I felt that the spirituality of the cinema had been confirmed again by another masterful film director. Yet my enthusiasm was dampened a bit by not finding anywhere an interpretation of this astonishing spiritual by a theologian writing from the perspective of the Russian Orthodox Church. However, since Andrei Rublev was produced under a socialist system, I felt it might be still too early to encounter a dialogue partner familiar with the depth of spiritual expression in both the icon and cinematic art.

This said, the Iasi seminar was well worth the pilgrimage - if only to hear the thoughts of an Orthodox theologian or art critic on the relationship of the icon to the cinema. After all, more than one French critic has written on the similarities between Byzantine iconography and Bresson’s films. In his comparison of Byzantine art to Bresson’s films, Barthélémy Amengual noted the following similarities: "the dialectic of the concrete and the abstract, the proximity, almost the identity, of the sensual and the spiritual, of emotion and idea, of static body and mobile mind." Of course, Bresson is not a filmmaker schooled in the Orthodox tradition of Byzantine iconography. But Tarkovsky was. And there are scenes in Andrei Rublev (and in other of his films) that deal specifically with this phenomenon.

Iasi in northeastern Romania is an extraordinary place - to say nothing of the nearby archipelago of churches in Bukovina with their beautiful decorative outdoor frescoes dating from the time when Columbus discovered America. Under the auspices of the Metropolitanate of Moldavia and Bukova in Romania, the Iasi Film Seminar on "Stories and Signs of Hope in Cinema" (2-5 October 2003) took place in the Ecumenical Institute St. Nicholas and was opened with a welcome by Metropolitan Daniel. Attending were representatives from the World Association of Christian Communication (WACC), the International Interchurch Film Organization (INTERFILM), the World Catholic Association for Communication (SIGNIS), and the John Templeton Foundation, in addition to monks and theologians, critics and teachers, artists and filmmakers, university students and average moviegoers. Just prior to the seminar, a meeting in Bucharest with Tudor Giurgiu, director the Transilvanian International Film Festival, opened the doors to a possible Ecumenical Jury in Cluj next June, one that might well include an Orthodox member as well as the usual participants from INTERFILM and SIGNIS. A sign of hope, to be sure.

Three films of singular importance were programmed at the Iasi Film Seminar: Ibolya Fekete’s Chico (Hungary, 2001), a fiction-documentary constructed around an all-embracing theme of political and philosophical dialogue, had been awarded the Ecumenical Prize at the Karlovy Vary film festival and later received the prestigious Templeton Prize. Stephan Komandarev’s Hljab nad ogradata (Bread Over the Fence) (Bulgaria, 2002), a documentary about the Catholic minority in Bulgaria, had been awarded at the GoEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Films in Wiesbaden. And Nicolae Margineanu’s Bincuvantata fii, inchisoare (Bless You, Prison) (Romania, 2002), based on a biographical account of finding faith while unjustly imprisoned under the communist regime, had been invited to compete at the recent Montreal World Film Festival, where it received a citation from the Ecumenical Jury.

Among the half-dozen papers delivered at the seminar was one rather intriguing lecture delivered by German film historian Hans-Joachim Schlegel on moral and religious complexities found in Soviet cinema of the past. He illustrated his views on "Hopes of Brotherhood, Images of Faith, Utopia and Ideological Instrumentalization" with video excerpts from both classic and unknown Soviet films. On another occasion, students from the Bucharest Film School presented a selection of the school’s awarded productions.

The Iasi Film Seminar closed on a promising note. Father Nicolae Dascalu, the appointed media representative of the Romanian Orthodox Church, confirmed his interest to serve on an Ecumenical Jury at Cluj, should Tudor Giurgiu extend an invitation to attend the coming Transilvanian International Film Festival in June of 2004. And he indicated that Iasi might well found its own film festival - to take place during the annual Trinitas Arts Festival, another June 2004 event. And, of course, the icon and its reflection in cinematic art could very well be one of the thematic features of the first Iasi film festival.