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Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories

Rosalind Galt (Editor), Karl Schoonover (Editor)
Published by Oxford University Press in 2010

World on Film: An Introduction

Martha P. Nochimson
Published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2010

The Politics of Iranian Cinema: Film and Society in the Islamic Republic

Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad
Published by Routledge in 2009

My education in film came in my 20s when a friend named Paul recognized our town’s need for an “art-house” theater: a place where foreign and independent film might provide an intelligent alternative to Hollywood fare. (That was the era before VCRs and DVDs made foreign films readily accessible.) Renting the cafeteria of a Montessori school on weekends to screen classic works, Paul often made more money on concessions than on ticket sales, largely due to friends like my husband and I, whom he always let in for free. In gratitude, we would help sell refreshments during reel changes of work by Bergman, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Fellini, Renoir, Cocteau, Truffaut, Herzog, Fassbinder, Kurosawa, and others. Afterward, we would join Paul for libations, discussing German Expressionism, Italian Neorealism, and the French New Wave.

As if that were not education enough, sometimes Paul would bring newer independent films to our home for preview and analysis. Limited by the space of our tiny California bungalow, we would set up his 16mm projector on the kitchen counter, directing the lens through the kitchen and adjoining hall, past the bathroom, and into a bedroom, where we viewed the film on the far wall. Trips to the bathroom required crawling on hands and knees under the projected images, and one night we spent hours refurbishing a rented film, not having noticed during our screening that the take-up reel failed to do its job, landing the viewed celluloid in bowls of leftover guacamole and salsa. Our discussion that night made it all worth it.

These discussions, amidst a wonderful group of close friends, were as stimulating as the “art cinema” that generated them. And since half of us were Christians and half not, the interaction often developed into highly charged conversations, some of us interested in issues of faith presented in film, others having more faith in film itself as a force for change.

Faith and film became strange bedfellows in an entirely different way when Paul decided to rent out a defunct church downtown, where he transformed his fly-by-Montessori-nights into a reel business. The baptismal—a small curtained area to the side of the stage with river scene and descending dove painted on the back wall—became the concession booth. Thus, a place where water once baptized the heads of new believers had become the source of bottled water for film viewers.

While some may see such use of the baptismal as blasphemous, I find it significant that the church’s earliest congregations most likely had something in common with Paul’s film audiences: a disdain for Hollywood. Like dancing, which my mother-in-law scorned as “a vertical position for horizontal thoughts,” movie attendance, for many twentieth-century Christians, provided a sedentary position for similar thoughts. Of course, this is not the reason cinephiles denounce Hollywood. Instead, they eschew the commercialism and conventionality of the Hollywood film industry. Most books on film theory, in fact, define the artistry of film in contradistinction to what they call “industrial” cinema, which is character-ized by the use of close-ups to help audiences identify with individual protagonists engaged in a romantic and/or suspenseful scenario, which usually finishes in an artificially happy ending. The Hollywood industry thus fails to address the profound inequities and injustices of the world, inaccurately portraying both sex and violence as consequence-free—at least for the protagonists, who almost always function in defiance of community. Christians should, indeed, be disturbed, if for different reasons than my parents’ generation, for industrial cinema encourages a sedentary position for narcissistic thoughts.

Do not get me wrong. I love Hollywood cinema. A majority of my nearly fifty film publications analyze industrial movies, which often address significant philosophical and sociological issues—but only if the viewer digs beneath surfaces so slick that most people slide out of theaters with nary a critical thought lubricating their brains. (Students from my film classes often bemoan, “You have ruined movies for me: now I can’t go to a theater and just relax; I’m always analyzing!” Despicable me!) In reaction to industrial cinema, “art cinema” directors refuse to candy-coat the issues they present, sometimes offering the realities of quotidian existence in scenarios as attractive as cod-liver oil. But, as most of us know, cod-liver oil is considerably better for us than candy.

The distinction between art and industrial cinema informs three recent books on global film, all of which I found valuable, if even for different reasons. World on Film, by Martha P. Nochimson, is a must for anyone unfamiliar with the directors and genres I mentioned earlier in this essay. The book is, in fact, written for new students in film—quite literally. Nochimson addresses college-age youth in the second person, saying things like, “class will become a place where you can tell your classmates what you see and learn what they have seen” (5). Indeed, World on Film is designed as a textbook for classroom use, each chapter ending with a summary, questions for further thought, suggestions for essay topics, and citations for further reading. Nochimson even defines the vocabulary she uses, assuming her readers need help with words like subverts, demonize, hedonism, brothel, puritanism. But she does so with finesse, neither condescending to her readers nor disrupting the flow of her articulate sentences. 

In fact, the implied lack of education in her audience belies the sophistication of Nochimson’s work, which provides sources of serious reflection comparable to what I experienced during Paul’s Montessori nights. And despite my own edu-cation, I still found World on Film engaging, largely due to Nochimson’s careful organization, insightful commentary on stills reproduced in the book, and, most valuable of all, her lucid prose. Tempted to skip her descriptions of old classics like Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1939), Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), and Fellini’s 8½ (1963), I nevertheless got pulled into Nochimson’s captivating narrative overviews.

I also valued the questions Nochimson asks within those overviews, questions that encourage students to draw their own conclusions about a director’s handling of plot or form—rather than telling students how a particular foreign film subverts all that they hold dear. I found this tactic refreshing, especially in contrast to books on art cinema that tendentiously disdain the capitalist assumptions foundational to and reinforced by Hollywood movies. Nochimson never makes slurs against industrial film, most likely aware that Hollywood attracted her readers to cinema in the first place. Instead, she simply discusses how and why directors outside the United States have made different choices in the form and content of their work.

Nochimson ties the “why” of these choices to historical contexts, her book a good resource for a course that might be called “Understanding Twentieth-Century History through Film.” To help students appreciate Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), for example, she summarizes the Russian Revolution, explaining how Eisenstein’s famous development of intellectual montage (what she calls “dialectical montage”) reflects his commitment to the Marxist agenda. She situates the dreamlike instabilities of German Expressionism in the aftermath of World War I, and explains the natural settings and nonprofessional actors employed by Italian Neorealists as a reaction to Mussolini’s fascism. Though familiar with much of the world history Nochimson summarizes, I still learned intriguing details, like the fact that the outrageous song-and-dance numbers of Bollywood—the Indian film industry—reflect an ancient tradition: “When Sanskrit theatre was at its height, in AD 300, there were no separate words for drama and dance, and music and dance were integrated into all forms of drama” (245). Something I once found annoying suddenly acquired cultural value for me.

While Part I of World on Film effectively discusses the imbrication of political and film history in France, Russia, Germany, Italy, Japan, and India, Part II addresses the influence of globalization on cinema. Though acknowledging current controversies over the global marketplace, Nochimson embraces the international character of contemporary cinema, giving the example of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004): “An adaptation of a British children’s novel, directed by a Mexican [Alfonso Cuarón], featuring a predominantly English cast, supervised by American producers, written by an American writer, and realized for the screen by a mixed company of British and American designers and technicians” (283-284). The film, in other words, illustrates “post-nationalism.”

Lest the nod to Harry Potter seem like a sell-out to commercial cinema (note that neither England nor the USA are given a chapter in World on Film), Nochimson establishes surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) as “the father of postnational cinema” (282). Though born in Spain, Buñuel achieved fame in 1929 with a French film he made with Surrealist painter Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou [The Andalusian Dog], containing one of the most famously disturbing images in film history: a razor blade cutting an eyeball. (I still remember my shudder on that Montessori night.) After a falling out with Dali, Buñuel became his own man (or at least no one nation’s man), living for various lengths of time in Spain, New York, Mexico, and France, making documentaries and low-budget commercial films, dubbing English-language films into Spanish, writing screenplays, and directing an international European film that won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Buñuel therefore represents, for Nochimson, what is good about contemporary post-nationalism:

Globalization has created a situation in which great artists can free themselves from the prejudices of any one nation and express challenging ideas that do not depend on any single belief system, but rather free up the power of the human mind to question all systems. (285)

Nochimson therefore celebrates the auteur, a “director who makes films from a personal point of view, as opposed to one who bases his/her work on established commercial narrative models” (403). The term auteur was coined during the French New Wave after World War II, when directors took their cameras out into the streets to film the beauty and bathos of quotidian existence. Usually writing their own scripts, if not improvising dialogue on the spot, New Wave auteurs filmed common people who, untethered from conventional morality, fail to achieve happy Hollywood endings.

Though the French New Wave dissolved with the untethered student riots of May 1968, the word auteur is alive and well, having been appropriated by Hollywood for commercial filmmakers with distinctive personal styles and/or who write as well as direct their screenplays, directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson. Nochimson, however, focuses her attention on cinema outside Hollywood, celebrating auteur directors whose films reflect their national identities only because they are internationally funded: hence the benefits of globalization. In addition to Buñuel, she dedicates a chapter each to auteur filmmakers from countries not represented in Part I: Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) from Sweden, Wong Kar-wai (b. 1956) from Hong Kong, Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007) from Senegal, and Jia Zhangke (b. 1970) from mainland China. Negotiating the relationship between the influences of the country in which each director is embedded and the personal vision that establishes their auteur status, Nochimson gets a bit redundant, explaining historical movements and ideologies she already made clear in Part I: Marxism, Surrealism, Postcolonialism. But this is only a minor quirk in a book superbly constructed for any beginning film student, whether 17 or 70. 

While Nochimson endorses globalization and the auteur director of “art cinema,” the twenty-two contributors to Global Art Cinema (Oxford 2010) problematize both. In the introduction, editors Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover announce that “the sense of art cinema as elitist and conservative remains in such force that many scholars to whom we spoke about this volume responded with perplexity that we would endorse such a retrograde category” (5). This statement jolted my sensibilities, deflating cherished memories of euphoria while discussing art cinema in my California bungalow. Significantly, the deflation came through a prick to my conscience, for by snubbing industrial film in those heady Montessori days, I did indeed feel like one of the “cutting-edge” elite looking down on the Hollywood-addled masses.

I therefore experienced an epiphany while reading Global Art Cinema. Auteurist cinema, I suddenly realized, represents what I find most distasteful about high modernism: the emphasis on the autonomous man of genius who transcends the conventions of art and the morés of society through brilliant creativity that reflects his personal (often anti-religious) vision, resulting in work appreciated only by the enlightened few. In my own book challenging modernism, I quote art historian Wendy Steiner’s acerbic summary of modernist art: “The public is meant to receive art as manna from the demigod artist and to accept the insult that goes along with it: that they are, by virtue of their status as non-artists and capitalists, incapable of truly understanding high culture.”1

Buñuel, who repeatedly excoriated the Church both on and off the screen, provides a good example of Steiner’s point. Anticipating outrage from bourgeois audience members at the opening of Un Chien Andalou, he filled his pockets with stones to protect himself from anticipated attacks. When the film instead received applause, eyeball-cutting scene notwithstanding, Buñuel became the one expressing outrage: “A box-office success, that’s what most people think who have seen the film. But what can I do about … this imbecilic crowd that has found beautiful or poetic that which, at heart, is nothing other than a desperate, impassioned call for murder?” Adam Lowenstein, the contributor to Global Art Cinema who recounts this incident, excuses Buñuel by appealing to the need for “interactivity” between film and audience. Buñuel, for him, merely expressed

a powerful understanding of interactivity’s pleasures and dangers, how the desire for an audience to be so deeply affected by your work that they mimic acts of authorship through active responses of their own may become realized as direct or indirect aggression toward the author.2

Note Lowenstein’s clever move here: rather than endorse modernist elitism, he reinterprets Buñuel’s outrage as concern about viewers’ best interests, about their need to express outrage as a form of intellectual engagement. Very clever. But I do not buy it.

I do, however, buy Lowenstein’s subtext: that one goal of art cinema is to generate interactivity rather than passivity in audience members. While conventional Hollywood movies lull spectators into voyeuristic escapism, as though the screen were a window onto some authentic reality (if even far-fetched), interactive films function like video games for Lowenstein, necessitating choices on the viewer’s part: Why the strange camera angle? What do I make of that graphic match-cut? How should I respond to the disturbing mise en scène? Is that particular sound diegetic or non-diegetic? Lowenstein thus illustrates what Global Art Cinema is all about: a resuscitation of the problematic term “art cinema.” Hence, like many of his colleagues in the anthology, Lowenstein invokes a classic distinction made in 1979 by David Bordwell, who argues that art cinema, which reached its heyday in the 1960s, “effectively reinforced the old opposition between Hollywood (industry, collective creation, entertainment) and Europe (free from commerce, [elevating] the creative genius, art)” (quoted on 93).

While this distinction reinforces everything that I have been talking about so far in this essay—an adversarial attitude toward Hollywood, whether by Christians or by art cinema directors—Bordwell’s famous essay establishes another adversarial relationship: between art cinema and avant-garde film. He thus develops a tripartite understanding of cinema—Hollywood movies / art cinema / avant-garde film—in order to dismiss the middle category as a distastefully lukewarm compromise between the commercialism of Hollywood and the experimental play of avant-garde film. As John David Rhodes summarizes in his contribution to Global Art Cinema, Bordwell regarded art cinema as “a vaguely embarrassing domain of formal nuance, subjectivity, and recidivist realism” (159), reflected most problematically in auteurs’ Hollywood-like dependence upon commercially-successful “narrative causality,” that is, upon stories with a beginning, middle, and end.3 Bordwell thus set into motion what we might call the snubbing of the snubbers: while art cinema directors snubbed Hollywood cinema, avant-garde filmmakers snubbed art cinema as the “domestication” of truly original film. As a result, Bordwell also set into motion the editors of Global Art Cinema, who desire to extract “art cinema” from the moldering cabinets of art theory, dusting it off in order to look through its frames at international filmmaking.

This dusting process is almost as difficult as the task I faced years ago with my friends: cleaning guacamole and salsa off the frames of a rented 16mm film. For, as Global Art Cinema makes clear, there are multiple definitions of “art cinema.” I have tended to follow a definition ignited by the French New Wave and kept aglow by Bordwell’s smoldering disdain: art cinema as auteurist cinema. In contrast, some theorists look toward the opposite end of film production, focusing on the place of reception rather than upon the visionary director. For them, art cinema is film that gets projected in “art-house” theaters. Of course, most “art-houses,” like the one developed by my friend Paul, tend to show foreign films. Therefore, as Galt and Schoonover note in their introduction, art cinema is “often a code for foreign film”—but only when a film gets booked in a first-world country, like the USA (7). The implied universality of films that achieve such bookings, however, creates another problem: “universal legibility is widely critiqued as a Western/patriarchal/neocolonial perspective imposed across the geopolitical field” (10). This critique, then, is what Global Art Cinema addresses in the “Global” part of its title, several of its authors discussing another tripartite conception of cinema.

In 1969, Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Ottavio Getino published a manifesto now famous in film studies: “Towards a Third Cinema.” For them and their Latin American followers, the consumerist model dominated by Hollywood constitutes “First Cinema,” while “Second Cinema” correlates to the auteurist art cinema disdained by Bordwell. However, while Bordwell rejects art cinema as not artistic enough, Solanas and Getino reject art cinema as not political enough. Though they value the experimentation in “film language” that distinguishes art cinema, they believe it to be constrained by financial concerns. As Philip Rosen summarizes, Second Cinema “auteurs and films remain subordinated to the tradition of aesthetics, that is, bourgeois notions such as beauty and universality, rather than functionality in a sociopolitical struggle.”4 Beauty and universality make money; revolutionary messages do not.

Committed to the revolutionary goals of Third Cinema, Bolivian director Jorge Sanjinés is even less kind toward art cinema. Discussed in Dennis Hanlon’s contribution to Global Art Cinema, Sanjinés believes Second Cinema, like the First Cinema it reviles, panders to bourgeois individualism. While Hollywood mystifies the on-screen protagonist who does not play by the rules, art cinema mystifies the off-screen auteur who doesn’t play by the rules. Both get rewarded in the end, and not just with money. Individualistic Hollywood protagonists get rewarded with happy endings in their films, and individualistic auteur directors get rewarded with celebrations of the brilliant stylistic originality of their films. As Hanlon summarizes, 

To Sanjinés, for whom individual expression is ineluctably linked to a Western ideology bent on exterminating the last vestiges of collective social organizations … an auteur marked as such by an individual style cannot be a revolutionary filmmaker.5

Hence, rather than celebrate the autonomous individual, Sanjinés’s Third Cinema productions focus upon indigenous groups, establishing them as both content of and audience to the work. He thus speaks of and to native peoples in order to liberate them from complicity, whether economic or psychological, with global powers.

Third Cinema, then, bears an interesting resemblance to liberation theology: faith and film as strange bedfellows. Both got their start in Latin America with a focus on the suffering of the disenfranchised poor, and both became famous through manifestos written within several years of each other: A Theology of Liberation by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez (1971) follows “Towards a Third Cinema” by only two years. Influenced by Marxian rhetoric about class struggle, both Third Cinema and liberation theology encourage resistance to unjust institutions that oppress those outside corridors of power. However, while liberation theologians see human sin corrupting church and society, Third Cinema filmmakers see Hollywood corrupting the revolutionary potential of film. Both movements, encouraging the sword rather than peace, have spread with crusader zeal into developing countries.

The spread of Third Cinema into Africa engages the attention of two contributors to Global Art Cinema: Philip Rosen and Rachel Gabara. In contrast to Hanlon, who demonstrates how Sanjinés blurs the line between First and Second Cinema in order to renounce both, Rosen and Gabara argue that African filmmakers blur the line between Second and Third Cinema in order to validate both. Rosen discusses the first generation of Sub-Saharan auteurs who accepted non-African funding (money from former colonizers) to explore the anti-colonial issues associated with Third Cinema. Gabara quotes multiple African filmmakers and theorists committed to “the demystification of [Western] representational practices as part of the process of liberation”6 before focusing on Abderrahmane Sissako. Like Buñuel, Sissako might be considered “post-national”: born in Mauritania (1961), educated in Mali before enrolling in the Federal State Film Institute in Moscow, Sissako settled in France. Hence, while valuing practices associated with Second Cinema, he makes films consonant with the goals of Third Cinema. His award-winning Barnako (2006), for example, exposes the complicity of world powers in global poverty even as it features a Hollywood actor: Danny Glover. Thus blurring the boundaries between First, Second, and Third Cinema, Sissako “is one of very few African filmmakers whose films have been widely circulated in the art cinema festival circuit” (325). In other words, thanks to international “art cinema” festivals, Sissako has entered the global marketplace: something Third Cinema scorns.

The festival circuit, in fact, is the focus of another essay in Global Art Cinema: “Disentangling the International Festival Circuit: Genre and Iranian Cinema.” The author, Iranian-born Azadeh Farahmand, defines “art cinema” quite simply: as films that get selected for presentation at art festivals. Noting the power and politics behind such selection, Farahmand turns her attention to Iranian film, offering yet another triadic construct: 1) the commercial escapism of mainstream “Filmfarsi,” which includes song-and-dance numbers like Bollywood film; 2) a “new wave” reaction in the 1960s that emphasized social realism (as did the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism); and 3) the New Iranian Cinema that took root several years after the 1979 revolution shut down film production. International film festivals, which have no interest in the commercial productions of Hollywood or Filmfarsi, nurtured both the Iranian New Wave and New Iranian Cinema. The very term “Iranian New Wave” was coined in 1974 during the exceedingly popular Tehran International Film Festivals (held from 1972 to 1977) in order to applaud Iranian films with “intellectual themes and dialogues, subdued visual backlash against the monarchy, [and] unhappy endings” (271). Consonant with the Third Cinema agenda, their subdued visual backlash was fulfilled by the Shah’s quite unsubdued overthrow. However, unlike the political goals of Third Cinema, this successful revolution had an ending as unhappy as those in the Iranian New Wave films anticipating it: the replacement of the Shah’s brutal autocracy with a repressive theocracy. This might explain why filmmakers of the post-revolution New Iranian Cinema sound more like the auteurs Solanas and Getino relegate to Second Cinema. As one director commented at the Pesaro Film Festival in Italy (1990), “We Iranian filmmakers would like to be recognized as artists rather than as messengers.”7 Though Farahmand does not explain why New Iranian filmmakers avoid making “message” movies (fear of censorship perhaps?), she does help me understand a director that has earned my admiration: Majid Majidi.

I became acquainted with Majidi’s work when his Children of Heaven (1997) was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards: the only Iranian film to be so honored. Beautifully filmed, Children of Heaven tenderly portrays poor Iranian siblings who, sharing a pair of tennis shoes between them, must surreptitiously smuggle them back and forth to meet their daily needs. Like Majidi’s equally evocative Color of Paradise (1999) and Baran (2001), the film avoids political and religious controversy by focusing on the innocence, resilience, and idealism of children. Though Farahmand does not discuss Majidi, she lists his work among many New Iranian films featuring child protagonists that are recognized at film festivals for their “simplicity and humanistic insights” (274). The festival circuit, she argues, welcomes this content as a beneficent alternative to the theocratic and autocratic abuses all too many people associate with Iran. In this way, film festivals have shaped the genre of Iranian film.

I was given a clearer sense of Farahmand’s position in The Politics of Iranian Cinema: Film and Society in the Islamic Republic. The author, Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad, several times cites an earlier essay by Farahmand: “Perspectives on the Recent (International Acclaim of) Iranian Cinema.”8 In this essay, Farahmand “condemns ‘political escapism’ in Iranian cinema, claiming that in order to be allowed to go to foreign festivals, internationally successful filmmakers have refrained from politically contentious issues” (150). She therefore joins other critics of Iranian film who denounce “politically innocuous films about children” (160). Once again, my sensibilities were deflated. Just as Global Art Cinema undermined my supercilious reverence for auteur film, The Politics of Iranian Cinema challenged my appreciation for Majid Majidi’s beautiful movies. However, lest you compare me to a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind of every film theorist, let me assure you that I respond differently to each subversion. The former was necessary, since supercilious reverence, whether in faith or for film, is rarely laudatory. But I proclaim “Here I stand” in my evaluation of Majidi. And Zeydabadi-Nejad helps me do so.

The Politics of Iranian Cinema makes clear that, in Iran, faith and film make strange bedfellows. After the 1979 revolution, “Ayatollah Khomeini declared the role of cinema to be a tool for ‘educating the people’ … and that, like all art, it was to be put in the service of Islam” (35). Censorship therefore served (his) faith. However, as Zeydabadi-Nejad implies, censorship in Iran is more an ethnic issue than an expression of Islam. After all, the highly secularized Shah of Iran who preceded Khomeini censored movies as well, if even for different reasons. Under the Pahlavi dynasty begun by the Shah’s father (1926-79), “policies of mod-ernization were implemented with an iron fist, without much regard for public opinion” (33). Imitating the secularization of the Western world (without imitating its democratic underpinnings), the Shah prohibited film “presentation of ruins, poverty, backwardness and scenes that damage the state’s national prestige” (33). Religious filmmakers were therefore the rebels, sometimes burying their films to avoid capture by the Shah’s “brutal secret police” (166, nt. 6). In contrast, the films censored by the Khomeini regime were much like the films denounced by many Christians, both groups wary of narratives that might “encourage wickedness, corruption and prostitution, … or teach abuse of harmful and dangerous drugs or professions … such as smuggling, etc.” (40). The suppression by Khomeini, of course, became as brutal as that of the Shah he replaced: same tactics dressed, quite literally, in different clothing.

After Khomeini’s death in 1989, the enforcement of strict censorship codes has ebbed and flowed, depending upon the leadership not only of Iran but also of the “Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance” that oversees the Iranian film industry. As a result, filmmakers and audiences in Iran have become adept at the creation and reading of ingenious symbols and subtexts in Iranian movies, such that what seems apolitical on the surface might function as social commentary. Zeydabadi-Nejad thus makes very clear the complexity and diversity of Iranian film, providing a lucid overview of twentieth-century Iranian political history in the process. And though he seems to dismiss the non-political Majidi as much as does Farahmand, I would argue for the political power of Majidi’s films. Because “the personal is political,” I would say that Majidi’s depictions of Iranian children who are motivated by love, beauty, and justice enable Westerners to value the love, beauty, and justice within Iran itself. This, of course, is the political power of film: opening our eyes to what was once in the dark. To see Iran in a new light—that which is projected onto the movie screen—can have more powerful political effects than those staged by all the heroes of industrial cinema.

To understand our world, from the post-nationalism of the global marketplace to the faith-inflected hyper-nationalism of the Middle East, many of us crave light in the midst of darkness. These three texts under review—World on Film, Global Art Cinema, and The Politics of Iranian Cinema—provide competing lights, like the competing screens within multiplex movie theaters. Drawing our attention away from Hollywood, each book functions like the candle praised by Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. With apologies to the Bard, I would similarly suggest “How far that little candle throws his beams! / So shines a good film in a naughty world.”

Cite this article
Crystal L. Downing, “Strange Bedfellows: Faith and Film—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:4 , 441-451


  1. Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Free Press, 2001), 20.
  2. Adam Lowenstein, “Interactive Art Cinema: Between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Media with Un Chien Andalou and EXistenZ,” in Global Art Cinema, 101, 102.
  3. Bordwell used the term “modernist” to describe his privileged category of cinema. But, as Rhodes notes, “avant-garde” seems a better descriptor for what Bordwell valorizes, per-haps because postmodern theorists have aligned preference for the avant-garde with the mystification of genius related to auteur directors. For the postmodernist, in other words, “modernist” describes not only what Bordwell privileges but also what he dismisses. For my understanding of postmodern responses to modernist art, see Crystal Downing, How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth in Language, Philosophy, and Art (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 70-98.
  4. Philip Rosen, “Notes on Art Cinema and the Emergence of Sub-Saharan Film,” in Global Art Cinema, 255.
  5. Dennis Hanlon, “Traveling Theory, Shots, and Players: Jorge Sanjinés, New Latin American Cinema, and the European Art Film,” in ibid., 357.
  6. Teshome Gabriel, quoted in Rachel Gabara, “Abderrahmane Sissako: Second and Third Cinema in the First Person,”in ibid., 322.
  7. Kianoush Ayari, quoted in Azadeh Farahmand, “Disentangling the International Festival Circuit: Genre and Iranian Cinema,” in ibid., 275.
  8. Azadeh Farahmand, “Perspectives on the Recent (International Acclaim of) Iranian Cin-ema,” in The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, ed. R. Tapper (London: Tauris, 2002), n.p.

Crystal L. Downing

Wheaton College
Crystal Downing is Co-Director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College (IL)