Realism and Spirituality in Film
Reality and spirituality are two concepts often held on opposite ends of a spectrum. Spirituality exists as a belief held through having faith or hope; it exists beyond the plane of reality. However, It is in this way that the two concepts can be seen to overlap; a spiritual belief is only able to become manifest through being able to look upon reality from a higher place. The arts and their representation of things that are spiritual – take for example the religious paintings of the renaissance – can be understood as attempting to inspire faith by creating a realistic representation of something spiritual through means similar to the human gaze. The accurate depictions of religious scenes by Leonardo da Vinci, for example, allow a connection to be made between something spiritual and ‘reality’ as we know it. These representations allow us to comprehend places for things outside of reality within our understanding of it.
The developments in technology that allowed for the invention of photography and cinema allowed for this connection between the image and reality to be strengthened tenfold, as the functionality of the camera only further emulated the workings of human perception. Therefore, making it easier for realistic - and therefore, believable - representations of things outside reality to be created.
André Bazin’s understanding of Realism and cinema allows for further exploration of the proposal that reality and spirituality can be understood as facilitating one another by means of the image – specifically exemplified here through the medium of film.
It is first necessary to understand what constitutes Realism as a style of representation before explaining its connection to spirituality.
The first essay by André Bazin in the book What is Cinema? (Volume I) is The Otology of the Photographic Image. This essay provides the foundations for understanding Bazin’s ‘Realism.’ Bazin begins by suggesting that the images of the world as created by the plastic arts – mediums and art forms that require the presence of a person in order to be created – preserve the ‘real.’ More simply put, Bazin proposed that images of the world in art that endeavor to represent the world as it is seen by the human eye preserve our belief of what is or has been real.
The ‘plastic art’ of painting, for example, along with the developments of perspective, allowed for accurate representations of the world as seen by the eye. Yet the plastics arts can still be seen to “… cast a shadow of doubt over the [images]” (Bazin, pg.12, 1967) presented to us as reality. This is due to the intervention of the human hand, which is required by painting and the plastic arts. Furthermore, paintings in themselves do not provide sufficient proof to sustain the belief that the person in a portrait actually lived.
In opposition to the plastic arts, Bazin termed the medium of photography and cinema the ‘mechanical arts.’ The mechanical arts are the only mediums that are seen by Bazin to derive an advantage from the absence of human intervention (Bazin, pg.13, 1967). An unmediated photograph, for example, is in theory simply a record of light as reflected off something that once existed in the world; and for this reason photographs can be seen to be more believable as representations of reality than paintings could ever be.
Therefore, the absence of the intervention of the human hand can also be said to only make the images created through mechanical mediums closer to what can be believed as ‘real’. For example, a painting would cease to exist without human intervention. Human intervention, here, is then the very thing that challenges the reality of the reproduction of an image; an extremely ‘lifelike’ painting could be entirely fabricated and have not been created in the image of anything within the world.
It is also in The Ontology of Photography that there is the beginning of a connection found between the ‘real’ and the spiritual, more specifically, Realism and spirituality. This relation between reality and spirituality comes about through the process of death and the passing of time and their subsequent implications on our faith in what was once, but is not now, reality. Bazin suggests “…all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death.” (Bazin, pg.10, 1967). The spiritual death that is being referred to here is the absence of faith that something was once ‘real.’ This spiritual death is prevented through the ‘realist’ arts, and more effectively so through the mechanical arts, as they allow us to believe that the particular person, place or event represented in an image actually existed.
Effectively, realist art can then be seen to preserve faith in things that are not able to be currently and physically manifest in the world. This is because realist art endeavours to represent reality in a way that is closest to how we would perceive something naturally in the world. The realist image can therefore, be understood as preventing the disbelief of reality by presenting something again to be taken up as a ‘belief’ that we once held faith in. The faith that is intrinsic to meaning in realist images is how an understanding of reality and spirituality overlapping begins to be plausible. Believing in something is a notion that is a part of all things spiritual.
Faith and how it manifests and is maintained can be seen in the subject matter of both Ingmar Bergman’s film Winter Light (1962)and Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). Before exploring further how Realism is interconnected with spirituality, it is necessary to properly define what constitutes a realist film according to Bazin. Bergman’s Winter’s Light can be understood as exhibiting virtues of Realism as defined by Bazin. Conversely, Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003)can be seen to exhibit virtues of representation that function in opposition to Realism.
Realism, according to Bazin, in film is best defined in Bazin’s essay The Evolution of the Language of Cinema. Bazin begins the essay by distinguishing between two kinds of cinema, specifically observed between 1920 and 1940, proposing that there are two kinds of directors, “…those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality.” (Bazin, pg.24, 1967) By “image,” Bazin is referring to the actual image presented to spectators on the screen – the screen itself is here understood similarly to the entirely constructed and artificial surface of a painting. Therefore, directors whose faith lies with the image would endeavour to create meaning through adding to the image of the screen itself – e.g. sets, props, makeup and editing techniques used for dramatic or narrative effect. Directors who put their faith in reality can be understood as subscribing to the style of Realism, the opposite of the heavily expressionistic, mediated and manipulated style faithful to the ‘image’. Simply put, a film can be seen as being Realist if its endeavour can be understood as striving to represent the world in a manner that is as close to the world as it is humanly experienced. Subsequently, film techniques that respect the ‘real’ passage of time, depth of focus that emulates that of the human eye and editing techniques that endeavour to emulate perception as opposed to controlling it are lorded by realist directors.
Lars von Trier’s Dogville is an example of a film that does not subscribe to Realism, as Bazin would have it. There is little in the film that strives to represent its subject matter in the way that it would be seen ‘realistically.’ The set is the town of Dogville. The town’s appearance is entirely abstract, apart from pieces of furniture. White lines drawn on an artificial surface make up the boundaries of buildings, windows, doors, and plants and even contribute to the narration of the story by specifying with writing the owner or occupier of the space. The angles of the camera do not emulate the human eye. For example, the opening shot looks down from directly above the ‘town,’ and zooms in on the top of Thomas’ head. The film almost perfectly evokes Bazin’s idea that “…[between] them, director and cameraman have converted the screen into a dramatic checkerboard, planned down to the last detail.” (Bazin, pg.34, 1967).
But it is not primarily the deliberately mediated artificiality of the set that is what makes the film unrealistic. The essential point of difference between the film and reality is the way the meaning in the film is communicated to its spectators. Meaning, as it is presented to us in the world, is not laid out in a way that confines and guides what the spectator interprets. Thoughts of others are not given away by an unseen narrator, as they are in Dogville, but shown ambiguously in the countenance of the flesh or in other ways equally as opaque. Meaning in Dogville is not transparent but crystal clear, explained in entirety.
It’s not that the film does not allow for further analysis, this is not true. Further analysis could be undertaken for example, by applying outside understandings –such as a psychoanalytical understanding – to the film. What cannot be further analysed, however, and what is unrealistic about the transfer of meaning in the film, is what the spectator is supposed to understand about what takes place in the film. This is to say that the level of ambiguity of meaning is not as it is in reality. There is no question of belief in what is happening in the film – it is constructed deliberately in this way.
A film in contrast to this would be Bergman’s Winter Light. Almost all of the meaning within Winter Light functions through things that have their genesis in reality. Bergman does not construct the surface of what will appear on the screen in a theatrical manner. What he chooses to depict is certainly constructed in that he chose to depict one thing as opposed to another in a certain frame and light, but the difference lies in the way he does so – the Realist style. Most everything in the film – except for the sequence in which Tomas reads Märta’s letter – emulates human perception. The film – which is roughly ninety minutes long – gives spectators the feeling that they have witnessed the events of the film in roughly the same amount of time. The focus of most shots are deep, allowing for ambiguity as naturally encountered by the human gaze. The expressions of the faces on the actors do not allow for any kind of insight further than that of which an expression gives. The narrative of the film is not conveyed through montage where the “… meaning is not in the image, it is in the shadow of the image projected by montage onto the field of consciousness of the spectator.” (Bazin, pg.26, 1967) And all of these stylistic choices make Winter Light understandable as a film that endeavours to depict its contents through ways that emulate human perceptions of reality.
With the realist aesthetics of film explained, the question of how realist images connect the notions of spirituality and reality can now be properly addressed. As mentioned, but not elaborated upon in the introduction, spirituality can be achievable only through means of transcending from reality. The characters of Tomas in Winter Light and the young priest in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), known as the priest of Ambricourt, both struggle with their shared occupation. Their occupations directly involve inspiring faith in God and subsequently, their own faith. Both priests falter in their faith, experiencing doubts. In one particular scene in Winter Light, Tomas looks at the images of Christ in the décor of his church and proclaims them as ‘ridiculous images.’ The very purpose of these images, however, is to inspire the idea that what they represent is not so ridiculous. Religious images are made to inspire faith in something that is not inside of the system of reality, as humans perceive it. This is how images in art – specifically realist images – demonstrate that spirituality is linked to reality. The likeness of an image to the way we naturally perceive reality allows us to place something into our understanding of reality, to believe and have faith that something else – other than what we know – is real.
Conversely, Winter Light as a film –and arguably all realist films – functions in this same way, that is through the likeness of an image to reality whilst not being within our perceivable reality. Winter Light requires ‘belief’ in a way. Realist films in a way require their spectators to believe that the images they are seeing – which mimic that of their own way of seeing the world – have their genesis in reality. This is true at least in the way that realist films function to create meaning. We have to understand the notion of a facial expression as we encounter it in reality in order to take meaning from what is happening in the film.
In this way also, realist films can be seen to function on the premise that reality is out there, it exists and films can interact and/or react to it (Nitzan Ben-Shaul, 22). For example, from a cognitivist perspective, spectators of a realist film are “…active agents processing the projected film data out of constant awareness that the film is a reproduction rather than reality itself. “ (Nitzan Ben-Shaul, 22). This is to say, it is not that spectators believe that the events in Winter Light actually took place, but that spectators have to be able to entertain the idea in order to be involved to an extent with the film that they can derive sensical meaning from it.
All of these ideas demonstrate how reality and the realist aesthetic in art – specifically here, cinema – evokes question of faith and belief, and in turn spirituality. This bringing together of two notions that seem to be opposites, namely spirituality and reality, is not for no end. Arguably, reality and spirituality are intertwined because for the humans they have to be in a way. If one takes reality in all of its harsh and immediate banality to be what is taking place, there needs to be in place a certain level of illusory constructs that people can have faith and believe in order to create purpose for life. Reality in itself is not enough to create meaning – as has been established indirectly above.
To exemplify the purpose of reality’s tie to spirituality one can consider again the character of Tomas in Winter Light. The harsh light shed on Tomas’ face after Jonas leaves him, despite his invitations to stay, can be understood in the context that everything for Tomas in that moment is so well illuminated (too well illuminated), so much so that nothing exists beyond his very existence. Without faith, and not exclusively speaking faith in reference to a God, Tomas’ life is void of meaning and subsequently, purpose. There is no reason why Tomas would or would not follow in the actions of Jonas and commit suicide; there is no reason for him to do anything. A life without ambiguity, without mystery, holds no interest to its occupier. This idea can be seen also in Jean Baudrillard’s concept of seduction. One such analogy provided by Baudrillard relative to a life lived in total illumination and without ambiguity is the analogy of the children’s game, hide and seek.
“What a thrill to hide when you are being looked for, what a delicious fright to be uncovered, but what panic when, too well hidden, the others become discouraged after a time and abandon you…. You are forced to abandon yourself when they no longer desire you. This is hard… Nothing is more sad than having to beg for existence and to come back naked before others.” (Baudrillard, Please Follow Me, pg.108)
Tomas may as well abandon his life, as it is empty of desire, with meaning too well hidden by the harsh illumination that occurred when his faith in things beyond the emptiness of pure reality was destroyed.
At the end of Winter Light it seems as though Tomas finds faith outside of the banality of existence that is reality in the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion as it is retold to him from the perspective of Oolaf the sexton. Tomas is able to identify with the story of Jesus Christ once more, as he is able to see it within his own understanding of reality again. This is because Tomas identifies with the image of Christ because it subscribes to his understanding of reality. Bergman himself said of Tomas in Winter Light that for Tomas, “The mirror is clean. There stands a newly scoured vessel that can be filled by mercy. By a new image of God” (Sjoman, pg. 238, 1975).
Reality then, has to invoke questions of spirituality, because reality is not enough on its own – it does not provide people with a way to live. The emptiness of living in reality without beliefs and faith that in turn, create meaning in life, leads to the idea that spirituality is necessary. Spirituality can therefore be understandable as intrinsic to reality.