Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò has no doubt: since the Cinema is such a dynamic art, capturing the emotions of people of every age, a factory of dreams, it can become even an instrument of evangelization.
In an exclusive interview with ZENIT, the Prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat of Communications discussed this during a conversation after the Chair of Sacred Art of the University of Monterrey, Mexico, decided to dedicate the celebrations of its 20th anniversary to cinema.
The celebrations will begin on Tuesday, February 13. Msgr. Viganò has been invited to Monterrey to offer three speeches, on “Searching God in the folds of the visible”, “The face of Jesus in cinema: history, model narratives, intersemiotic questions” and “Sacred art in the cinema: new language and unedited methods to tell stories in documentaries in the center of audiovisual production of the Holy See”. The University of Monterrey will publish a book to remember the first 20 years of activities of the Chair of Sacred Art. During the celebrations, some sacred art figures will be projected on the buildings of the university.
The interview with the prefect took place before he would travel to Mexico to take part in the celebrations.
The Chair of Sacred Art of the University of Monterrey, Mexico, has decided to dedicate the celebrations of its 20th anniversary to the seventh art, cinema, an art that has behind it a very brief history. In the collective imagination the great masterworks of sacred art are those of painting, of sculpture. In your opinion, how can this sort of choice be explained?
I must confess to you that it was a happy surprise for me too, to be invited to lecture on cinema by such a prestigious University Chair, which has already exceeded adulthood (this year’s is the 20th edition). I don’t think the choice of the seventh art needs many explanations: cinema is universally recognized as artistic code and is open to all the technological innovations that have been offered in time. It’s a dynamic art, projected towards the future, which involves all the phases of age, from children to adults; it captures the emotions, it tells stories taken from our life and, above all, it’s the factory of dreams. To speak of dreams doesn’t mean to make reference to the superficial part of existence, to the ephemeral, rather to that part of us that is always ready to receive novelties and projects, to be moved, to combine sentiments and rationality. The cinema has all this and does it . . . with art.
In your opinion, what are the masterpieces, on the subject of the sacred, which the cinema has produced? What are the first films that come to mind?
For me, scholar and lover of the cinema, this is a question that poses great difficulty. Drawing a somewhat exaggerated comparison, it would be like asking a father or a mother which child they love most, which one is the most beautiful, which one has the best qualities. In any case, having to respond to you, I cannot but mention “The Gospel According to Matthew” of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a milestone in the history of cinema and of the cinema that addresses the biblical text and the subject of the sacred; “Diary of a Country Priest” of Robert Bresson; “Dialogues of the Carmelites” of Raymond Leopold Bruckberger and Philippe Agostini; “The Seventh Seal” of Ingmar Bergman; “Au Hasard Balthazar” of Robert Bresson. I add a more recent one (1994) “Before the Rain” of Milcho Manchevski. I’ll stop here , because the list risks being too long and losing its efficacy.
However, in the cinema in general and among its personalities, I’m thinking also of the famous directors and actors and of their celebrity life, wealth, success, is there sensibility of the sacred and search for the sacred? To many it seems to be a world where the ephemeral is what is most important.
I’m glad you ask me this question, because it enables me to dispel a common myth and to bring into the right light the figure of the actors and the directors, which the collective imagination puts in a “non place” where they spend their time between one excess and another, while waiting to work on the next film that is proposed to them. Just as one can find everywhere and in all categories of people excesses and degradation, so also in the world of the cinema. However, this doesn’t mean that they are all like that. Actors, actresses , directors are persons that must face life as all of us do, problems and difficulties, they face the task of forming a family, they have children and as all common mortals they must face reality. Moreover, they don’t spend the greater part of their time on the set, but in the reality of every day. Added to all this are the important questions of life, questions that torment each one of us: what is the meaning of existence, why be born, live and die, the existence of God or His absence from our history find space in the mind and heart of the protagonists of the cinema. I’ll share a confidence with you: I am very friendly with Wim Wenders, director of the unforgettable “The Sky over Berlin.” I can guarantee to you that the subjects I listed previously return in Wim’s profession and everyday life, and we have spoken about it many times (the last time in a public debate at the 2017 Cannes Festival).
On the subject of the sacred, what are the “subjects” and “stories” that would find the greatest favour with the public? Can the cinema be truly a means of evangelization?
To the first question, I permit myself to respond that the accounts, the stories should have in addition a component of fascination, a pedagogic, educational and formative narrative structure. This allows me to stress that it’s not enough that in a film the name of God, of Jesus, of a Saint is repeated many times, to say that the subject of the sacred is seriously treated. The cinema must not explain, but rather evoke, induce to reflection, stimulate and go beyond what is seen, beyond the representation. Hence, I add that it’s also necessary to propose to the public products that form to a certain way of looking at a film, to educate the quality of the spectator’s look. Then we come to the second question, if religious subjects are treated, the cinema can become an instrument of evangelization, not of proselytism, but an occasion to lay in people’s heart the healthy restlessness of the search for meaning, of the presence of others and of the Other. On this terrain the paths of believers and non-believers intersect, because it’s man’s heart – as Saint Augustine says – which is restless. I close recalling an expression of Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) in his encyclical Vigilanti Cura: “On the other hand, there is no more powerful means today than the cinema to exercise influence on the multitudes, be it because of the nature itself of the images projected on the screen, be it because of the popularity of the cinematographic spectacle. Finally because of the circumstances that accompany it. The power of the cinema lies in that it speaks through images.”
Among your interventions scheduled at Monterrey there is one on “The Face of Jesus in the Cinema.” The figure of Jesus is certainly extremely complex to recount in a language such as the cinematographic. Why has this challenge enthralled so many directors and actors? And can it be affirmed that all of them have succeeded in capturing the essence of Jesus?
The reason for the fascination lies in the representativeness. Jesus incarnates par excellence the human person, an indispensable reference when we reason on the humanum. Almost as if to say: a true man should be like this, with that look which scrutinizes you within the most hidden folds of existence, who takes care of the other, reconstructs him in his dignity, recognizes him as person. To re-figure a personality of this kind is transformed immediately into a challenge for directors and actors and, as Francois Mauriac wrote in his “Life of Jesus”: “. . . and when, some weeks later, Jesus is removed from the group of the disciples, goes up and is dissolved in light, it’s not a definitive departure. He is already hidden, at the turn of the road that goes from Jerusalem to Damascus, and spies Saul, his beloved persecutor. Henceforth, in each man’s destiny, there will be this God lurking, ‘ . . . also in the cinema.