B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
By Hope Green
In the church Bryan Stone attended as a boy, cinema was spelled sin-e-ma.
As the BU School of Theology professor recounts in his 2000 book Faith and Film, "Nothing short of absolute nonattendance at the cinema was understood to be the appropriate response of Christians to Hollywood and its values."
Today Stone is an unrepentant movie buff and director of the Boston Faith and Film Festival, which will be held February 9 and 10 at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. Sponsoring the festival is the Boston Theological Institute, an association of nine seminaries in the Boston area, including STH.
Cinema professors and religious scholars will lead panel discussions of five films -- Breaking the Waves, Prelude to Kosovo, Ordet, Bringing Out the Dead, and Why Did Bodhi-Dharma Leave for the East? -- and relate them to the festival's theme, death and rebirth. All the films, says Stone, explore how people find purpose and meaning in the experience of death and how religious traditions aid in that search. And despite what he was told as a child, Stone believes that the art of cinema, even Hollywood fare, can enrich viewers' spiritual understanding. That conviction is the basis of Faith and Film, a popular course he has taught at STH for the past three years.
"The central elements of religious faith can't always be taught in neat sentences or propositions, but in images," Stone says. "Religious people have long known that, and that's why paintings and icons have always been an important part of religious faith in terms of actually telling the story."
In the course and in his book, Stone investigates some films that are explicitly about religion, such as Oh, God! and Jesus of Montreal. Others are secular but can be interpreted as spiritual fables, such as Star Wars with its popular refrain, "May the Force be with you," and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which is widely considered a crucifixion story.
"The religious films that students might be drawn to first are not always the best films for theological dialogue," Stone points out. "Some of the old Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments are not the most profoundly religious stories at all, whereas One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a great story about redemption. It's interesting to look at what is meant by redemption and what it means to be saved from a different perspective."
Panelists on the festival program include a Buddhist monk, a filmmaker, and several theologians, as well as professors of humanities and film. Among them is Ray Carney, a COM film professor and author of The Films of Carl Dreyer, who will discuss Dreyer's 1955 film Ordet.
Although Dreyer is best known for The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carney says, Ordet deserves equal attention. The story of a farm family that is torn apart by disagreements over faith, it is a film "that has changed my life and thousands of other lives," Carney says. "It plays as a very spiritual drama, but it's not about religion, it's about a family that discovers something about their own hearts.
"In a sense you could call all of Dreyer's films religious works," he adds, "but what makes them extraordinary is that they imagine faith and grace and realms of the spirit in ordinary life. When you watch some films you feel like you're watching from the outside, but in Dreyer's work, you are changed by the film. You reach a new understanding of love and spirit in the world -- not the going-to-church-on-Sunday spirit, but the spirit you find in relationships between parent and child and husband and wife."
Stone hopes to make the festival an annual event. He modeled it after the City of the Angels Film Festival in Los Angeles, where panelists include theologians, actors, directors, writers, and others in the entertainment industry.
"You get a lot more opportunities in LA for this type of discussion between Hollywood and the seminaries," he says. "But Boston is becoming more and more a hub for the arts, especially film, and it would be great to have that kind of dialogue going on here."
The Boston Faith and Film Festival will be held on Friday and Saturday, February 9 and 10, at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. Tickets are $8 per film ($6 for students), or $30 for a full festival pass ($20 for students), and must be purchased at the theater. For more information, contact Bryan Stone at 353-2456 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.