This week marks the start of the 64th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, arguably the world’s most famous film festival. As always, many of the world’s best filmmakers will be bringing their films to southern France to be watched and judged by critics, fellow directors, and festival judges, not to mention a multitude of cinephiles. This year’s line-up is yet another strong one, and features titles from the likes of Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Pedro Almodóvar (The Skin I Live In), Lars Von Trier (Melancholia), and Woody Allen (Midnight In Paris).
As a film-lover, I’m excited about the upcoming festival and will assuredly be following the emerging reports and reviews much like my sports-loving friends would follow March Madness™ or the NFL draft. I have my favorites to win prestigious awards like the Palme d’Or, I’m curious about which films will come from nowhere to surprise everyone, and I wonder which highly anticipated films will turn out to be disappointments.
And frankly, I wish more people cared about it, too. Not out of some elitist desire to get more people to like my “cool” interest, but rather because I’ve found watching films from around the world to be so rewarding and enriching — and I want others to experience that as well. Unfortunately, talking about foreign films seems to be a surefire way to kill conversations. I’ve met many people for whom the term “foreign film” equates to weird movies with weird storylines that require you to read in order to know what’s going on. And mentioning names like Kiarostami, Ratanaruang, and Yimou will likely elicit blank stares more than anything else.
I’ve found this to be true, regardless of religious beliefs. However, at this point, I want to specifically address my fellow Christians. While I firmly believe that everyone would benefit from a little extra international cinema in their moviegoing diet, I believe this is doubly true for Christians. Or to put it another way, I think Christians have an extra reason, and perhaps even responsibility, for watching foreign films.
Christians believe that all human beings are created in the image of God, and as such, all human lives possess certain inherent traits such as value and dignity. This is at the core of our theology. And if human lives possess value, then I don’t believe that it is too much of a stretch to say that the works of their hands and minds possess value as well, however marred it might be by humanity’s shared sinfulness. Furthermore, since God is an infinitely creative being, all humans — having been created in His image — share in that creativity, and are therefore capable of creative acts that reflect and echo their Creator’s ultimate, undiminished creativity.
I don’t believe these are controversial statements within Christendom, and film can be a powerful reminder of their truth. Films can remind us of the inherent dignity of humanity by providing us with perspectives from around the globe — by allowing us to enter, in film’s inimitable manner, the lives and cultures of people from literally halfway around the world. I am not, of course, trying to denigrate American films as something that inherently less than non-American films. I do not believe, for a moment, that a film is superior simply because it has subtitles — to do so would be elitist. But foreign films offer me something that no American film can: a chance to experience a culture outside my own that I may never have a chance to experience otherwise.
This experience could take the form of education, of learning about a social/political/cultural issue that I may not have learned about otherwise. It could take the form of a story, fable, or myth that is deeply important to another culture, and that may serve as a key to understanding it. Or it could be an opportunity to simply see how another culture tells stories: how their cultural values, ideals, and worldviews have shaped their storytelling.
Just as food from other cultures can enrich and deepen our palate by exposing us to new ingredients and recipes, films from other cultures can enrich and deepen our understanding and compassion by granting us glimpses of reality from the perspectives of individuals in cultures far removed from ours. Or, to put it another way, film helps us actually see the Imago Dei — the image of God — in immersive and affecting ways.
There’s an intriguing passage near the end of the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Revelation that I some times think about when I think of other cultures. Earlier in the chapter, we read a dazzling description of the celestial city, with its pearly gates and streets of gold. Then immediately following that passage, in verses 22-26, we read the following:
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
Revelation can be a tricky book to interpret, but that being said, I find this passage fascinating because it seems to imply that there’s some aspect of heaven’s beauty that is enhanced by “the glory and the honor of the nations”. In other words, the glories — the great accomplishments — of the world’s many cultures will be welcomed into heaven and paraded through its streets. And this may just be the cinephile in me talking, but I’d like to think that includes cinematic accomplishments — i.e., the beauty and truth that those cultures have captured on film for all the ages — as much as anything. And while I ask this somewhat cheekily, I also ask it honestly and earnestly: if foreign films are going to be welcomed into Paradise for all of eternity, then how can I not give them similar treatment here on Earth?
Next week, I’ll be posting a list of 10 foreign films that I recommend for Christians interested in exploring and experiencing world cinema.