Religion and Film

Steven G. Smith
Christian Center 11—office hours posted
Home phone 601-354-2290

Religious Studies 3750-01 RELIGION AND FILM
Also: Philosophy 2250  PHILOSOPHY OF FILM
Fall 2012

In the century since its invention, film (a handy term for moving pictures in whatever medium) has become not only an unexpected new art form but virtually a standard kind of experience for people who spend much of their time watching shows on screens—that is to say, for a large proportion of people now living.  What kind of experience do we have by means of film? What does it mean that film is not only an experience a person might have, but a way of experiencing reality? What is discovered, obscured, made special, made ordinary, concluded, or confused by means of the camera-editing arts? What can we learn about the character of human experience more broadly from studying film experience?

Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

—Roger Ebert’s Journal 5/17/11 (writing about Malick’s The Tree of Life)

In this course we will use philosophical methods, forming concepts and theses and arguments with the greatest possible care and freedom in conversation with some very valuable earlier exercises of thought, to assess the nature of film and its significance in human life. We will sharpen our critical appreciation of a number of notable film works that deal substantially with religion in a range of ways. Drawing on this evidence and on relevant commentary, we will develop our critical thinking about the nature of religion.

Readings will be assigned in handouts and in these books, available in the bookstore:

Timothy Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing about Film (any ed.)

Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, eds., Film Theory and Criticism (7th ed.)

Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film

The course grade will be determined by:

Class participation   10%

Weekly writings (a 2-3 p. review for each VIEW film)  35%

Midterm exam   15%

Final exam  15%

Term project  25%


subject to revision by announcement in class or by e-mail

VIEWINGS are of films on videotape or DVD held on reserve at the Millsaps library. Usually it will make the most sense to do the relevant READ assignment before the VIEW.

Aug. 20  Introduction to class.
Aug. 22  The idea of film experience.

READ:  Dorsky, “Devotional Cinema” (handout)

WRITE: Description of a peak film experience of your own (1 p.)
Aug. 27  The photographic character of film and issues of perception

READ:  Kracauer, “Basic Concepts,” FTAC 147-158

  Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” FTAC 159-163

  Cavell, “Photograph and Screen,” FTAC 304-305

VIEW:  Ron Fricke, Baraka


Aug. 29  The face.

READ: Balasz, “The Close-Up and the Face of Man,” FTAC 273-281




Sept. 5  Documentary and the responsibility of seeing.

READ:  Kracauer, “The Establishment of Physical Existence,” FTAC 262-272

Corrigan, Chaps. 1-3

VIEW: Alain Resnais, Night and Fog


Sept. 10  Soviet montage and the creation of a new social reality.

READ:  Eisenstein, “Beyond the Shot” and “The Dramaturgy of Film Form,”                                FTAC 13-40

VIEW:  Sergei Eisenstein, The Battleship Potemkin


Sept. 12  Montage, cont.

READ:  Vertov (handout)

VIEW:  Dziga Vertov, Man With a Movie Camera


Sept. 17  The filmmaker in supreme control: animation.

READ:  Panofsky, “Style and Medium in Motion Pictures,” FTAC 247-261

VIEW:  Walt Disney, Fantasia


Sept. 19  Film as dream.

READ:  Carroll, “Jean-Louis Baudry and ‘The Apparatus,’” FTAC 189-205


Sept. 24  Heaven and hell.

READ: Selections from Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso

VIEW: Adrian Lyne, Jacob’s Ladder


Sept. 26  Film and genre.

 READ:  Schatz, “Film Genre and the Genre Film,” FTAC 564-575

Wood, “Ideology, Genre, Auteur,” FTAC 592-601


Oct. 1  The religious genre film.


VIEW:  Cecil B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments (1956)


Oct. 3  The transcendental style according to Paul Schrader.

READ:  Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film, 3-13, 151-169


Oct. 8  Transcendental style, cont.

READ: Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film, 59-108

VIEW: Robert Bresson, Diary of a Country Priest


Oct. 10  Comparison of Bresson with Ozu.

READ: Schrader, 17-55

AVAILABLE VIEWING: Yasujirō Ozu, Tokyo Story




Oct. 17  Dogme 95 and the issue of truthfulness in cinema.


Oct. 22  Goodness, Take 1.


VIEW:  Lars von Trier, Breaking the Waves


Oct. 24  Saints.



Oct. 29  Goodness, Take 2


VIEW: Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast


Oct. 31  The gendered structure of film viewing: Mulvey on the gaze.

READ:  Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” FTAC 711-722


Nov. 5  The devotional gaze.

VIEW: Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ

READ: Selected reviews


Nov. 7  Gender and horror archetypes.

READ:  Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” FTAC 602-616


Nov. 12  Gender and horror, cont.


VIEW: James Cameron, Aliens


Nov. 14  Horror and the holy.



Nov. 19  NO CLASS (Instructor at conference)




Nov. 26  Holiness in different religious traditions.


Nov. 28   Japanese tradition on trial.


VIEW:  Mitsuo Yanagimachi, Himatsuri (Fire Festival)


Dec. 3  Film in a digitized world.

 READ:  Whissel, “Tales of Upward Mobility: The New Verticality and Digital Special Effects,” FTAC 834-852

VIEW:  Larry (now Lana) and Andy Wachowski, The Matrix


Class film festival TBA.  Final exam Dec. 6 at 2:00 p.m.  Project revisions due Dec. 11.



The Millsaps library subscribes to a number of interesting film journals, including Film Comment, Film Criticism, Film-Philosophy, and (through 2008) Film Quarterly.  There are useful general sources in the Refer­ence section like Halliwell’s Film Guide and Film Encyclopedia. We also have numerous books on film theory, film history, particular genres, and particular directors. Corrigan lists many more print and online resources.

Two of the most useful books that go deeper than Corrigan into film aesthetics are David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art, and Dennis DeNitto, Film:  Form and Feeling.

A great religious studies reference work is The Encyclopedia of Religion in the Reference section. Search “religion and film” as keywords in our library catalog or check with instructor for books full of ideas and observations concerning religion and film.



The purpose of the assigned writings in the course is to practice noticing features of film experience and thinking about its nature and implications, and about meaningful human experience more broadly.  Most assignments will explicitly direct you to relate ideas that are presented in class and readings to specific features of the films that we view.  Grades on writing will reflect the degree to which you fulfill these criteria:

(1) Thoughtful grappling with ideas and arguments that have been introduced in the course, with

(2) sensitive perception of actual ingredients of films viewed, and

(3) effective use of English.

Think of each 2-3 page weekly paper as a philosophically oriented version of what Corrigan calls a “critical review”—a “philosophical review,” for short.



  1. The question of essential form. (See Plato’s dialogues in which Socrates tries to find an adequate definition of an item like virtue or justice.)  What makes a phenomenon the kind of thing it is?  What is the essence of an art work, e.g.?  What is the distinctive essence of cinematic art works or cinematic experience?  (“Phenomenology” is a sophisticated 20th-century version of this line of investigation pioneered by Edmund Husserl.  “Conceptual analysis” is a comparable effort by so-called “analytic” philosophers in the tradition of Bertrand Russell.)
  1. The question of evidence. (See René Descartes’ methodical skepticism and discovery of possibilities of certainty in his Meditations on First Philosophy.)  How is reality evident to us—what counts, in perception and thought, as revealing or indicating reality?  What constitutes trustworthy evidence?  On the side of the knower, what sort of mind certifies or rejects evidence?  Our more carefully considered judgments of reality sometimes diverge from our spontaneous sense-based convictions.
  1. The question of coherence. (See Immanuel Kant’s transcendental arguments in Critique of Pure Reason.)  Under what conditions is meaningful experience possible?  What rules must be followed for putting experience together?  The idea here is that our world is a construct.  (There’s a linguistic version of this question that Ludwig Wittgenstein developed: How do we follow rules in order to say meaningful things, or:  What is the “grammar” of our “forms of life” that support the things we are able to say?)
  1. The question of history. (See G. W. F. Hegel’s historical articulation of reality in Phenomenology of Spirit.)  How does our experience of reality depend on real historical developments and conscious participation in such developments?  The idea here is that our reality is an evolving work-in-progress. The making and viewing of films is part of the work.
  1. The question of essential deception and/or contestation. (See Marxian, Freudian, feminist, postcolonial, and other critical theories.)  How is our experience of reality ordinarily warped, constricted, or dramatically deployed by social and psychological forces like class struggle, repression of desires, male-centered culture, European-centered culture, religious orthodoxy, etc.?  What remedies are available?
  1. The question of ultimate motivation and the Good. (Almost all major philosophers make claims about this, from Plato extolling eternal form to Gilles Deleuze extolling maximal creativity.)  What is the implicit goal of our choices of what to pay attention to and how to synthesize our experience?  What is the most powerful kind of importance that can appeal to us in our experience, and how does this appeal occur?

All of these questions overlap with religious concerns.



Hierophany. How does the intensely meaningful, the extraordinary, the infinitely adorable, the transcendent, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (in Rudolf Otto’s phrase) come into our experience? How does film stage revelations? In what ways is film a revelation? What are the cinematic forms of effective symbolism?

The archetypal. “Hero,” “villain,” “damsel in distress”—beyond the super-common types of character and situation in stories, what are the types that carry a freight of ultimate significance for our lives? (Consider the guru figures Obi-Wan Kenobi or Morpheus, for example.) In what distinctive ways does film design the archetypal or iconic?

The early history of film is studded with archetypal figures: Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, etc. These appeared as personages, not as people or personalities, and the films which were structured around them were like monumental myths which celebrated cosmic truths.

—Maya Deren

Cosmology. How is the world as a whole designed and anchored? What convinces us that there must be certain constraints on everything that exists and happens? What reveals to us the pattern of these constraints? How does evil threaten the world’s order?

Sacred vs. profane. Regardless of which things are specially important, how are the specially important things marked off from the ordinary things? What scheme or system is working to keep sacred and profane things obviously opposed to each other?

Salvation. What can be convincingly presented as a final solution to life’s problems, whether individually or communally? How were the problems shaped so that they could be finally solved?



Proposals for the term project are welcome, and negotiable.  Most term projects will consist either of (1) a 10-12 pp. philosophical study of one or more examples of religion-related film, or (2) a religion-related film made by the student as a philosophical study, with an accompanying presentation (2-3 pp. in its written form) of rationale and findings. All projects should be discussed in advance with the instructor, with a working plan approved before Fall Break.



When a paper is required, do not submit the first draft of your paper.  Edit yourself; turn in a second (or later) draft.

Here are some of the unmistakable signs of a first draft:

  1. The introduction hasn’t been revised to fit how the paper actually turned out.
  1. The flow is ragged and confusing because the paper hasn’t been reorganized according to how its content and argument shaped up.
  1. There isn’t a definite conclusion yet.
  1. It’s flabby: there are phrases and sentences throughout that could be cut.
  1. There are many typos and other mechanical errors and inconsistencies.
  1. (In a research paper:) Some works cited in the paper are not included in Works Cited, or vice versa.

Unless you are an exceptionally skilled writer, you cannot write a paper at the last minute that is free of these problems.  A paper written at the last minute will look like what it is, a first draft.



You will be writing about movies all semester. You will make many summary claims about the qualities movies have (beautiful, scary, slow, etc.). You should always try to anchor your characterization of a movie to a specific element—a shot composition, a cut, a sound—in which something significant is realized in a cinematic way. You’ve probably heard it said that the best writing is concrete writing. This is true. A related and even more important point is that many of the most significant discoveries are made by noticing what is actually going on in a movie or, indeed, in any phenomenon. How does this movie hook you?


Devotional filmmaking

The Song of Bernadette (King)

The Passion of the Christ (Gibson)

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini)

The Message [story of Muhammad] (Akkad)

Ramayana video series

Jai Santoshi Maa (Sharma)

Little Buddha (Bertolucci)


Secular replacement for traditional religion

The Battleship Potemkin and October (Eisenstein)

Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra)

2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)

Woodstock (Wadleigh)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg)


Critique of religion

Viridiana (Buñuel)

The Mission (Joffé)

Destiny (1998) (Chahine)


Religious belief

Sergeant York (Hawks)

Diary of a Country Priest (Bresson)

Lilies of the Field (Nelson)

Devi (Ray)

The Apostle (Duvall)

The Mission (Joffé)

Therèse (Cavalier)

The Rapture (Tolkin)

Frailty (Paxton)

The Believer (Bean)

Higher Ground (Farmiga)


Absence of meaning, “dark night of the soul”

The Seventh Seal (Bergman)

Through a Glass Darkly/Winter Light/The Silence (Bergman)

La Dolce Vita (Fellini)

L’Avventura and Red Desert (Antonioni)

Last Tango in Paris (Bertolucci)

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir)

Nostalghia (Tarkovsky)

Himatsuri (Yanagimachi)

Mishima (Schrader)

Memento (Nolan)

A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)

Melancholia (von Trier)


Sacred tradition-secular experience connections

On the Waterfront (Kazan)

Requiem for a Heavyweight (Nelson)

The Ten Commandments—Prologue (DeMille)

Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky)

Ran (Kurosawa)

Koyaanisqatsi (Reggio)

Baraka (Fricke)

Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (Bae)

Jesus of Montreal (Arcand)

Decalogue II, V (Kieslowski)


This world seen from an otherworldly perspective

It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra)

Wings of Desire (Wenders)


Goodness and sanctity

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)

Diary of a Country Priest (Bresson)

Ikiru (Kurosawa)

The Flowers of St. Francis (Rossellini)

Brother Sun, Sister Moon (Zeffirelli)

Babette’s Feast (Axel)

Breaking the Waves (von Trier)

Gandhi (Attenborough)


Well-meaning (studies in film rhetoric)

Intolerance (Griffith)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise)

Dosti (Bose)

Philadelphia (Demme)

Amistad (Spielberg)

Life Is Beautiful (Benigni)

Hotel Rwanda (George)

Avatar (Cameron)


Thrilling (tremendum et fascinans)

Wonder:          Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg)

Contact (Zemeckis)

The Tree of Life (Malick)

Horror:                        The Exorcist (Friedkin)

The Alien films (Scott, Cameron, et al.)



Love and Death (Allen)

Dogma (Smith)

Life of Brian (Jones)

An Everlasting Piece (Levinson)

Enlightenment Guaranteed (Dörrie)


An arguably religious style of filmmaking

Diary of a Country Priest and others by Robert Bresson

Stalker and others by Andrei Tarkovsky

The Wind Will Carry Us . . . and others by Abbas Kiarostami


Pilgrimages, journeys of transformation

Easy Rider (Hopper)

Thelma and Louise (Scott)

Parallel Lines [a personal documentary] (Davenport )


Leadership, visionary and community-making or -sustaining

Gandhi (Attenborough)

Whale Rider (Caro)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman)



The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)

Himatsuri (Yanagimachi)

Braveheart (Gibson)


Personal identity as deeply inscribed by tradition and/or community

Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick)

The Pillow Book (Greenaway)


Quality of personal relationships

Last Tango in Paris (Bertolucci)

The Piano (Campion)

Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick)


Epiphanies and decisive encounters

The Seventh Seal (Bergman)

2001 (Kubrick)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg)

Contact (Zemeckis)

Mrs. Dalloway (Gorris)

The Hours (Daldry)


Points of contact between the ordinary and the extraordinary


Like Water for Chocolate (Arau)

Chocolat (Hallström)

Babette’s Feast (Axel)


Jacob’s Ladder (Lyne)

Stalker (Tarkovsky)


Heaven and hell

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg)

Jacob’s Ladder (Lyne)

The Rapture (Tolkin)

Deadman (Jarmusch)

What Dreams May Come (Ward)

After Life (Koreeda)

Notre Musique (Godard)


Evil and trauma

Day of Wrath (Dreyer)

Judgment at Nuremberg (Kramer)

Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski)

A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick)

The Exorcist (Friedkin)

The Night Porter (Cavani)

Seven Beauties (Wertmuller)

Apocalypse Now (Coppola)

Sophie’s Choice (Pakula)

Ran (Kurosawa)

Schindler’s List (Spielberg)

Hotel Rwanda (George)


Suffering, loss, death

Bobby Deerfield (Pollack)

The Deer Hunter (Cimino)

A Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami)

The Pianist (Polanski)


Sacred history/Zeitgeist

The Battleship Potemkin and October (Eisenstein)

Sergeant York (Hawks)

Gandhi (Attenborough)

Forrest Gump (Zemeckis)

Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg)



Orpheus (Cocteau)

Medea (Pasolini)

Space is the Place (Coney)

Star Wars (Lucas)

Pocahontas (Gabriel & Goldberg)

The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski)

Opera Jawa (Nugroho)



Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Stuart)

The Truman Show (Weir)

Magnolia (P. T. Anderson)


Maya:  appearance is not reality

Dark City (1998) (Proyas)

The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski)



Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away (Miyazaki)

Fantasia—Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria (Disney & Ferguson)

Fantasia 2000—the whales; the Firebird (Brizzi & Hunt)



Night and Fog [the Holocaust] (Resnais)

Shoah [the Holocaust] (Lanzmann)

Parallel Lines [Americans after 9/11] (Davenport)




  1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected.  One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late.  Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence.

One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the third absence. To illustrate, someone who totaled 7 absences would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.  The reason for this:  our in‑class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

  1. Late submissions. Assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent.  No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations.  Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.
  1. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.
  1. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression.  Plagiarized work will receive no credit and will be referred to the college Honor Council.
  1. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.
  1. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should register with Patrick Cooper (, extension 1228) and then discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.