Wednesday, 28 October, 2015


In loving memory of Davide Zordan (Brescia 1968 - Trento 2015), former president of the Religion Today Filmfestival.

Cinema & Spirituality

Davide Zordan

My presentation have three points. The first one is an introduction in which I try to put together my academic interest on religion and film with my experience into a festival of religion in films. The second point suggests some considerations about religion and spirituality in film (the difference between them) and the final point is about the specific character of a Film Festival like Religion Today, in which I am involved, a festival interested in promoting interreligious exchanges and dialogue via the cinema.

Introduction: the study of cinema and a practical experience 
I would like to briefly introduce myself and my path as a scholar and a member of a Film festival dealing with spirituality and especially with cultural and religious diversity. I studied theology in different Catholic institutions and since 2005 I have been working as a researcher in religious sciences at a public research foundation in Trento, northern Italy (therefore within a non-confessional context: I underline this fact because it is quite unusual in Italy to do research on religion and theology outside the ecclesiastic institutions). As a researcher, I am deeply interested in the role of the images and of imagination in the development of the moral life of a person and in its religious feelings and attitudes. The personal decision to believe or not believe in God depends on which images of God one carries around with one and such huge store of images (and also words, concepts, narratives) does one thing with one’s personal experience, or more precisely is the representational content of one’s personal experience. So images and imagination matter. They matter in our spiritual life, they matter in our faith, in spite of the traditional suspicion and hostility of theology towards them, especially towards imagination, considered as the realm of the illusion and related to our desire which has to be purified or even repressed. In fact, despite what theologians have been saying for centuries, imagination plays a decisive role in our moral and spiritual life, and this is one point I have tried to highlight in my research. The religious relevance of imagination is also the reason why I am interested in the study of cinema as an opportunity for spiritual exploration and transformation. At the same time and on a more specific level, as a member of staff of a film festival, involved since more than 10 years with the organization of the Religion Today Film Festival in Trento, I have experienced that imagination, and in particular the imagination nourished by the power of cinema, also matters in understanding other people, their culture and faith, and in avoiding stereotypes. Originating in 1997, Religion Today is a festival dedicated to the cinema of religions. Thanks to a number of locations hosting the Festival not only in the city of Trento but also in other places in the province of Trento, in Bolzano and in other Italian cities, we are able to reach a wide public, offering them the chance to see works from faraway and little-known film industries which are rarely available in other contexts. The wealth of different religions is presented to an audience who is also given the chance to meet people involved in interreligious dialogue face to face. During the Film Festival, filmmakers, actors and other people working in the field of cinema of different faiths and nationalities have the opportunity to meet each other, to share their different ideas about cinema, about religion, about the need for peace in many parts of the world and they have the chance, if they will, to pray together, each according to his/her own faith. They also take part in a workshop, where they present and discuss their film work. The basic idea is to create a human, cultural and spiritual context which values differences as a way to enrich our vision, in order to go from «a culture of indifference to celebrating our differences» (these words, from Tonino Bello, an Italian bishop, former president of the movement Pax Christi, has become a slogan, orienting Religion Today’s activity). Furthermore, as part of the Festival, study seminars, events, performances and educational programmes for schools are organized. Now what I can briefly suggest in the rest of my presentation is founded at the intersection of a theoretical investigation about religion, imagination and film, as I said previously, and the practical experience of intercultural and interreligious exchange mediated, and in fact supported, by the cinema, at the religion Today Film Festival.

Cinema, spirituality and religion 
Let us start from the theory. The title of our workshop is “Cinema and spirituality” and, even if the term of spirituality is today very confused and difficult to define, there is a general agreement on considering it as an extension of the religious. In fact, especially in secular contexts, the words “spiritual” and “spirituality” are more and more used in a sense that excludes any explicit religious reference and opens to a wide range of themes and topics related to human experience as a whole, as for example openness, questing, justice, transformation, yearning, forgiveness. Such extension of the category of the religious to include the category of the spiritual in an important fact, that allows to overcome the distinction between people who shows an interest in religious topics and people who are not interested at all to religion. This is in fact a secondary distinction, one might says an ideological distinction. What is more important is that people, no matter what they believe in, need to accomplish their life, need a fulfillment and especially today they feel that such fulfillment, such achievement can be reached only if their existence is nourished at many level simultaneously. In this sense the “spirituality” of cinema includes different aspects, such as its ability to encourage our cultural and aesthetic growing, to cultivate our sensibility for moral and ethical values and, in sum, to enrich our being, our whole humanity. Are all these aspects related to religion? For those who believe yes, of course, but not necessarily. In theological terms, one may say that the capacity for religion is not in itself the experienced reality of religion, and that is why we do refer to the concept of spirituality, as undefined as it is. From a different point of view, if we define the spiritual too broadly, when looking at the cinema we find ourselves in a situation where almost every movie has something to say about one or another spiritual topic. We can find the spiritual in any film and the category “cinema and spirituality” becomes so broad as to be almost meaningless. This can be a problem, and one for which I have no solution. It is probably wise to keep the two terms, religion and spirituality, together, in their tension and interdependence, in order to describe why cinema is important for us and why it is an opportunity for human flourishing and transformation. A recent academic work about film and theology, written by Jonathan Brant from Oxford University, reflects on the possibility of revelation occurring in the experience of film-watching. Interestingly, the concept of “revelation” has a strong religious dimension but can perfectly be assumed independently from any explicit reference to religion, as a synonymous of a sudden apprehension that drives to a self-transformation. The use of this concept of revelation to explain what can happen when people go to the cinema and watch movies is a good way to refer to a vast range of experiences which are deep and spiritual but which are not always perceived as religious. I think therefore that it is worthy to maintain this undefined correlation, maybe this ambiguity, between the religious and the spiritual. This is not an option but a necessity, when dealing with films from many different faiths, as in the case of the Religion Today Film Festival. Here the distinction between religion and spirituality becomes even more complicated, subject to different perceptions and interpretations by different observers because of their origin and history. Explicit religious reference is central in the project and idea of Religion Today Film Festival. The movies we select for our competition deal with rituals, rules, doctrines, prayers, celebrations and practices related to specific religious traditions. But we are especially interested in how the cinema is able to manifests the spiritual essence of all these religious elements. For us, at the Religion Today Film Festival, the spiritual is to be understood not so much as an amplification of the religious but rather as an intensification, or as a verification of its authenticity. We can make a counter-example of that. Religious practices are sometimes devoid of spirituality, the pure repetition of gestures, expressions and postures. In these cases, and we have some in the Religion Today archives, cinema can assume a critical attitude towards religion in revealing its lack of spirituality, while in other films, even many commercial films we can see on theatres, we discover the spiritual dimension of non-religious practices and behaviors.

Religion Today: exploring the differences
Now I would like to say something more specific about the Religion Today Film Festival. As I said before, the basic program of the Festival is to use the cinema to explore the differences between religions. This idea implies that other religions have a value in themselves, and that the recognition of such value is prior to any strategic concern to find possible points of agreement with each other. Differences have to be explored, appreciated, experienced more than discussed and evaluated. As far as possible, we have to inhabit differences, differences that enriches but also undermines and hurts us. But how can movies offer an opportunity to inhabit religious differences? How a modern medium like film is able to give an effective representation of the religious in its multiple dimensions and varied perspectives? First of all the cinema has the advantage of focusing not on religious conceptions but rather on gestures and concrete attitudes. One lives religion before understanding it, and many of those who sincerely live their religion are unable to comprehend it, and even less to explain it. This is not surprising, because the same happens in many important domains of our existence. We fall in love even if we does not possess a concept of what love is. Now while conceptions and doctrinal principles are of course very difficult to film, the practices inspired by them express in their own way an immediate “knowledge” of the faith which could hardly be assumed in a theory but is representable by the means of cinema, both in documentary and fiction films. There is another important aspect to be considered here. It is exactly via the observation of concrete practices that religions prove to be subjected to continuous transformation and redefinition. One might say that dogmatic formulas are unchangeable, and it is correct in one sense, but what is evident is that religious conducts continually renew themselves. Beside ancient and venerable traditions, like pilgrimages for example, we find always new forms of religious participation, both personal and communal. Sometimes these new forms appear problematic for the churches, for the representatives of religious institutions, but they are of great interest for understanding the vitality and the ambiguity of religious phenomena. Another advantage of cinema is its capacity to situate itself in a concrete setting and circumstances – or to recreate such concrete setting. In the overwhelming majority of cases, films on religions do not care too much about “religion” as a whole – with the exception of a few very boring documentaries. Films are much more interested in concrete histories, chunks of life, portraits of specific modes of religious belonging, in which sometimes different confessional traditions meet and intertwine each other, and they come to discover to be themselves different from what they thought and felt. In privileging the vivid fragment, the detail and not the whole, cinema takes away from us the illusion that religions are monolithic systems, uniform in their belief and in the way to express it, and allows us to grasp the dialectical, and at times dramatic relationships, existing within each religious group. As an art of the time, expressing the idea of the changing nature of everything, cinema helps us to better understand the movements, sometimes imperceptible, that animate religions in our present reality, and invites us, if we will, to rediscover the spiritual implications of these changes.