God Is Love

By Cardullo, Bert | The Hudson Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

God Is Love


Cardullo, Bert, The Hudson Review


PROMINENT IN THE POETRY OF THE MIDDLE AGES and early Renaissance was a manifestation of one of the profoundest changes in human thinking: the spiritualization of man's attitude toward women. In the poetry of Dante, for a prime example, physical desire was transformed into an earthly image of heavenly love; true love still struck through the eye, but it reached to the soul and thereby created a hunger for spiritual rather than fleshly beauty, for romance rather than sex. The sight of Dante's Beatrice, in other words, drove out all foul thoughts, her presence ennobled, and her discourse was an aid to salvation. This Neo-Platonic optics of love was explained in such a work as the Commentary on Plato's "Symposium" (1468), by Marsilio Ficino; yet such absolute love, we've since learned, is clearly the kind that can be maintained over a long period of time only from a distance or in death.

In any event, thus did lust become the love we all know, and that love, either in whole or in part, is the subject of two "classic" films I recently re-viewed in the same week. These two pictures, Sundays and Cybele1 and La Strada,2 point up the distinction, not only between sexual gratification and divine fulfillment, but also between what the French auteur Jean Cocteau once called cinema and cinematograph. Nowadays, as the Hollywood "product" more and more crowds out American independents as well as European, Asian, and African imports, it pays to remember this distinction. Cinema, Cocteau, said, conceives of film as an art and is as rare as genuine art (or genuine religiosity, for that matter) always is; while "cinematograph" concerns itself with commercial entertainment produced by an industry and anathematizes art (though sometimes falling into artiness, the arch impostor or devil incarnate). It is the familiar business we see in all our pleasure palaces known today as cineplexes.

No example of the vainglories and inconsequences of cinematograph, Sundays and Cybele (1962) might be accused by the inattentive of being an instance of sentimentality. But the line that divides the honesty of sentiment from the falseness of sentimentality-yet another distinction-is always an exceedingly thin one, far too thin for the gross vision of most moviemakers, or moviegoers, to be able to detect. That the French-made Sundays and Cybele is full of the most affecting sentiment, yet never crosses the line that leads to the sentimental, is a tribute to its director Serge Bourguignon and to its cast, yet I am not sure that the audience which applauded this picture (at the revival house where I saw it) was aware of the difference between the two.

As I watched, I became aware that there was a great deal of what could only be called low-level activity taking place around me: lots of tongue-clucking, dabbing at the eyes, and lugubrious sighing of the sort you'd expect at the resuscitation of an early judy Garland or Jackie Cooper movie. And the talk I heard outside the screening room only reinforced my suspicion that the general response to the film continues to be to its easier, more superficial aspects. Sundays and Cybele, in other words, is not sentimental, but the reaction to it is pretty heavily so.

This doesn't really matter, for the picture has outlasted those audiences in search of a good cry, or at least has found the sensitive and appreciative audience it deserves. Indeed, it has taken its place as one of the most profoundly moving and original of cinematic achievements, if not as one of the truly epochal masterpieces of screen history. Masterpieces, after all, are few and far between and may not be summoned by journalistic fiat; in any case, a movie as rare as Sundays and Cybele is rare enough for us to be indulgent with its faults. Serge Bourguignon never rid himself of those faults (more on which later) in his subsequent films-The Reward (1965), Two Weeks in September (1967), and The Picasso Summer (1969)-which is why most people have never heard of him. …

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