Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Divine Skepticism: The Films of Robert Bresson

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Divine Skepticism: The Films of Robert Bresson

Article excerpt

Of all the filmmakers since cinema's earliest days, Robert Bresson offers arguably the most profound exploration of the moral and ethical issues that animate contemporary theological discussions. In a career of more than forty years, Bresson maintained a consistent engagement with a few central themes: the inescapability of human suffering and death; the problematics inherent in a world view that postulates an overarching divine force for good or ill; and the inexplicability of joy and grace. Further, rather than slipping into either the certainty of the true believer or the uncertainty of the professional skeptic, he held faith and doubt in constant tension throughout all his films.

Bresson never deviates from one central theological obsession: "Who causes ...?" He proceeds in each movie as though he were asking that question for the first time; indeed, he proceeds like a detective who doggedly tracks God and the Devil across the world and back to the beginnings of the created universe. He long cherished the hope of making a film on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, having even begun work on the project when his financial backer pulled out. (1) Those chapters, of course, crystallize the whole sordid history of human life from Adam and Eve's fall to the Tower of Babel, a cornucopia of infractions that bring total destruction followed by God's mercy and the sealing of the covenant between God and humans with its rainbow superscription. While film directors (or at least auteurs) may bask in the illusion of godlike powers, Bresson seems poised in two roles vis-a-vis the Genesis parallel: as God the Creator in the beginning of time (an easy correspondence), and as God the Restorer who takes destroyed pieces of lives and reconstitutes the fragments as a new whole.

Within any specific film text, then, Bresson advances possible answers to the question of causality--an unknown external force, fate, God, malevolent humans, human passion, forces of modernity, money. In Au Hazard, Balthazar (1966) and again in L'Argent (1983), multiple "explanations" exist in tandem as plot lines parallel or cross. Bresson also advances, however, a number of counters--grace, redemption, human love, struggle, exercise of the will, gratuitous kindness--that confound those negative elements. If many of the films' narratives take place in prisons (convents, parishes, actual prisons, poisonous small towns), almost every one bursts with random moments of madness in which the walls of the prison disappear and the unexpected happens.

In his storytelling methods Bresson the detective pursues the unknown and unknowable malefactor or rescuer (what if these are the same being?), playing off movements of the human will against vivid clues that the will is not free. In Les Anges du peche (1943), his first full-length feature, the novice Anne-Marie might be castigated for spiritual pride, but to what extent can she be held accountable? Or is she expendable in some grand scheme to bring about the salvation (through punishment) of the killer Therese, her protegee? Is Therese guilty or innocent of the murder of her treacherous lover? The vengeance of Helene in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) or the cruelty of the shopkeepers in L'Argent are givens in these films. Who or what motivates them, or are they completely free moral agents? For each specific film plot, that is, we encounter effects with no ultimate or known causes. Bresson adopts this pattern with increasing frequency from his earliest film in 1943 to his last in 1983. We see the effects on screen of actions we never are shown, effects the causes of which we as spectators must investigate in our turn just as Bresson continues his quest for the truths of events and persons, none figuring more prominently than "the knowledge of Good and Evil" (Gen. 2:9).

Bresson's films might be said to resemble Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog (1988) in their intense, fresh, and nuanced approach to questions that are religious at their very core: What is the nature of evil? …

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