18 July 2015

Six Films About Religion and Belief

When religion is examined as a social institution and belief as a set of cultural values, films sharing common religious themes come in handy for their isolated contexts and full-length storyline with clear focal points. This essay sets out to compare and discuss three arguably well-circulated themes throughout all religions and beliefs by looking at three pairs of films: We’re No Angels (USA 1989) with Marmoulak (aka The Lizard, Iran 2004); Devi (aka The Goddess, India 1960) with Bagh-e Sangi (aka Garden of Stones, Iran, 1976); and The Shoes of the Fisherman (USA/UK 1968) with Zir-e Nur-Mah (aka Under the Moonlight, Iran 2001).


The first pair, We’re No Angels, directed by Neil Jordan, and Marmoulak, directed by Kamal Tabrizi, are within the theme of “hiding behind religion,” in which viewers are walked through the journeys of “convicts” (criminals) turning into “converts,” meaning someone who changed religion, or the conversion of moral standards under the influence of religion. For one, the journeys initiated by the need for a shelter from unfair legal enforcement for the convict-characters Jimmy and Neddy in We’re No Angels; and wrong conviction for Reza in Marmoulak. The common motif of film reading would easily predict their believers as their change for the better by moving from a polluted environment to a pure holy circle of religious as false priests. What did religion have to radically change them? There are arguments against “miracles” of prompt rescue by the Weeping Madonna but witnessing those certainly influenced the leading characters’ belief in supernatural power, which resulted in significant changes in their character development. Such influences should not be seen as merely submission to the religion, but also as a journey to win back their true self. Regarding the “untamed” nature of “convicts,” Reza’s talent of climbing walls in Marmoulak is a gift, which was first misused to steal and thus caused him to be imprisoned, but then was adjusted into a tool to help others. Likewise in We’re No Angels, Jimmy shows his deep concerns for life conditions in prison; while Neddy, despite his being self-centered and selfish, never fails to look after Jimmy’s safety.


The common factor of children in both films also contribute to inner changes provoked by the religious shields on the convicts. Both the daughter of the widow in We’re No Angels and Reza’s imaginary boy in Marmoulak do not communicate with voices and only make their silent appearance whenever the leading characters encounter a moral dilemma. The innocence and purity of children, which are arguably close to that religious goodness, are utilized to monitor, adjust and eventually tame greed and selfishness, or bad intentions in general. It works splendidly, as we see how Reza voluntarily submitted to justice or how Neddy bravely jumped off the bridge to rescue the girl. The convict/converts’ good nature never ceases to exist, only polluted by sins; religion is therefore a cleanser to make it once again embraced and appreciated. Although we may accuse believers of their naiveness to have accepted the cunning convicts, as the story unfolds we have learned that there is much truth to their illegitimate preaching, such as Reza’s observation that “there are as many paths to reach God as there are people in the world,” or Jimmy’s “the one thing they can never take away from you.” Their moral speech is in both films the evidence of complete repentance as converts, as well as the fact that the same act of hiding behind religion opens up different directions for people to choose the path that fits them the most. In sum, religion here acts as a guide to inner peace and redemption for sinners regardless of their initial approach, rather than an ideal destination.


The next pair are two non-Hollywood films Devi, directed by Satyajit Ray, and Bagh-e Sangi, directed by Parviz Kimiavi. Both share a focus on “abusing religious symbolism” whose several factors open, develop and invariably lead to their tragic closure. No doubt religious symbolism is of dominant significance in both films but the manner in which it is presented through sets of symbolic dualities is central to my discussion, all of which can be traced back to one core: the imbalance of symbolic dualities. Dualities are not necessarily opposites, but rather different directions of interpretation from the same root. For the sake of clarifying this claim, I would like to analyze two typical symbolic dualities that manifested the tragic endings.


First, there is the duality of stone and flesh. In Devi, it is the goddess statue and Doya herself; while in Bagh-e Sangi, it is the garden of stones and its creator Darvish Khan. This duality is more apparent in the former because the statue bears the appearance of the Goddess, which is believed to be Doya in her father-in-law’s dream vision; whereas in the latter, the garden of stone is an interpretation of Khan’s holy vision. There is no way to know for sure what is the correct interpretation of a holy vision, but in both cases, there was ineffective communication between the first and secondary receivers, which resulted in forcing religious values of stone onto flesh. In Devi, the rituals are entirely imposed on Doya as if she is a mute living statue. In Bagh-e Sangi, Khan is actually deaf and mute so instead of flesh, other people form their judgement based on his arrangement of stones (and vague body language). These distorted judgements varied greatly and therefore led to different reactions toward the stone and eventually tragedies to the flesh: maddened Doya and suicidal Khan.

Second, the duality of holy water and tears is presented in both films. Crying is the method of expressing emotions for both Doya and Khan. Doya is assumedly too reserved and depressed to speak up, so most of the time she silently cries; while Khan, despite his immense concentrating in his artwork, cries very remarkable tears when being frustrated by others’ abusing his work. Both are secular water but granted with holy power. Doya’s tears are believed to save lives, Khan’s tears are an abstract portrayal of offended powers that eventually destroy the garden’s holiness. However, these strange effects of tears: resurrecting power in Devi and white liquid covering everything in Bagh-e Sangi, are interpreted in the bias towards the rationalization of the majority’s religious expectations, and against the common indication of human dissatisfaction. Had they attempted  better observation on both implications of tears, the burden of divinity would have been reduced. Therefore, when people are blinded by their own prejudiced belief, they tend to ignore the respect of the worldly values in religious practices and thus abuse these religious symbols, which commonly lead to regretful tragedies.


Last but not least, the pair of The Shoes of the Fisherman, directed by Michael Anderson, and Under the Moonlight, directed by Reza Mirkarimi, share a major element of religion and belief—“doubting the religious calling.” In fact, doubt is portrayed in all films on religion discussed so far, but these two particular plots make it a deliberate question mark through the dilemma in whether to accept a religious role in society. The leading characters in both films, respectively Kiril and Hassan, have to undergo some journeys against their will. Kiril was unexpectedly removed from Lubianka prison in Siberia to Moscow and then to Rome; while Hassan had to run after the street thief Chick and eventually ended up with the poor homeless people under a bridge in Tehran. Though prison in Fisherman and Hassan’s seminary bear a value of education, they are both a form of confinement: Entering such a political prisoner camp as Kiril is said to be a one-way trip; whereas Hassan always looks as if he is being trapped in a place to which he does not belong and hence does not take the studying and instructions seriously. Although Hassan appears to have doubts in becoming a mullah from the beginning, I argue it was not doubt initially. He only hesitated due to his own conflicting expectations and that of his family and society; besides, he did not seem to have much speculation toward religious doctrines. This non-committal feeling only turned into a doubt after he was exposed to the world of poverty and crime, in which people seek God as their only hope. Many incidents take place along the way for Hassan, from Mr. Manoochehr’s advice to the under-bridgers’ activities and conversations, to imply that the motivation of his indecisiveness has turned into the desire to do good. He started, at least implicitly, to ask himself the question of how much a mullah can be helpful to others. This question is of course asked more explicitly by Kiril on many occasions, such as during his ordination and conclave, because he knows how significant an influence he can exert as such a respectable figure in the Church of Rome, especially under the great pressure of impending nuclear war.


The expression of doubt in both characters is produced by the imposition of outside expectations and the internal desire to be good and helpful. The resolution of these doubts therefore depends pretty much on the people to whom each attached themselves in their journeys. Kiril befriends Father Telemond on the plane to Moscow and became an admirer of his original and unconventional religious speculations. Hassan, on the other hand, learns empathy for the under-bridgers, brings them food and weeps for their sins and misfortune, and in turn they bring him signs of God. It is thanks to the struggle of these people that our leading characters grow more determined in choosing the religious path as a power to do good and bring justice. Kiril and Hassan in the end “have learned enough to face freedom” from mental confinement because they have found the answer to their doubts: Religion is only the means to justice, but justice itself relies on the will of people.

[This essay is by Nguyen Nhu Ngoc, who studies Culture, Society and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan.]

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