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The Religious Affiliation of Film Critic
Andre Bazin

André Bazin never made a film, but as one of the history's most influential writers and commentators on film, his impact on cinema was immense.

Dudley Andrew's biography of Bazin (Dudley Andrew, Andre Bazin, Oxford University Press: New York City, 1978) describes Bazin's schooling at the hands of Christian Brothers, and how that education had a lifelong influence on him. Another major influence on Bazin and his writing was the influential French film critic Albert Beguin. Beguin became a devout convert to Catholicism and was a writer for a culture magazine that advocated stronger dedication to Catholicism (page 23). Bazin was also strongly influenced by Marcel Legaut, a radical Catholic writer and thinker who sought to return France (which was by then already quite secular) to more devout and more orthodox observance of Catholicism (Andrew, pages 26-29). In 1938 Bazin founded a study group dedicated to discussing Esprit, the Catholic intellectual magazine (Andrew, page 25). Although Bazin was in a number of ways unorthodox in his religious beliefs, and was not a devout Catholic comparable to Beguin and Legaut, his film writing "focused to a remarkable extent on films with a religious dimension" (Andrew, page 23). An entire chapter in Andrew's biography of Bazin discusses Bazin's involvement with Catholic film reviewers other Catholic intellectual groups.

From: "Paris Match: Godard and Cahiers" in Sight and Sound, June 2001, published by the British Film Institute (http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/2001_06/godard.html; viewed 1 June 2005):

[1946] The influx of American films was seen by many on the left, the communists in particular, as a threat not only to French jobs but also to French culture, and as an insidious weapon in the Cold War. As the Cold War intensified, so did the split in French film culture. The left seized control of the fortnightly film magazine L'Ecran francais [L'Ecran français], driving out Andre Bazin, a left-inclined Catholic who had tried to the last to maintain bridges between different tendencies. Besides writings by Bazin, L'Ecran francais had also published the famous article 'Birth of a new avant-garde: the Camera-Stylo' in which the critic and film-maker Alexandre Astruc foresaw the emergence of a cinema that would be a 'means of writing as flexible and as subtle as written language'. The loss of Bazin and Astruc was bad news for L'Ecran francais and for French film culture in general, but it was also to have an unexpected result.

From: Richard A. Blake, S.J. (a Jesuit), "Finding God at the Movies ... And why Catholic churches produce Catholic Filmmakers", website: Woodstock Theological Center (http://www.georgetown.edu/centers/woodstock/report/r-fea79a.htm):

As early as 1951, just as film was starting to develop its own critical language, the great French critic André Bazin wrote simply: "The cinema has always been interested in God." In his essay "Cinema and Theology" he pointed out that from the earliest days of one-reel silent films, religious themes were commonplace in this infant entertainment industry. He even began to classify religious films into various categories, and again in keeping with the Woodstock tradition, he provided three familiar types. The first comprised stories taken from the Bible, beginning with primitive ten-minute passion plays, through the silent masterpieces like King of Kings and Sign of the Cross. The years immediately following Bazin's essay would provide wide-screen epics, like Samson and Delilah, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Robe. The tradition continues in the present with Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and currently Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. And we might even expand the category a bit to include Jesus of Montreal, with its contemporary setting, Jesus Christ Superstar with its rock music, or Dogma with its crude but very funny satire on the Church.

Bazin's second category includes lives of saints. He had in mind Dreyer's silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis, released in this country with the horrible title, Francis, God's Jester. Poor Joan of Arc is recycled every few years, the most recent being The Messenger. This genre has been less successful, but occasionally another example appears, like A Man for All Seasons, or Black Robe, a film version of a successful novel patterned closely on the experiences of the Jesuit North American martyrs. Near saints appear once in a while as well: one thinks of Romero, or Entertaining Angels, the story of Dorothy Day. When can we expect a life of Mother Teresa, starring the ever-spunky Sally Field, or perhaps the ever-smiling Julia Roberts?

The third grouping consists of films about struggling church professionals. Here the photogenic quality of Catholic priests and nuns has proved irresistible to filmmakers. We have the nice-guy priest like Bing Crosby in Going My Way, the tough-guy priest like Spencer Tracy in Boys Town, the dying priest in Diary of a Country Priest, the alcoholic priest in Mass Appeal, and the gay priest in The Priest. We have an equally diverse population of movie nuns: gooey nuns in Come to the Stable, singing nuns in Sound of Music, farmhand nuns in Lilies of the Field, rebellious nuns in The Nun's Story, psychotic nuns in Agnes of God, and romantic nuns in Black Narcissus. Most recently we've had the tender but tough as nails nun in Dead Man Walking.

This quick survey is enough to demonstrate that there has been an astounding variety of religion-based films. It leads to two conclusions. The first is that Bazin was right. Film and religion have proved over the years to be quite congenial companions.

From: Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York (2003), pages 58-59:
If Godard is unthinkable without the material that Langlois presented at the Cinematheque and if Langlois's method of demonstration by juxtaposition was one he was to make his own, he is equally unthinkable without the philosophical and critical thinking of Andre Bazin. Sartre and Rohmer both testify to the extent to which some of the finest products of the French educational system... for Bazin teaching was not a chore to be endured but the very purpose of intellectual inquiry: his conception of the teacher as both the bearer and destroyer of his or her own community's traditions is one of the most compelling arguments for a life devoted to education. This faith was part of a larger belief in a Catholic activism which understood salvation in social terms. The thinker who most influenced Bazin was Emmanuel Mounier, the charismatic founder of the founder Esprit, the major forum for Catholic intellectuals. Mounier was himself a brilliant product of the French educational system who had decided to pursue his teaching vocation outside that system. Esprit was to serve as a crucial intellectual centre throughout Bazin's life.

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Webpage created 1 June 2005. Last modified 17 September 2005.
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