The Impact of Religion on Cinema

A Scene from Lars Von Tier's film Breaking the Waves

NC State’s fourth annual Impact of Religion Lecture was presented on Monday, February 18. The speaker was Jeffrey Stout, emeritus professor of religion at Princeton University, who served as president of the American Academy of Religion in 2007. His topic was “Cinematic Spectacles of Sacred Suffering: Ethical Challenges in Dreyer and Von Trier.”

Stout’s interests include ethics, social criticism, political thought, modern theology, film and theories of religion. He is the author of The Flight from Authority: Religion, Morality, and the Quest for Autonomy (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), Ethics after Babel: the Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Beacon Press, 1988), Democracy and Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2004) and Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (Princeton University Press, 2010). Stout gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in May 2017 and is now expanding them into a book on religion and power in political history.

Stout’s presentation at NC State was the first of the American Lectures on the History of Religions that he delivered at five universities in North Carolina in February 2019. In the series, which is sponsored by the American Academy of Religion, Stout argued that cinematic representations of the sacred merit the level of scholarly attention that the related genres of melodrama, suspense, and horror have already received.

Jeffrey Stout

At NC State, Stout examined the ethical challenges of depicting and viewing the depiction of the infliction of horrific suffering on victims regarded as sacred or saintly, focusing on two significant films, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996), which emulates Dreyer.

Using clips from these and other well-known films in related genres, Stout explored the goals and techniques of Dreyer and Von Trier. Both films, Stout observed, are presented as making demands of their viewers; both call into question ordinary motives for making and watching movies; both emphasize the horrendous; both focus on domination of and violence against women; both involve voyeurism; both reflect on the sacred understood in this context as what is worthy of reverence; and both seek to transform the viewer through disorientation.

The Passion of Joan of Arc, Stout argued, presents the horror of Joan’s suffering and her sacredness as two sides of the same coin. Joan has complete integrity; no servile explanation of her response to her tormenters is possible. She is portrayed as the only kind of soul who can withstand the power of established misogyny that is deployed against her. Breaking the Waves, Stout suggested, is an ethically more suspect film because of the willing submission of the protagonist, Bess, to the violence she must undergo to satisfy her lover’s demands for her self-subjugation; and because it is not clear that viewers can avoid the charge of sadistic voyeurism and complicity.

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