God's Politics

God's Politics

Gareth Higgins: Antonioni and Bergman’s Films and Spiritual Activism

Film buffs began this week greeting the news that two of our greatest artists had died. Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni lived to be 89 and 94, respectively, and were still making films until a couple of years ago. Their work had exerted such an influence over world cinema for over half a century that it is impossible to imagine film culture without them. Antonioni and Bergman made films about the human interior journey – the travels and travails of the soul. They were sometimes preoccupied with the fear that life had no meaning, and at times seemed desperate to produce cinema because the making of the films themselves were part of their own struggle for enlightenment.
Antonioni explored relationships and their impact on the soul – and he had an ultra-romantic view of women, who often appear as tempting goddesses in his work. His 1975 film The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson (who pronounced it the greatest adventure he has ever had in filmmaking), is an observation of what happens when a man who seems to have a successful life decides to abandon it all in search of something different.
Bergman was more consciously religious – his most famous film is probably The Seventh Seal, in which a knight of the crusades is pursued by Death; they eventually play chess together in the ultimate existential competition. Bergman had a reputation for being pessimistic, once saying that he hoped not to die on a sunny day – a comment to which his greatest fan, Woody Allen, responded on hearing the news of his passing that he hoped the weather didn’t let him down. I think, however, that the charges leveled against Bergman miss the point – it is difficult to imagine that a person so committed to the investigation of what gives life meaning actually just wants it to be over.
It’s tempting to suggest that the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni represent the end of a certain kind of art film, perhaps the end of an era. We imagine the past producing a different type of movie, a different type of politics, a different type of celebrity and power. We don’t revere our great artists or public figures in the same way today partly because it’s much easier to become famous than it used to be. The bar of quality is set so much lower because we’ve all been told that we can too can be famous. Neither Ingmar Bergman nor Michelangelo Antonioni seemed happy to be publicly known. They just wanted to follow their vocation to make films, and get on with their lives.
There’s a lesson here for those of us who want to make a difference in the world but are striving to balance activism and the spiritual search. One of Antonioni’s last films, Beyond the Clouds, was a European pilgrimage made by a filmmaker played by John Malkovich, delicately shot to a soundtrack by U2 and Van Morrison, among others. It’s clear in this film that Antonioni had come to believe, and I imagine Bergman would agree, that for him the search for meaning in life, and the process of making a truthful work of art, amounted to the same thing. In this regard, Antonioni and Bergman’s legacy may seem obvious, but it’s a deeply important lesson: It is possible to do something great at the same time as not knowing all the answers.
Gareth Higgins is a Christian writer and activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the past decade he was the founder/director of the zero28 project, an initiative addressing questions of peace, justice, and culture. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul and blogs at

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posted August 3, 2007 at 10:55 am

These men were great film-makers and have influenced many over the years. I have seen several of their films over the years because of my love of movies and telling stories. I really can’t say I enjoyed them all – sorry. I guess I am a little more John Ford in the idea that if you are going to ask someone to sit in a drk room for two hours – there should be some entertainment factor included. I was influenced by their use of camera – layering the story – set design and casting. But for the most part I would rather undergo monthly root cannal than attend a film festival of their movies. (LOL) Isn’t it great how different we are and that we can connect with different people in different ways.
Blessings on their families.

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posted August 3, 2007 at 4:41 pm

Gareth, thanks for your essay. I had been hoping to see some Christian commentary on Bergman following his death and yours so far is the first. I think you are right that his movies have often been mischaracterized as pessimistic–they may be dark, but they are not cynical. Far more cynical are the contemporary moviemakers who reduce their characters to sex objects and stereotypes, show graphic violence just to satisfy prurient interests, underestimate and insult their audience’s intelligence, use their movies as a venue for product placement, and target crude humor at children. Bergman may have wrestled with questions about the meaning of life and human relationships, but at least he was wrestling with them rather than giving up on them as modern-day Hollywood so often encourages.
I recommend to any of your interested readers a book by British clergyman Arthur Gibson called “The Silence of God: Creative Response to the Films of Ingmar Bergman,” which gives a theological analysis of seven of his films. In it is a startling quote from Bergman that said, in a nutshell, that art began to deteriorate when it started to become divorced from worship, eventually making human emotions and personality into the sole focal point to the degree that every little quirk and foible is held under a magnifying glass and analysed. (Hope I’m doing justice to the quote.)

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posted August 3, 2007 at 4:41 pm

“It is possible to do something great at the same time as not knowing all the answers.”
But is it possible to do something great if you don’t know the ultimate answer.

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Mario J. Machado

posted September 26, 2007 at 7:41 pm

Cinema is like being in a church/chapel. Experiencing life/death in front of us. A collective dream.
This is what these filmmakers did for us.

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