Palms and gods: ten religious films that marked the Cannes Film Festival

Of the law of the lord by William Wyler (1956) to Benedetta by Paul Verhoeven, presented on Friday July 9, 2021 on the Croisette (and released the same day in theaters), religion has often been present on Cannes screens, taking more than once the detour of History and films in suits. And if we had to look for a common thread, a theme that runs between these ten films (non-exhaustive list) among those that have caused a wind of “cult” to blow on the Croisette, whether in the form of a soothing breeze or a storm thunderous, it would doubtless be man faced with his conscience, man coming up against an earthly law and power that run counter to his convictions. It should be noted, however, that films featuring a religious subject should not be confused with those of a spiritual nature. In this second case, the list would be different and probably longer.

1. The most firefighter: Benedetta

(Paul Verhoeven, 2021)

Mystical or mystifying? Hysterical or manipulative? Who was Benedetta Carlini? Historical research teaches us that she entered the convent in 1599 at the age of 9 and that, as an adult, she had visions, was seized with trances and bore the stigmata of Christ on her body. So many signs that earned her to become abbess and to be celebrated as a saint in the town of Pescia, in Tuscany. But Benedetta had a passionate and carnal affair with another sister. This will lead to his condemnation by the Catholic Church. Paul Verhoeven skilfully maintains the doubt about the nature of Benedetta. He shows her in turn making her way to power in the midst of a hypocritical and mercantile Church, then fallen by this same Church obsessed with the flesh, confusing suffering and piety. The filmmaker, on the contrary, wants to celebrate physical enjoyment. Her film is adorned with the finery of feminism, but delights in its representation of sexuality. The real embarrassment, however, comes from the choice to literally film Benedetta’s visions. No modernity here, but a firefighter-style imagery, underlined by invading music. Presented at Cannes in competition, the film will perhaps not prevail in paradise for film lovers.

2. The most crafty : the law of the lord

(William Wyler, Palme d’Or 1957)

The Law of the Lord is a masterpiece of shrewd conformism and calculated audacity”, writes André Bazin in Telerama the day after the Cannes Film Festival that year. The famous critic is furious that the jury awarded the Palme d’Or to William Wyler’s film, to the detriment of two other unanimously acclaimed films: A death row inmate escapedby Robert Bresson, and Cabiria Nights, by Federico Fellini. Without forgetting the Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman. William Wyler, crowned with the success of roman holidays (1953, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn), tells the story of a peaceful family of Quakers, with members as naive as they are simple, confronted with the Civil War: take up arms, to oppose the exactions of the Southern troops or remain faithful to their principles of non- violence ? The serious subject is nevertheless treated in the mode of comedy. And from the film, remains the image of a fake western saved by its actors, Gary Cooper and Anthony Perkins…

3. The Fake Scandal: the nun

(Jacques Rivette, 1966)

“Blasphemous”. This is the adjective that sticks to the nun since its shooting. The protest campaign was led, not by the Church, but by associations of parents of free education students. Jacques Rivette brings to the screen an adaptation of Diderot’s novel, signed by Jean Gruault, with Anna Karina in the role of Suzanne Simonin: a young girl locked up for social conveniences in a convent, who rebels, but never turns away of his faith. In April 1966, the film was banned by the Secretary of State for Information. It is considered likely to “seriously offend the feelings and consciences of a very large part of the population”. André Malraux, the “Minister of Culture”, according to Jean-Luc Godard, no doubt shaken by the indignant reaction of cultural circles, does not, however, object to its presentation at the Cannes Film Festival. Far from being the advertised rant, the nun on the contrary strike by “its rigor, its austere arrangement, the classicism with which it was built and produced”, as Jean de Baroncelli writes in The world. In fact, the film does not attack religion but the institution as an instrument of control and confinement – ​​in this case women. The nun will be released at the end of July 1967 in Paris in five theaters, with a ban on those under 18.

4. The cheekiest: Joan

(Bruno Dumont, special mention of the Un certain regard jury, 2019)

Joan of Arc heroine of a musical? You had to dare and Bruno Dumont happily risked it in 2017, with Jeannette, the childhood of Joan of Arc, combining the prose of Charles Péguy and the electronic music of the composer Igorrr. A way for the filmmaker to find correspondences between the poetry of the text and the music, and thereby make Péguy’s work accessible, “one of the most profound French thinkers”… but not the easiest to read! Two years later, with Joanpresented in the Un certain regard selection, Bruno Dumont continues the experience by transposing the piece by Péguy, Jeanne D’Arc. A faithful adaptation: “I cut but nothing added”, specifies the filmmaker, who this time worked with Christophe. The singer composed the music and also lends his voice to Jeanne when the shepherdess, made a war chief and then a prisoner, addresses God. Suffice to say that the filmmaker sought a truth beyond naturalism and pious historical reconstruction.

5. The most secret: Andrei Rublev

(Andrei Tarkovsky, Fipresci International Critics Prize, 1969)

“I am for an art that brings hope and faith to men. » Andrei Tarkovsky has always placed the artist’s mission very high. Certainly he finds himself in the figure of Andreï Roublev, monk and icon painter for whom art and faith are one. If the film, divided into chapters, takes the form of a historical narrative, it is important, Tarkovsi believes, to move away from archaeological or ethnographic truth to find a “physiological truth”. And thereby tell the inner journey of a man, of a creator exposed to his time, to the horrors of his time and to power. These echoes of the contemporary USSR could only frighten censorship. Especially since the film, imbued with mysticism, posits Christianity as inseparable from Russian identity. Amputated by 20 minutes by censorship, Andrei Rublev In the end, it can only be screened at Cannes out of competition, on the sly… at 4 o’clock in the morning.

6. The most beautiful love story: Therese

(Alain Cavalier, jury prize 1986)

If he moved away from the faith of his childhood, Alain Cavalier says he was moved by the diary of Thérèse of Lisieux. But for a long time he thought he would never be able to shoot this film, before seeing Catherine Mouchet on the stage of the conservatory. She will forever be for Thérèse cinema. A luminous Thérèse, a young girl who is always cheerful, a woman who endures illness without a word. Alain Cavalier, very respectful of his subject, surrounds himself with the advice of a Carmelite. But, to the too narrow cells of the Carmel of Lisieux, he preferred shooting in the studio without sets, with simply painted walls. The result, according to its maker, is a film that focuses on “a woman who bathes in absolute love, that is to say, in the gift of herself to a man who is an image of the greatness of man”.

7. The most unanimously celebrated: men and gods

(Xavier Beauvois, Grand Jury Prize and Ecumenical Jury Prize, 2010)

“Tibhirine’s spirit blew on the set”, confided Xavier Beauvois the agnostic. Certainly, he also enveloped the Croisette, suddenly touched by grace, reconciling Cannes and its glitter with spirituality. If the film touches as much, it is by its authenticity and the refusal to put its characters on a pedestal. Until the end, he films their weaknesses and therefore their humanity. It is difficult for the spectator not to be carried away by the beauty of the ritual, and seized by this joy from which the monks never separate, even when they know how to walk towards death. It is also difficult not to be moved by this fraternity at work, which is embodied in particular through the figure of Michael Lonsdale, who finds in Brother Luc, a role equal to his personality, jovial and curious about the other.

8. The champion of good feelings: Assignment

(Roland Joffe, 1986)

Inspired by a play written in 1942 by the Austrian Fritz Hochwälder, Assignment was able to shed light on the history of “reductions”, these villages that the Company of Jesus had founded at the confluence of the Parana and Paraguay rivers with the agreement of the King of Spain. A utopia that succumbed to the greed of Portuguese and Spanish settlers. Built around two figures, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), an idealist committed to non-violence, and a repentant former slave trader, Rodrigo (Robert de Niro), the film raises the question of fidelity to one’s convictions. . On its release, critics did not fail to make a connection with the theology of the Liberation, not without regretting the overflow of good feelings. This did not prevent the public from acclaiming the film.

9. The most controversial: Under Satan’s Sun

(Maurice Pialat, Palme d’Or 1987)

A raised fist and this cry to the whistlers: “If you don’t love me, I can tell you that I don’t love you either”. Undoubtedly, this cry from the heart of Maurice Pialat receiving the palme d’or emanates from a filmmaker in whom disenchantment is a constant in his work. But this phrase entered into the legend of Cannes should not hide the film. The atheist that is Pialat was not afraid to confront Bernanos, no doubt finding in the Catholic writer a pessimism that joined his own. If he places spirituality and the question of good and evil at the center of his film, Pialat erases the supernatural from the novel and sticks to a psychological approach, nevertheless infusing a dose of fantasy into the realism that is dear to him.

10. The most dizzying: A hidden life

(Terrence Malick, Ecumenical Jury Prize, 2019)

After flirting with a cinema shrouded in mystery to say the least, Terrence Malick won the Palme d’Or in 2011 for The Tree of Life (film already strongly inspired by Christian spirituality) returns to a more classic form, but never far from grace, to tell the fate of Franz Jägerstätter (remarkable August Diehl), this man who stood up against Nazism, refused to bear arms , and advanced towards his death (he was executed in August 1943) stubborn, upright, guided by his faith and his conscience. Terrence Malick raises this modest Austrian peasant to the rank of a Christian figure. His Stations of the Cross, punctuated by the voiceover (which opens us up to the thoughts of Franz) and by images of dizzying beauty, becomes a luminous poem and spiritual meditation. Despite the tragedy, A hidden life radiates the love that unites Franz and his wife. Love that finds a perfect setting in majestic nature, a source of peace and promise of rebirth.

Palms and gods: ten religious films that marked the Cannes Film Festival