General Features

Faith, culture and film

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Kairos CAtholic Journal

Krzysztof Zanussi, a Polish filmmaker, professor of cinematic arts and culture, writer, consultant to the Vatican Commission for Cultural Affairs, and a master in the craft for his generation, has exercised a career that spans more than 50 years. The richness of his person—he has studied both physics and philosophy, is a prolific author and lecturer, and at times more of a diplomat than most politicians—continues to benefit the people he comes in touch with the world over. He was recently in Melbourne as a guest of the Polish Institute of Cultural Affairs and the Polish Film Festival. Mary V. Cass interviewed Professor Zanussi on what he knows best: faith, culture and film.

You have been trained in multiple fields of endeavour, why did you choose film?
When people ask me how I evolved into filmmaking from being a trained physicist, I say these disciplines have a lot in common. It is the notion of mystery. Physics reveals a world full of mysteries before which we must remain humble. It is the same with artists, especially narrative art, which tells stories. No great artist in history has ever denied the mystery of life—we don’t know why, when or how. As long as we respect our ignorance in this regard, then we can draw closer to the truth as artists.

I cannot cite any timeless work that is not religious; it may not be confessional but it has dealt with mystery and mystery is another name for God.
In spite of the difficulties and fatigue involved, filmmaking has been a great blessing for me. It has given me the opportunity to be in contact with people all over the world, with more truthful expression than the spoken word. There is that moment of grace that comes when I find the right line pronounced in the right way by the right actor. It’s like a revelation that imparts to me the certainty that I am giving something new to the spectator and this makes the struggle worthwhile.

Moreover, I believe narrative art has the vocation to transmit wisdom, illuminate us, and give us a coherent vision of the world. Once a student of mine gave me an insightful answer on what constitutes a good film: “If it doesn’t change me into someone better, then it’s a waste of time.” With the help of the Holy Spirit, I hope that my films can enrich and make the viewers a bit wiser.

What can art and specifically film contribute to the new evangelisation?
Visual and narrative art are crucial for evangelisation. It brings one to experience and understand the point of view of the other, which is a moral obligation today. It allows us to enter into characters and life situations previously unknown to us, be enriched, and grow in the discovery that the world can be viewed from many different perspectives.

Stories activate our imaginations, open our minds, stimulate our creativity so that we can better enter into the life and thought of others and ‘love them as we love ourselves’.

I have taught many times in Russia, China and India. It’s a huge challenge to convey values in a way that is relevant to their cultures; their reference for dramatic stories is not the same as ours, nor is their sense of time and space. I have to keep in mind that their logic is not my logic. It takes great sensitivity to instruct these young people and build bridges of understanding and not antagonise them. Film, which is an enormous tool of expression, can create bonds and impart ideals which are bigger than ourselves. It can offer a transcendent experience.

Many works of art have a greater appeal to people than sermons. However, there are great obstacles because the film market is based on entertainment and so topics that may refer to faith or salvation interrupt the euphoria present in society today.

You were a close friend of Pope John Paul II. Can you share something of your relationship with him?
We must remember that Pope John Paul II was involved in theatre; he was an actor. During the Nazi occupation, all expressions of art and culture were forbidden in Poland. The theatre that Karol Wojtyla participated in was done at the risk of being sent to the concentration camp if discovered. Thus it was very noble, very sombre; it was played out in private apartments before a small, highly selected public. Theatre was the way to accentuate the reality that culture continues. It allowed a nation to survive with its language and thought. In fact Wojtyla had this ability to speak well, which he learned as an actor. His theatrical performance was something very serious and inspired. I know that in his life his acting experience was very useful to him. He had a natural feeling for space, for timing. Very often, as Pope, when he was in front of the audience, he would move his chair to be in the right position to address the people. He knew very well how to use a microphone—when to raise his voice, when to lower it. He struggled during his whole pontificate with the difficulty of speaking a different language. When words were not enough he was able to express what he wanted to convey through body language. It wasn’t the voice only, it was more.

I remember him listening to me at my first dinner with him when he was a bishop—as if I was the only person who existed for him in that moment. In fact, I would say that what was most important for Pope John Paul II was the person in front of him in the present moment.

When he became pope, I thought I would hardly ever see him. As it was, I saw much more of him as pope, than I did when he was a bishop. When we met, he asked me to tell him stories—not ideological stories but those gleaned from my contact with people.

What else do you aspire to?
I feel that I have already fulfilled my dreams.  I would simply like this moment to continue ... There have been many crucial moments in my life—the fact that I survived the war, with bombs being dropped constantly, was a miracle. So if I am able to give back something positive to society, influence my students … then I am grateful.

Photo by Fiona Basile fo Kairos Catholic Journal. Copyright 2012 Kairos Catholic Journal.