Sex and the City of God

Mike Catto is impressed with this season of films at Queen's Film Theatre, and wants more

Some ‘seasons’ of films have an obvious link, for example all are by the same director, or feature the same actor or are of the same genre. The season Sex and The City of God which ran from August 13-19 at QFT featured very, very disparate films.

The common theme across all of them was that they represented different ways of addressing (directly or obliquely) questions of religious and cultural beliefs and attitudes, as well as the much more nebulous concept of the spiritual.

In the old days the person who chose such a season would have beenThe Ten Commandments called a selector, or a programmer. Today’s title, borrowed from the art world, is curator, a word that emphasises both the diversity of the works and the status of the issues they embrace.

The curator of this season is William Crawley, possibly best known to people in Northern Ireland as the presenter of BBC Radio Ulster’s always thought provoking Sunday Sequence, as well as often presenting other current affairs and literary TV and radio programmes. Crawley has been a minister of religion and his background in theology and philosophy is the basis for an open, humane and questioning appraisal of modern day life.

Almost predictably, the first film, the 1960 version of Inherit The Wind (filmed three more times since then) got the season off to a rousing – and oversubscribed – start, given that its theme of creationism versus Darwinism is still such a topical hot potato. There was what might be politely called a ‘lively’ panel discussion after the screening. 50 years on from the film’s release and 85 years on from the infamous ‘Monkey Trial’ it dramatised, it is remarkable to see the polarities it can still engender.

At the other end of the scale, the 1956 De Mille The Ten Commandments, all three hours 37 minutes of it, looks dreadfully stilted, reverential and old fashioned, but, hey, it was wonderful to see it up there on the big screen for which it was made. Tub thumping and shallower than the dried out Red Sea, it can still be viewed as representing the default mode for religious epics and unquestioning belief.

In the spiritual category, let us consider both Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) and the recent, and award-winning documentary Man On Wire. Both are about obsessives. Rublev was a 15th century Russian icon painter, and Tarkovsky avoids all the pit-falls of the art biopic to give us a slow, meditative insight into the mind and practice of a believer – and in so doing a peek at the mindset of the director himself.

BentMan On Wire will be familiar to many as the documentary story of Phillipe Petit who, illegally, wire walked between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. As exciting as any fictional heist film, it also forces the viewer to understand Petit’s ‘quest’ for individualism in a corporate world, a world here exemplified by iconic towers that no longer exist.

The three other films, Shortbus (2006), Tarnation (2003) and Bent (1997) explore, in different ways, the issues of sexual identity and lifestyle which are, to many, at odds with received religious beliefs. The first is very explicit, but also extremely funny and the viewer should realise that none of us is really that different from those on screen.

Admission: I love Tarnation. Jonathan Caoutte’s film is a mash-up of his own old Super 8 home movies, photos and sound tapes that combine to present a candid ‘diary’ of his nascent sexuality. Seek that one out. And the same could be said of Bent. It betrays its stage origins, but this intimate story of gays hounded by the Nazis – focusing on individuals rather than on a mass extermination – expertly explores the emotive themes of love, dignity and compassion.

The repertory nature of a season like this, glued together by a strong thesis (and a wide knowledge of cinema) is an important part of the QFT’s raison d’etre. Let’s have more. All the films shown are currently available on DVD.