A master of 'austere' films

As there room for spiritual ideas at the movies?

Look at most of today's popular films, and the answer might appear to be a regretful "no." Some pictures nod toward uplifting sentiments or family-values morality, and myth-minded filmmakers like George Lucas have learned to spice their high-tech adventures with Yoda-type sayings and feel-good philosophies. Still, the spotlight remains more on entertainment than insight.

Look beyond the big-budget mainstream, though, and it's clear that a small band of directors have actively explored spiritual ideas over the years. If they aren't household names, it's partly because religious values aren't as easily marketed as movie-star faces and action-adventure themes. Then too, they generally work outside the American motion-picture industry, which reduces their appeal for United States audiences, who attend fewer international films than they used to.

Ask admirers of spiritually ambitious movies who their greatest inspiration has been, and many will give the same answer: Robert Bresson, the legendary French director who has taken religious and moral issues as his main concern throughout his long career. His influence may grow even larger now that a major retrospective is taking all his movies on a wide-ranging American tour, which should reconfirm his reputation among longtime enthusiasts and introduce his earnest vision to a new generation.

Of today's popular American directors, the one who has beat the drum most strongly for Bresson is Paul Schrader, whose well-received new movie drama "Affliction," which has Oscar predictors buzzing over Nick Nolte's acting, treats the issues of sin, morality, and redemption that Bresson has probed for years.

Mr. Schrader's respected book, "Transcendental Style in Film," focuses on Bresson along with Danish director Carl Dreyer and Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, finding a spiritual undertone in every level of their movies, from stories and characters to images and sounds.

Evoking a religious tone is especially challenging in film for at least two reasons. One is that you can't photograph something unless it's physically present before the camera, which anchors cinema more solidly in the material world than arts like music or literature. The other is that movies are expensive to produce, resulting in commercially driven pressures to stress spectacle and sentiment over more ethereal values that must be suggested rather than shown.

How do films by Bresson and other "transcendental" filmmakers overcome these considerations? They often rely on a three-part solution, in Schrader's view.

First they sketch out an honest and detailed picture of the everyday world, with an absorbing plot and believable characters. Eventually the story leads to some "decisive action" that makes the main character and the audience momentarily aware of moral and spiritual meanings beyond the reach of our limited senses. Then they end with a moment of stillness and peacefulness, suggesting that further revelations lie not on a movie screen but within our own capacities for increased growth and understanding.

Schrader's analysis provides a good starting point for understanding Bresson's films, but it doesn't capture the remarkable range of their subjects and themes. "A Man Escaped" recalls Bresson's experiences as a prisoner of war in the early 1940s, while "Lancelot du Lac" centers on the quest for the Holy Grail in King Arthur's time. "Four Nights of a Dreamer" and "The Devil Probably" look at youthful lives in Paris today. "Au hasard Balthazar," perhaps his greatest film, tells the fable-like tale of a donkey who may also be a saint. "L'Argent" takes literally the idea that love of money produces great evil. "Pickpocket" inspired Schrader's popular "American Gigolo," which stars Richard Gere as a criminal who ultimately flees his immorality.

Along with the rewards they offer, Bresson's films make unusual demands on their viewers. To keep the emphasis on ideas rather than emotions, he tells his stories in a spare and rigorous way, often using nonprofessional actors deliberately stripped of movie-star glamour.

In keeping with his campaign against materialism, he peels away all extras and excesses from his productions, asking us to receive their messages with our minds and hearts as much as our eyes and ears. No filmmaker is more associated with the word "austere," often used to describe his pictures and the sensibility behind them.

It's unlikely that Bresson's works will ever attain the mass appeal of typical Hollywood products, but their religious themes and noncommercial methods haven't prevented them from captivating a large number of his fellow filmmakers, not to mention movie buffs around the world.

'Robert Bresson' runs from today through Feb. 7 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and then travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, Mass.; the Film Center, Chicago; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; the Cleveland Cinematheque; the College of Santa Fe, N.M.; the Madison Cinematheque, Wis.; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y.; and the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio. A handsome book of essays and photographs, edited by program organizer James Quandt of the Toronto Cinematheque, accompanies the exhibition. David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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