In Religion and Spanish Film Elizabeth Scarlett proposes to reexamine film history in Spain through the study of the representation of religion and spirituality in three extensive corpuses that combine auteur theory, genre analysis, and conventional periodization. Complementing recent critical insights into the persistence [End Page 545] of the sacred in both the literary culture (Noël Valis’s Sacred Realism) and the political imagination (William Viestenz’s By the Grace of God) of modern and contemporary Spain, Scarlett finds in Spanish cinema a locus of exceptional value to trace the nation’s relationship with a “conflicted or problematic Catholicism” (1). Scarlett is wisely aware of the predicaments inherent to the study of culture and religion in modern times, as “creative artists and intellectuals from about the Romantics onward naturally reject established religions as repressive molar structures” (4). Likewise, the author notes that prevalent trends in new atheist ethics not only denounce organized systems of belief as a critical factor in precluding full realization of comprehensive secular progress, but also do without religion in any attempts to understand the construction and negotiation of symbolic meaning in contemporary Western societies. In contrast, Scarlett’s take on the significance of religion is more attuned to that of contemporary thinkers like Jürgen Habermas, Julia Kristeva, and Terry Eagleton in their regard for “an updated revival of Greco-Judeo-Christianity for its assertion of a common world for all and its recognition of the value of individual differences” as effective ways to counter fundamentalism (14). Scarlett’s nuanced, non-dualistic approach is highly engaging and proves to be successful in comprehending the complexities, continuities, and discontinuities of Spanish cinema’s relationship with religion since the 1920s.
Drawing from as diverse a pool of disciplines as early film theory and current evolutionary accounts of religion, Scarlett convincingly examines in the introductory chapter the ritual and metaphysical dimensions of cinema to emphasize the “similarity of liturgy to film screenings, of filmic and religious iconography, and the play of presence and absence that suffuse both religious discourse and filmic expression” (3). Within the context of modern Spain, I find particularly astute the consideration of late nineteenth-century realist narratives and their concern for the sacred as influential precursors of the discursive practices embraced by Spanish directors to cinematize religion later in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
One of Scarlett’s most original gestures in the book entails the sustained construction of Luis Buñuel as a totemic auteur that towers prominently above succeeding generations of Spanish filmmakers, expanding the director’s well-known fascination for Pérez Galdós’s narrativization of tormented spiritualities to an allencompassing view of the ambivalent relationship that film production in Spain has maintained with both the religious and the secular. In this regard, the first chapter offers a thorough study of Buñuel’s oeuvre through a process of religious undoing or “reverse catechization,” a term aptly coined by Scarlett to refer to the “unlearning [of ] the repressive elements of Catholicism while purifying the underlying zeal for equality, love, mysticism, and redemption” (23). This idea allows the author to elaborate a compelling reading of the Aragonese’s lifelong fascination with all things Catholic through his cinema’s aesthetic and ethical transformation from an anticlerical and iconoclastic assault on the institutionally sacred, to a reinvention of an auteurist cinematic theology that shields the religious imagination from the all-too-powerful advance of modern technology. The sections on Viridiana, Simón del desierto, and La Voie lactée merit special consideration due to the author’s robust knowledge base of Catholic doctrine, as well as the critique of a body of religious [End Page 546] dogma, history, and iconography from a deep, although already traditional and somewhat predictable, psychoanalytic perspective.
This reading against the grain is further explored in the second chapter, where Scarlett offers an original take on the development of the religious picture as genre in Spain until the 1970s. Through a trans-national and comparative perspective, this...