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Director and screenwriter Paul Schrader authored Transcendental Style in Film in his 20s, bringing to the fore within the field of film studies a discussion on the relationship between cinema and religion.Photo courtesy of TIFF

There is, smack in the centre of commercial moviemaking in the 21st century, a weird little enclave, largely untrammelled by many mainstream moviegoers who descend on the multiplex on a Friday night.

When it premiered earlier this year, despite withering reviews (including my own, in these pages), the Christian blockbuster The Shack pulled up in third place at the box office, behind heavyweights Logan and Get Out. Religion – meaning watered-down, non-denominational takes on Christianity – is big business in Hollywood. The 2014 Christian drama Heaven Is for Real, about a boy named Colton Burpo who travels to heaven during a near-death experience, raked in more than $100-million (U.S.) against its $12-million budget. Others, such as last year's Miracles from Heaven, pulled similarly impressive numbers. Such garishly uplifting religious films as these constitute their own own cinematic ghetto – or, more accurately, a sterile cul-de-sac, scrubbed of swears and sexual activity.

Elsewhere, biblical stories are drained of any true theological resonance and recast as modern superhero epics, resulting in stuff such as Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings, Timur Bekmambetov's remake of Ben-Hur, Darren Aronofsky's Noah. Meanwhile, a conspicuously, devotedly religious movie such as Martin Scorsese's Silence flounders at the box office – apparently too challenging, and unwilling to preach to the converted, to draw in the major audience it deserves.

Yet, in the art houses and more challenging film-festival programs and even, from time to time, in the narrow margins of commercial filmmaking, there exists a more severe, serious strain of spiritual cinema, one unburdened by the strictures of dogma and unconcerned with the razzle-dazzle of plagues of frogs, runaway chariots, biblical flood preparation tips and what, exactly, heaven itself looks like.

It's a cinema of quietude; of slowness, stillness and devastating moments of subtle grace. It's the cinema of transcendence. And it's the subject of a two-day conference hosted in Toronto this weekend by the Institute for Christian Studies.

"We've been taught that all there is is what appears to us," says John Caruana, a professor of philosophy at Ryerson and co-organizer of the Cinema and Transcendence conference, to be held at the TIFF Lightbox. "Science and this technological world that we live in has inculcated this sense in us. On an existential level, some of us – including those of us who don't identify with religion – would say that there is something else. We do yearn. We do desire something more."

This ineffable something more has obsessed countless filmmakers: from Carl Theodor Dreyer to Robert Bresson, Scorsese, Lars von Trier, Bruno Dumont and Terrence Malick. But to grapple with this idea of transcendence in cinema, Caruana says, one must first understand the state of film scholarship in the early 1970s.

"There was hardly anyone talking about the relationship between cinema and religion," he explains. "In film studies, people were interested in politics, ideology, feminism, representations of gender. Religion and spirituality was really on no one's radar. Then, out of nowhere, this book was published by the University of California Press by this unknown scholar."

The scholar was Paul Schrader, who is better known as a screenwriter (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and filmmaker (Hardcore). The book was Transcendental Style in Film, and it drew a stylistic through-line connecting the worlds of three disparate filmmakers: Denmark's Dreyer, France's Bresson and Japan's Yasujiro Ozu.

"The insight I had was that spirituality in art is about style," Schrader says over the phone from New York, ahead of his appearance in Toronto for the ICS conference. "It's not about themes. It's a Tao. It's a way of getting yourself more in tune with the otherworldly, with the spiritual." For Schrader, what these films transcend are the particularities of their cultural context, along with the humdrum banality of the everyday, the world of appearances that Caruana describes. They accomplish this through a deployment of film style that, as Schrader writes his book's 1972 edition, "seeks to maximize the mystery of existence."

Published some 45 years ago, Schrader's book can't account for the development of transcendental cinema into the present moment. For instance, Schrader describes Soviet Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky as a "fulcrum" in the development of transcendental style. With his focus on duration, and what he called "sculpting in time," Tarkovsky is also seen as a progenitor of "slow cinema": a contemporary phenomenon in global art cinema practised by the likes of Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, and Carlos Reygadas, directors whose films are distinguished by long run times, protracted takes, and a general air of contemplation. "Some of them are parodies," Schrader harrumphs. "They become about the experience of watching them. The subject matter is the duration of the experience. How long will you sit there while a man crosses the screen, like in a Bela Tarr film?"

For Caruana, the transcendental style Schrader describes has begat a new mode of filmmaking, which he terms "postsecular cinema." These are films that confront the spiritual stirrings present in Dryer, Ozu, Bresson etc., but from a more contemporary vantage point. "Our modern secular world simply lacks a vocabulary to express these deep-seated yearnings," he says. "What intrigues me is that people with no particular religious background are also fascinated and interested in these kinds of questions."

This raises a curious question: Why does this mode of spiritual/transcendent filmmaking seem to attract filmmakers (and viewers) who otherwise have little use for religion, or God? Imagine a March in which you've ponied up 100-plus dollars for a bus pass, on the assumption the chilly weather will necessitate the frequent use of public transit. But then imagine that, just a week or so into this hypothetical March, the winter chill gives way to an early spring thaw, and you don't have much use for your public-transit pass. But, having paid so much for it, you decide to take the bus everywhere anyway. This is what religion is like for those who were raised on religion but fell out of the flock: a spiritual sunk cost.

Schrader uses a different analogy. For him, the human brain is like a computer, deeply encrypted with all manner of political, ideological and religious coding far too early in life. "Your computer gets programmed real early," he says. "Let's make it 12, for the sake of argument. After 12 years, all that software is loaded in. And you're going to be running that software for the rest of your life."

As Caruana notes, it's telling that many filmmakers associated with transcendental or postsecular cinema are lapsed, agnostic or out-and-out atheistic. Bresson identified as a "Christian atheist." Tarkovsky was deeply spiritual, although his more explicitly religious films were censored by the Soviet government. So he snuck spiritual themes into his sci-fi spectacles Solaris and Stalker.

Dreyer made several high-profile films with religious subject matter, yet seemingly remained ambivalent to organized faith. Dreyer's fellow Dane, von Trier, interviewed about his 1996 film, Breaking the Waves, claimed, a bit confusingly, "I'm Catholic, but I don't pray to Catholicism for Catholicism's sake." Malick's films seem influenced as much by U.S. transcendentalist philosophy as a distinctly Christian world view.

Schrader, too, has a conflicted relationship with religion. He was a raised Calvinist and was undertaking a preseminary education at Calvin College when he got turned on to cinema. "I was a product of the Christian school system," he says. "Then the sixties happened, and movies happened. I fell in love with the European cinema of the sixties and I walked away [from the church]. I kept trying to find some connection between the life I came from, and the life I now inhabited."

"What these filmmakers all share in common," Caruana says, "is that they've relinquished the idea of absolute certainty. … This kind of cinema invites us to reflect on the loss of confidence that many of us are experiencing under the supposed reign of reason and secularism. Secularism promised us that it would address and finally resolve all these burning questions that typically were dealt with within a religious framework. Yet, here we are in 2017 and these questions have not gone away." Look no further than von Trier's 2011's drama, Melancholia, for a model for this collapse of confidence and the waning of secularism. In that film, Kiefer Sutherland's astronomer dies by suicide when faced with the end of the world. His secular belief in authority of science wasn't enough to assuage his fear of death or obviate his cowardice.

Against a contemporary religious climate that seems to lure us toward extremes of belief – be it in news reports of Islamic fundamentalism, reactions from a hollow and conservative Christian right or the shrill barking of haughty, gratingly pompous "New Atheists" – postsecular cinema's resignation to not knowing is fortifying. Instead of being bullied into belief, religious or otherwise, the viewer is encouraged to meet these films on their own terms. For Schrader, this has always been the guiding force of the transcendental style. "Transcendental cinema is meditative cinema," he says. "It's trying to get you to go to that place, without forcing you. It leans away from you. Religious cinema leans in towards you and tries to grab you by the throat. A transcendental film leans away from and tries to get you to lean in toward it."

Religious blockbusters in the style of The Shack force the viewer into a closer relationship with the Christian God. By contrast, transcendental films, postsecular movies and even certain strains of slow cinema, offer the more ambivalent hope of that ineffable, unquantifiable something more that lurks out there beyond science, reason and religion itself.

In his 1986 manifesto, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky offers his own definition of the transcendent and of the potential of cinema itself. "Art," he writes, "must carry man's craving for the ideal, must be an expression of his reaching out towards it; that art must give man hope and faith. And the more hopeless the world in the artist's version, the more clearly perhaps must we see the ideal that stands in opposition – otherwise life becomes impossible!"

Today, thirsting postsecular viewers may find solace in cinema's promise of transcendence. In Bresson, hope is seeded in seemingly benign gestures such as one human hand touching another. In Dreyer, a close-up of a face racked with pain extends an offer an empathy. In Malick, the cosmological and quotidian are bound together. In such cases, to paraphrase Tarkovsky again, cinema becomes the symbolic extension of existence itself. Hope teems on the edges of everyday banality, and life itself begins to seem slightly more possible.

Transcendental Style: Spirituality in the Films of Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu runs April 8-25 at the TIFF Lightbox.

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