Cinema in the construction of European cultural identity

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Cinema in the construction of European cultural identity“. This is the title of the round table organised by the Blanquerna Observatory of Communication, Religion and Culture on Monday 17th November, which brought together numerous experts in Barcelona to discuss cinema and its role in the construction of Europe. The debate was part of the European Union’s RISECI programme.

The philologist and film expert Josep Maria Sucarrats declared that “young people are not the least bit interested in European cinema” and anchored this thesis in the moment of decentralisation that Europe is going through. For Sucarrats, “Europe has ceased to be the cultural centre (political, economic, religious, artistic) that has given the world a perception of humanity that matches the desire for infinity of every human being”. Europe is now a place of scepticism, a drifting peninsula, without a north and with an expiry date, and people are lost in an absurd autonomy. “But far from being a condemnation, this marginality, which places Europeans in the mystery of sin, pain, injustice, ignorance and the absence of God, is an opportunity to recover the great beauty that has been lost and longed for. For Sucarrats, the cinema is a privileged place to raise this question: “Cinema does not offer solutions, but it does offer X-rays of the state of contemporary man”. In other words, “when you go to the cinema, you buy an answer to existential emptiness”. The best example of this process described by Sucarrats is the film “The Great Beauty”, directed by Paolo Sorrenttino and awarded as the best European film of 2013. The Italian director shows a Europe on the verge of despair through protagonists who try to fill the existential void in which they live. “Cinema must fill us with hope”, although “a spiritualist cinema is not the solution for a Europe on the periphery”. According to Sucarrats, a good European cinema must be able to understand the peripheral situation in which the continent finds itself and confront the drama of contemporary man.

Juan Orellana, professor at the San Pablo-CEU University in Madrid, affirmed that two souls coexist in contemporary European cinema: one that somehow preserves a perspective born of the Greco-Latin and Judaeo-Christian tradition, and another that considers this tradition to have been liquidated and is based on nihilistic postmodern assumptions. In the first galaxy are the heirs of Italian neorealism, directors of great social concern and positive anthropology such as the Dardenne brothers, Aki Kaurismaki, Susanne Bier, Fernando León or Ken Loach. Michael Haneke, a filmmaker who wants to bear witness to the end of a civilisation, the end of a tradition, without there being another to replace it. For Orellana, “European cinema, in order not to be swallowed up by American cinema, must remain faithful to the human aspect: to reflect loneliness, research, the ultimate aspirations of man”, because “cinema can enlighten all our contemporaries”.

Magda Sellés, a lecturer in audiovisual communication at the Ramon Llull University, spoke on the subject of image and gender, stating that “there is no better medium than film to propose a debate on the construction and dissemination of national identity”. European roots can be discovered in the shared history of the territories that are part of the Union, roots that stem from the values of the Gospel and the desire for liberty, equality and fraternity of the French Revolution. In this sense, “cinema and films are a representation of the yearnings, desires and concerns of a society”. And, therefore, “no medium is more suitable than film to raise a debate on the construction and dissemination of national identity”.

Peio Sánchez, director of the film department of the Archbishopric of Barcelona, reflected on the presence of the spiritual question in European cinema: “while in North American cinema, the spiritual-religious, and specifically the Christian, is explicitly present in characters, stories and themes, in European cinema it is only shown implicitly”.

In this sense, Iván Bort, professor of film theory and history at CESAG in Palma de Mallorca, stated that “the debate on the construction of any identity necessarily arises from the fact that there is another in front of which we situate ourselves”. Bort exemplified this with an aesthetic vindication of the Nouvelle Vago of 1960, a current that wanted to respond to and distance itself from all its predecessors. In his opinion, “European cinema sustains its identity in contrast to American cinema”, so his proposal consists of “assimilating classic American cinema in order to build our own identity from it”.

In her speech, the journalist and philologist Ninfa Vatio stressed that “ethics and aesthetics go hand in hand” and alluded to the responsibility of films in the construction of collective thought: “the vision of cinema penetrates the collective conscience without the need to formulate it. Identity is present in films and they contribute to its construction”. In a review of the films that have received awards from the European Academy since 2009, Vatio highlights the image of “an old Europe that is bleeding to death, full of history”. Films such as Michael Haneke’s “Love” or Lars von Trier’s “Melancholy” “highlight the big questions and the need for a spiritual discourse in a broad sense, of values. We are facing the vertigo of the existential void.

Finally, the Secretary General of SIGNIS, Ricardo Yáñez, presented this non-governmental organisation with members in 140 countries around the world which, as a “worldwide Catholic association for communication”, brings together professionals in radio, television, cinema, video, media education, internet and new technologies. FIRMES participates in numerous film award juries. Last year, there were 40 competitions, 30 of them in Europe.