The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Pentecost

"Crash," "Birdman," and "Three Colors" hint at an invisible interconnected reality made possible by the presence of the Spirit.
The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Pentecost

“The Liturgical Year in Cinema” is an ongoing series, a personal exploration of the thematic connections between the Christian calendar and films. Sunday, May 15, is the celebration of Pentecost, the commemoration of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Christian church.

“Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:7-12)

By my count, at least 17 different people groups were present for Pentecost, the miraculous birth of the church as the Holy Spirit showed up in wind and fire. Like a reverse Tower of Babel phenomenon, the racial and linguistic barriers were broken down and cultural rifts restored.

No one reading this article witnessed Pentecost—a day where strangers with little in common than their current location are suddenly connected by something beyond them. Indeed, as a layperson, the idea is often difficult for me to grasp. But from a film critic’s perspective, I’ve seen this spirit of Pentecost infused in recent acclaimed films. “Hyperlink cinema,” as coined by film critic Alissa Quart in 2005, features a multiplicity of characters through various narrative threads all coming together into an intertwined on-screen tapestry. The stories may initially appear separate or disjointed, but as the film progresses we begin to see the interconnected nature of the characters, united by some unseen force or shared event. Robert Altman could be considered the precursor to these films with Nashville or Short Cuts, followed by Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Nine Lives), Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel).

Hyperlink cinema offers a unique filmic Pentecost in its narrative structure—these movies hint at an invisible interconnected reality made possible by the presence of the Spirit. At the moment of Pentecost as recorded in the book of Acts, a huge crowd of Jews from all over the empire hear Peter preach the good news of Jesus, and the church is birthed. Suddenly, complete strangers and former enemies are drawn together as a united front, a miraculous movement transformed by the presence of the Spirit. Hyperlink films also suggest such a connection—we are closer to one another than we may imagine. All it takes is a life-transforming encounter, and everything could change.

More than 25 characters’ lives intersect in Paul Haggis’ Oscar-winning film Crash, a film which has gained notoriety over the past decade as arguably the worst Best Picture Winner. (Detractors point to its erroneous conclusions about racism or its lack of character development; personally, I find myself partial to Michael Peña’s father/daughter scenes.)

Putting aside my personal sympathies for Crash, the movie’s depiction of police officers and their relationship (or lack thereof) with the community speaks to issues which persist today. We continue to live with ongoing tensions between law enforcement and the black community, implicit racial assumptions, and the resulting violence from racial bias. In one controversial storyline, Matt Dillon portrays a racist Los Angeles police officer who gropes Thandie Newton’s character at a “traffic stop.” When he later finds himself pulling Newton out of her wrecked vehicle, he places his hands around her waist again, this time to pull her out of her burning car.

While Newton, Dillon, and the rest of Crash’s characters may not be fully fleshed out, we recognize them as constructs of real-life stories about racial divide. While Crash lacks nuance in its attempted evisceration of systemic racism, I admire the film’s brazen attempts at offering a modern-day glimpse into a post-Babel world, where language and racial barriers continue to keep us at a distance.

Iñárritu’s Birdman is another Best Picture-winning hyperlink film, where its weaving camera captures the characters’ personal struggles as they come together for Riggan Thompson’s theatrical comeback attempt. Every character in Birdman is attempting to gain recognition, to be seen and heard and valued in the hyper-competitive theater and art world. For all its emoting, pontificating, and formal conceits, it’s difficult to discern Birdman’s message. But like Crash, Birdman’s message lies in the form’s reflection of something deeper and intuitive: the invisible connectedness we feel in our globalized, tech-saturated world. These films serve as an obscured reflection of a spiritual connection and significance we each long for.

In both films, the camera hovers like the spirit over the waters, at times framing the scene from above in an overhead shot, a God-like point of view. The structure of hyperlink films offers us a perspective of the divine—we are made privy to the unseen connections that bind us, the grand metanarrative God is authoring in history. The Spirit feels present in these films as disparate and disjointed character arcs suddenly come together.

Although the films’ characters’ awareness of the Spirit is debatable and neither film seems overtly interested in religion or spirituality, both are ambitious attempts to communicate what the filmmakers believe are Really Important Things. They are ventures at restoring what was lost in Babel (the Genesis 11 story, not the Iñárritu film) without the need for bringing the spiritual or supernatural into the picture.

Ironically, in their exploration of connection, the films also acknowledge that something has been lost. They understand that despite our globalized society, the disconnections and barriers feel more present and suggest that through technology, media, and urbanization, we are paradoxically more connected and disconnected than ever before. “In L.A., nobody touches you,” Don Cheadle’s character muses in Crash. “We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” He’s referring to the metal and glass of cars and skyscrapers; we could add laptops and iPhone screens.

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, released from 1993–1994, may be one of the strongest filmic examples of the Pentecost spirit in the interwoven narratives of three films. While the films may not fall into the strictest definitions of hyperlink cinema, I believe their thematic connections of liberty, equality, and fraternity—the meaning behind the blue, white, and red of the French flag, respectively—serve as an invisible presence linking the films together. Blue centers on a woman grieving the loss of her husband, a composer who left his work unfinished. White is a dark comedy about a failed marriage and the husband’s elaborate journey towards retribution. Red tells the story about a young woman befriending a curmudgeonly judge, and her neighbor, a young man on his way to becoming a judge himself. “All three films are about people who have some sort of intuition or sensibility, who have gut feelings,” writes their Polish director Kieślowski, in Kieślowski on Kieślowski. “Very often everything that’s most important takes place behind the scenes, you don’t see it.… Either you feel it, or you don’t.”

Each film in Three Colors could stand as a separate stories—characters from one film only briefly share scenes in the other films—but collectively, the films become more alive through their interconnection. The protagonist in each film views a wizened woman struggling to push a bottle into a recycle container, a momentary pause in each narrative for reflection and awareness of surroundings. Only in the final moments of Three Colors: Red are we made privy to the connection between these three films as their worlds collide in a moment of swift transformation. I won’t spoil this moment, only to say that there is a before and after of the trilogy through the finale of Red, where all previous narratives are given new meaning and consequence.

If you are reading this article, and you are a person who has responded to the gospel of Jesus in faith, then you and I, dear reader, are closer than you might think. We are in our own hyperlink story. We are connected through the Holy Spirit, brought into a mystical union we call the Body of Christ. There is no “Six Degrees of Separation” in the kingdom of God—there’s only one degree, the link of Christ between us. One body. One Spirit. One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:5–6). And some day, perhaps at the end of time and the beginning of eternity, we may be able to see the Author of this hyperlink narrative face-to-face, and all of the connections and moments, the intertwining characters and brief coincidental encounters, the shared instances and missed opportunities—all will be revealed. Until then, we continue to live on this side of Pentecost, doing our best to walk in step with the Spirit, growing in awareness of the connections that bind us into one story.

Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, youth worker, and film critic living in Portland, Oregon. He is author of three books, including Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide. You can find Joel’s writings on film and spirituality at Follow Joel on Twitter.

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The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Pentecost