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Philosophy on film: Existential cinema

Written by Film

Cinema has long grappled with the nature of our existence, and whether we can extract any meaning from it.

There are pictures that look to religion for these answers, such as Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), or Tarkovsky’s masterwork, Andrei Rublev (1966), whilst others take less conventional routes and seek to ask questions, rather than find answers. The Truman Show (1999) is perhaps the greatest illustration of this. With so many thought-provoking and intriguing films that explore the meaning of life, choosing the ones which most effectively ponder this question was difficult, so I decided to choose three very distinct picture’s from all over the globe and released in different decades to not only offer different perspectives but also to understand the evolution of how these ideas have been tackled throughout film’s history. 

Frank Capra directed It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946, an age where the studio system of Hollywood was still dominant, and there were certain morals and ideals that were deemed eligible to be shown on the big screen. The film is about George Bailey, played by James Stewart (Vertigo), who has spent his life sacrificing his hopes and dreams for others and has now fallen on bad luck. He wishes he had never existed, but his Guardian Angel, Clarence, shows him what life would have been like for others if he hadn’t. It’s a Wonderful Life is a product of this era, yet the tale that Capra and Stewart weave is storytelling at its pinnacle. The narrative slowly unfolds to the climax of the final scene, where the viewer is hooked on every line of dialogue and the film’s wisdom is understood in full. The Angel Clarence proclaims: “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Capra is teaching us about the importance of decency and goodwill, whilst on a deeper level, the interconnectedness of the world we live in. The film is not only a cinematic delight in terms of direction and acting, but the viewer leaves the cinema looking at life through a different prism, and that’s no mean feat. 

Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) is the least accessible film on this list. Made in black and white with subtitles, the film tells the story of a Knight, Antonius Block, who returns home after the Crusades, to a ravaged, plague-stricken Sweden, where he is confronted by Death, who challenges him to a game of chess. All this should not deter one, however, as the film contains many of the most iconic images in cinema’s history, from the Dance Macabre to the aforementioned chess match on the beach. Bergman questions faith at every turn, and the absence of God torments Antonius Block. Roger Ebert writes that “Films are no longer concerned with the silence of God but with the chattering of men”, and this is The Seventh Seal’s strength. Whilst the world that Bergman depicts is bleak and void of hope, two characters, who bear a striking resemblance to Joseph and Mary, are depicted as the saviours of this emptiness, and offer a glimpse of hope in spite of all the struggle. The Seventh Seal is no easy watch, but once you have done, it’s remarkably difficult to shake off.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, takes the final spot on this list. A feat of ingenuity, technical precision, intellect, and cinematic mastery, Kubrick traverses from the dawn of man to the dystopian future with such ease that one can only sit back and marvel at how it was created, and what it all means. The plot revolves around a black monolith, a supercomputer named H.A.L 9000, and the effects that both these have on the origins of humanity, and our future. The film is constantly asking questions about our existence, and the Universe’s. There aren’t many answers, but that’s not the point of this film, and nor should it be.

Last modified: 18th February 2020

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