Cinema's power to represent animate life, and produce a profound impression of reality, warrants and supports its other fascinating capacity, namely, to fabricate frank yet appealing illusions. In certain instances, audiences may respond to the fantastic creations as if to a new reality. Cinematic realism thus raises questions about the nature of belief and reality that are of perennial, yet acutely contemporary, interest in film history. A genre of the spiritual film—distinct from religious films that rely on traditional sources of religious authority—explores these questions of being and the limits of the knowable. Recent film criticism has inadequately responded to this genre. Film studies has aligned itself in various ways behind Walter Benjamin's call for an iconoclasm that would sever art's connections with cultic traditions and contribute to social progress. The consequent suppression, or translation to secular terms, of films' spiritual aspirations comes at great cost. Complex works that address spiritual topics in form and content, such as Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996), are treated as evidence by a self-affirming and secularizing critical method. In neglecting the central concerns of such films, critics are complicit with the worst features of modernity. A criticism that evades an open engagement with the limits of the knowable becomes instrumental; a criticism geared exclusively toward demystification ultimately produces reification. A more proper analytic response is to attend to the ways in which such films produce experiences, and call for responses, at the edge of the knowable. Such an approach begins with abandoning methodological certainty; the spiritual film demands an alignment of perception that cannot be contained by a predetermined goal. This aesthetic response may contribute to an open-ended ethical self-fashioning and may protect critical discourse from itself by preventing the standardization of cultural experience.

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