We had been married only a month the first time I showed my wife Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s psycho-drama about a man so obsessed with a dead woman that he remakes another woman in the dead woman’s image. This was perhaps the wrong film to show my new bride. “That’s one of your favorite movies?” she asked as the movie ended. “That’s very disturbing.” I figured she was talking about the movie itself—which is disturbing—but she might also have been thinking of my esteem for it.

I had loved Vertigo since I first saw it at age 11. My parents, huge Hitchcock fans, showed it to me and my siblings one Sunday afternoon after church. Though I had watched it many times since then, I had never given much thought to why I liked it. Marriage has a way of prompting you to reconsider things you once took for granted.

Over the next two years, I continued watching Vertigo regularly. I read every bit of critical scholarship I could find. I used all my powers as a film scholar to better understand how it works. I appealed to my seminary training to plumb my own heart and fathom why it makes such an impression on me.

What I discovered about myself is complicated. But what I discovered about Vertigo I can state simply: Vertigo is a film about a man’s obsession with achieving his ideal and his willingness to take advantage of others to achieve it. It is also—thanks to its clever twist and Kim Novak’s pathos-filled performance—a film about how, in pursuing our ideals, we allow others to take advantage of us. Vertigo is about the horrors wrought by selfishness on the individual and the community. It is disturbing because it is so candid about how selfish we can be. It is disturbed by itself. I love the film in large part because I resonate with that sentiment.

Anxieties and Confessions

I imagine Josh Larsen would call Vertigo a prayer of confession. In his book, Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings (InterVarsity Press), the former film critic and co-host of the podcast Filmspotting briefly discusses a few Hitchcock films. He focuses primarily on Rebecca, Vertigo’s female-centered, crowd-pleasing cousin, but he also mentions Strangers on a Train and Psycho as examples of Hitchcock’s confessional impulse. As Larsen points out, “so many of Hitchcock’s films are driven by a palpable sense of guilt,” and so “a fair number involve a contorted sort of confession.”

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Hitchcock’s adeptness at filming guilt and his inclination toward confession come from his Catholic heritage. The “Master of Suspense” went to Catholic school and was a practicing Catholic his entire life. Yet he was hesitant to call himself a “Catholic artist,” much like the way many Christians are hesitant to call themselves “Christian artists” today. He didn’t make films about Catholicism or in the tradition of religious artists of the past, but his faith clearly shaped his storytelling.

Like Hitchcock’s creations, most of the films Larsen covers would appear ill-suited for the “Christian” label. Among the 120 movies he considers are The Dark Knight, Do the Right Thing, The Awful Truth, The Piano, Freaks, Bambi, and Unforgiven. Some may have had Christian filmmakers behind their cameras (Toy Story, The Tree of Life), but others (Amour, Requiem for a Dream, Tangerine, and Wes Anderson’s films) assuredly did not.

So why describe these movies as prayers? Larsen has two ideas in mind. First, he means something akin to what Francois Truffaut means when he calls Hitchcock an “artist of anxiety” in the introduction to his famous interview with the director, Hitchcock/Truffaut. Truffaut writes:

In light of their own doubts, these artists of anxiety can hardly be expected to show us how to live; their mission is simply to share with us the anxieties that haunt them. Consciously or not, this is their way of helping us to understand ourselves, which is, after all a fundamental purpose of any work of art.

Similarly, Larsen writes:

A fundamental assumption of this book is that prayer can be an unconscious act, one guided by the Holy Spirit as much as our own script (Rom. 8:26). We offer quiet, instinctive prayers every day—hopes, worries, and frustrations that never quite take the shape of spoken words or fit into religious routines. Yet those who would not claim Christian identity also make such deeply felt gestures. And we all direct these gestures at an assumed audience outside of ourselves.

Larsen references Romans 8:26 (“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”), but I’d extend his insight a few verses earlier. Movies pray in the same way that “the whole creation has been groaning” in anticipation of the resurrection of all things (v. 22). Our groaning is part of that cosmic chorus, says the next verse. Intrinsically, then, prayer is an unconscious utterance that is fundamental to the nature of created things. Seen in this light, movies express the groanings of their makers—their anxieties and preoccupations.

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When filmmakers are candid and vulnerable, they express familiar anxieties. For example, Vertigo and I share an anxiety about achieving our ideals, and we recognize that we are prone to selfishness. Hitchcock certainly seems to share that anxiety, though Truffaut’s “consciously or not” qualification suggests that Hitchcock might not recognize how Vertigo could help me better understand myself. That’s fine. It’s not an artist’s responsibility to show us how to live better, only to awaken us to that possibility. Truffaut calls this “a fundamental purpose of any work of art.” So when Larsen claims that movies are prayers, he means that movies are Truffaut’s kind of art, but not merely that. They are part of Romans 8’s cosmic chorus of anticipation.

Larsen’s analogy also refers, as his subtitle suggests, to the kinds of longings that films voice. For each movie he analyzes, he finds a matching category of Christian prayer—praise, yearning, lament, anger, confession, reconciliation, obedience, meditation and contemplation, and joy. He also orders his chapters on these types of prayers “to follow a creation-fall-redemption-restoration trajectory.” Since most books on Christian faith and cinema feel more like a collection of essays than a coherent argument, the structure he chooses is welcome.

Emotional Honesty

What kinds of movies does Larsen consider prayer? All movies or only some? He surveys all genres, from horror to historical drama, and he commends both family-friendly fare and films fit only for mature audiences. At one point, he lauds both The Silence of the Lambs and It’s a Wonderful Life on facing pages. In assessing what kinds of movies are potential wells of prayer, we need to look at the attitude of the films he chooses.

Larsen values sincerity in movies. He focuses on moments of unaffected emotional honesty. As a critic, he excels at taking a movie moment or a scene and identifying the details that give it emotional resonance. I read Larsen’s film criticism regularly, because he and I have different ways of seeing. He grasps details first and constructs meaning from them; I perceive a movie’s overall mood and look for details to support it. He helps me see movies differently and, therefore, better.

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Larsen also excels at communicating his experience to readers. His prose is brisk and evocative. I especially enjoyed his descriptions of Avatar, Rebel Without a Cause, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Top Hat. I felt like I could see these movies through his eyes, and I gained a new appreciation for his method.

With only two exceptions, Larsen’s book eschews overly didactic movies. He looks, instead, for “instinctive” moments and “gestures” as signs of prayer. Preachiness in movies often feels disingenuous or forced. Think of Eric Liddell’s speeches in Chariots of Fire, a movie Larsen mentions only to state that he won’t be covering it or anything similar. Liddell’s storyline rings moralistic in moments, not as a lie, but as a kind of insistence on how we ought to live.

Satire, another genre Larsen mostly avoids, is also didactic, albeit in an inverted sense—it attempts to show us how not to live. It requires the viewer to look past the details at the overall message of the movie. Satire is inherently disingenuous.

The only two satirical films Larsen includes in his book are Taxi Driver and Fight Club, and he classifies these movies as prayers of anger, emphasizing the leading characters’ antipathy for society. However, he doesn’t mention the loneliness that motivates their rage. Taxi Driver and Fight Club are sad films, and recognizing this is essential to understanding why certain people identify with the sadness they depict. If someone in your life loves one of these movies, they are likely more lonely than angry. To return to Vertigo, it bends toward satire as well. The film’s details suggest a disturbing perversion, but its barely buried heart laments loves lost because of selfishness.

Larsen is careful not to miscast particular filmmakers as deliberately setting out to create prayers. But by focusing on how films voice the deepest of human longings, he makes a compelling case that movies are prayer-like for their creators—and for audience members who resonate with what they see on the screen. And so he compels us to approach movies and our fellow filmgoers humbly, with an eye and an ear toward those longings. I’ll happily add my “Amen.”

Elijah Davidson is co-director of the Reel Spirituality initiative at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts. He is the author of How to Talk to a Movie: Movie-Watching as a Spiritual Exercise (Cascade).

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Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings
Release Date
June 13, 2017
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