William D. Romanowski. Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning (Baker Academic, 2019). 240 pages. Amazon link.
By Adam Sonstroem
Assistant Professor, Dept. of Communication Studies
Arizona Christian University
In the Preface, Romanowski calls his book a “primer for navigating the world of film” from a Christian perspective (p. ix) and considers it a sequel to his earlier book Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (2007), which brought faith and popular culture into conversation. Romanowski incorporates both a philosophical and practical approach to analyzing specific films. The dual purpose for the text is to give people a deeper appreciation of film by understanding the film’s meaning and perspective on life in addition to analyzing how the American film industry shapes our understanding of culture and portrays the world (p. x). The culture that Hollywood portrays on screen often reflects the dominant and accepted beliefs and values currently held by society.
Romanowski’s book then divides into two sections. The first section, comprised of chapters one through five, helps the reader understand the importance of film in constructing the American cultural narrative and how to critically analyze film from a Christian perspective. This section helps provide the reader with the tools to enhance the viewing experience. The second section, comprised of chapters six through nine, examines the American filmmaking style and investigates the topics of redemption, self-realization, action-adventure and gender roles in mainstream Hollywood cinema. This section provides practical application and encourages dialogue about particular films while connecting movies with real-life experiences of the viewers.
In the first section of his “primer,” Romanowski gives readers the tools necessary to evaluate films and integrate faith with film viewing. His primary argument is that faith provides a particular perspective or lens to view the films and understanding how faith informs a movie viewing can enhance the experience. Because we bring our experiences, beliefs, and expectations to any film we watch, Romanowski advocates tapping into those beliefs and confronting how we interact with a movie and what emotions are elicited through viewing the film.
In order to help viewers (and readers) understand what a faith-informed analysis of movies entails, Romanowski provides the framework of form and content. Content is often the most discussed—what happened in the film? What did it mean? How a film conveys its message is in its form. If a film makes you happy, how did it do it? Sad? Angry? Disturbed? What filmmaking techniques elicit these emotions? Romanowski argues that the form, including editing, framing and mise-en-scène (the organization of set pieces and actors in the shot) all influence how viewers see and interpret the story. While the story is often what draws the audience to the film, some films emphasize aesthetics (i.e., cinematography, sound, special effects, editing) over story, and identifying and appreciating these techniques help us better understand the film.
Film viewers with any ideological bent can analyze a film’s form and content from their own unique perspectives. Romanowski builds his ideas through a description of sacred and secular. Instead of separating things of the world and things of faith into sacred and secular realms, he develops a three-part framework to help guide Christians’ engagement with film and culture. This framework includes (1) a general appreciation for the arts, (2) an all-encompassing view of faith (faith is not a compartmentalized portion of our life), and (3) an understanding that all stories do not necessarily have to be “Christian” in order to be redemptive. This framework helps engage our faith while watching a wide array of films. It broadens our horizons from the traditional faith-based films that are easily embraced by most Christian denominations. What Romanowski proposes then, is to use film as a tool to broadly understand the human condition while personally understanding our own life and story. He also encourages viewers to engage with films, stories, and characters that may not reflect our personal background or beliefs in order to learn and empathize with the perspective of the other. These uniquely Christian ideas help push viewers towards a more distinct Christian perspective.
In the last three chapters of section one, Romanowski calls readers to reflect on any emotions evoked during the film-watching process. He describes direct emotions (how we feel in the moment watching a movie), sympathetic emotions (how we feel about a character) and meta-emotions (how we feel after we have had some time to process and reflect on the film). He then introduces the concepts of style and meaning in Chapter 5 to wrap-up the analysis section. Each filmmaker has a particular style they incorporate in their films. Identifying a filmmaker’s style, along with interpreting the form and content they produce, helps viewers craft the meaning they draw from the film. Romanowski contends that films do not have inherent meaning, but meaning develops through an interactive dialogue between form, content, style and the viewer’s “framework of expectations” (p. 70).
Most importantly, Romanowski develops a tripartite framework of layered meaning, describing explicit, implicit, and interpretive meaning. Explicit meaning is what the movie communicates directly to the viewers (story, plot summary), while implicit meaning examines the themes or messages the filmmaker wants to convey. Both filmmaker intent and viewer interpretation are important in developing a film’s meaning. Finally, interpretive meaning looks at how viewers interact with the film, and how they understand and personalize its meaning from their particular aesthetic, moral, cultural, ideological, and/or religious perspective (p. 76).
To dig deeper, he also addresses dominant, resistant and negotiated readings of a film text in Chapter 5. The dominant reading involves mainstream acceptance of the film’s meaning while the resistant reading challenges or rejects the mainstream interpretation based on personal experience. Finally, he proposes a negotiated reading that finds middle ground between accepting and rejecting a film’s message. The negotiated reading takes into account both filmmaker intent and personal response, not simply accepting or rejecting the film as a whole but questioning and accepting different parts of the film based on personal, real-life experiences and beliefs. It is in these negotiated readings of the film text that the dialogue about the film develops and personal interpretation takes precedence.
Getting back to our original question then, what is a “Christian perspective” on movies and meaning? According to Romanowski, a film is meant to entertain, but also prompt dialogue about life and experiences. Christians are called to love God and love others. Engaging with popular culture and the personal stories presented in movies helps us develop empathy for others and provides opportunities to better serve those around us. Stories help us make sense of the world and movies are the primary storytelling vehicle in today’s society.
To conclude the book, Romanowski applies the framework to different genres and messages presented in American cinema. Much of what he covers in these chapters parallels his discussion of melodrama, violence, and gender roles in Part Three of Eyes Wide Open (2007) but updates some examples. Most importantly, he highlights the growing trend of the empowered female hero in films such as Wonder Woman, Star Wars, and The Hunger Games trilogy. In this section, Romanowski explains in detail how the portrayals of American values and gender in film go a long way in shaping the cultural narrative and it is our responsibility as film viewers to understand what is being presented to us.
In his Epilogue, Romanowski returns to his initial offer to film goers of a more rewarding experience by creating awareness of how Hollywood crafts its message. Understanding story, characters, and themes helps us appreciate a movie better, but also understand ourselves and the world around us.
In short, Romanowski’s text is useful to film novices and die-hard film fans alike in processing what is viewed on screen. His work is easily readable and adeptly helps teach the ideas of film criticism and engaging faith while watching films. He relies on some similar material from Eyes Wide Open (2007) but provides necessary updated cultural trends that have occurred in the twelve years between the books. The films he analyzes also provide excellent application to the principles developed in the chapter. Romanowski’s deliberate choice to use accessible and well-known films helps the reader better understand the principles presented in each chapter. The text helps readers understand the interplay between filmmaker intent (form, content and style) and audience reception (personal beliefs and experiences) of a movie to develop personal meaning and enriches the movie-viewing experience.