This review originally appeared in the Mennonite Brethren Herald.
Roy M. Anker’s book, like his earlier volume, Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies (2005), is anchored to a central argument: we are all pilgrims—“whether we know it or not.” Even in this post-Christian world, Anker argues, people struggle with deep, and deeply important, theological questions through narrative.
In Pilgrims and Fire (Eerdmans, 2010), Anker, professor of English literature at Calvin College, examines 20 diverse—and at times challenging—films “about pilgrims looking for Light.”
While it’s possible to quibble with some of Anker’s individual film choices (did he really need a chapter on The Godfather III, unarguably the weakest film in Coppola’s trilogy?), the real strength of this volume is that Anker ignores many of the films that have become commonplace in studies of this sort. There are no heavy-handed readings about Christology in The Matrix or Star Wars. Rather than the safe and saccharine, Anker turns to films like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors to examine issues of human conscience and guilt. And though Anker includes family-friendly films like E.T. and Superman, his treatment of those films is never superficial or didactic.
The main weakness in Of Pilgrims and Fire, however, lies in the tension between the quality of the films and Anker’s analyses of those films, and the format of the book. Anker has chosen to dedicate a chapter to each film, and includes “Things to Look For” and “Post-viewing Questions.” As engaging and insightful as the content is, the format is closer to the intellectually light, Bible-study-in-a-box books typically found on this subject of faith and movies. It might seem like a small point, but it is, I think, important as it works to undermine the credit Anker gives his readers and hurts this very engaging book.
Anker encourages his readers to consider more demanding films, but his approach is somewhat controlling. Someone up to consider viewing a theologically charged film like Babette’s Feast might not need (or want) so much direction.
Michael W. Boyce is an Assistant Professor and Chair of the English and Film Studies Program at Booth University College in Winnpeg. He has taught film and literature courses at Booth, Providence College and the University of Manitoba. His book, The Lasting Influence of the War on PostWar British Film is forthcoming (2011) from Palgrave MacMillan. He has written and presented papers on Katherine Philips, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Alec Guinness. In his spare time, Michael enjoys reading and watching theatre, films and TV on DVD with his wife, Rachel.