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  • Writer's pictureJack Salvadori

Believing in the Unbelievable

The room is dark. The only beacon on light comes from a tiny hole at the top, from which a beam crosses the gloom. The projected light hits a surface and brightens it, reflecting the shape of hundreds of faces staring at it, from below: men and women, old and young, rich and poor, different races and diverse social classes. And yet, all equally enchanted by the same light which kidnapped their gaze. Why do we go to the movies, and how is it possible that something has the power to simultaneously fascinate such a vast demographic? With a few ups and downs through the decades, the 127 years old medium outclassed its status of temporal phenomenon, affirming itself as a stable institution of modern age. This is not only because motion pictures learnt how to evolve, but mainly because films managed to keep their audience, providing us with something we yearn and need. In fact, people must believe in something, something that goes beyond the borders of rationality: cinema offers to fulfill our necessity of belief, replacing ancient faiths. As a modern day Prometheus, the Lumiere brothers donated the fire of knowledge, the “divine” light, to humanity, enabling progress and civilization. It is indeed appropriate to compare the amusement presented to us by cinema as a contemporary replacement for the eternal human pursuit for the unbelievable. But why does the human mind believe in the irrational? Or rather, why do we love to believe in it? Since the dawn of man, people believed in gods and religions, creating mythologies in the attempt to provide explanations: it is embedded in our nature. A philosophical doctrine called Doxastic Voluntarism advocates that mentally healthy human beings have voluntary control over their beliefs. Therefore, men would choose in what they want to believe in, regardless of its incredibility: in the past century, we chose cinema. We like to think that the primitive spectators ran away from the Paris café during the first film screening ever, as the train, approaching the station, was getting closer to the screen, because they could not distinguish a two-dimensional image just yet. But the belief somehow persisted, even after the audience realised it was a mere light projected on a wall: a different belief, not concerned about the technology and tricks required to recreate the illusion of movement, but rather in its emotional and imaginary potential. To what extent should we believe in cinema, then? We don’t believe in films, and yet we keep judging them on their realism: if something too peculiar happens – like a miraculous escape through a storm of bullets, or someone healing from a disease right before the epilogue, or even a simple love story between the two main characters – the movie is automatically criticised for being “too unrealistic”: we are looking for realism in an unreal, fictional world. True, today it would be a farce to see hundreds of people running away from a screening room: we don’t believe that what is projected on the screen is really happening in front of us, in our same location. But we still believe – or at least pretend to –in the veracity of the stories unfolding in front of us. We must abide to believe, if we want to get involved. It is a sneaky rule required to play this game, and we accept the compromise of lying to our rationality, switching off our mind, like a child paying attention to a fairy tale. And so, every day, someone enters in the dark room, a time machine to go back to his childhood; he loses his identity, he forgets about his sorrows, he escapes from his life, to merge in the darkness with the others and becoming a single, unified thing: an audience. All equally lit by the same, thin beam of light, all equally sharing the same desire to be able to believe once more.

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