History doesn’t resemble Hollywood films. However self-evident this statement may be, it still comes as at least a partial surprise to many who imagine that history, while not quite like the movies, is still pretty close to the dramatic depictions.

Just compare a 1960s film about the Roman Empire with a similar film made in recent years. Not exactly the same empire, is it? The clothes and sets may be similar (although there are important differences), but the collective mindset and individual psychology portrayed, the plot, and a whole host of details are different, because it’s not primarily the history that’s being portrayed, but the era in which the film was made.

Most films are primarily commercial, which means that they have to contain the necessary elements to sell as well as possible. Then they are heavily influenced by the agenda of the people working on them, or the current trends that can bring the film closer to the audience. And while good minutes of film are wasted on scenes necessary to achieve these goals, little is left for genuine and lasting qualities. In fact, film productions can tell our history beautifully, even engagingly, but at the same time they can feed into the shallowness with which we treat most big issues.

Most film characters today are predominantly cynical, because we are cynical. They often speak extremely vulgarly because the audience expects verbal and physical violence to give the impression of authenticity. And at the other end of the spectrum, while exaggerating the heroism of historical figures is the great temptation that few filmmakers resist, heroes become much less than they really were—you can’t strip a character of their weaknesses and, generally speaking, of the complexity of their character and the context of their time, without robbing them of what truly defines them.

Essentially, through a whole series of cultural stereotypes, characters are made to resemble contemporary social projections and icons and the major projections or lobbies of the moment, whether positive or negative. Homosexuality, for example, appears more and more in films, overrepresenting the phenomenon because that is the current agenda.

On the other hand, it is almost impossible to find an artistic depiction of historical Christianity that has anything good to offer these days. The dark chapters of Christian history occupy the whole stage. Believers of other ages are portrayed either as fanatics, superficial, ignorant or superstitious, or as undeclared atheists, or as opportunists and cunning profiteers pretending to be spiritual. It is as if there has never been anything authentic in Christianity, and nothing, with tiny exceptions, to lend credibility to the cynical reconstruction of Christian history. Where are the films that explore what the Western world has gained from Christianity? Or the films that portray the lives of the faithful philosophers and scholars of the past millennia, who weren’t believers simply because they hadn’t heard of Darwinism or modern science, wrongly associated with proving the irrelevance of faith?

Most film characters today are predominantly cynical, because we are cynical. They often speak extremely vulgarly because the audience expects verbal and physical violence to give the impression of authenticity.

But this editorial is not about films, it is about the superficiality of our understanding of the complexity of history or reality (films are just a case study). We don’t have the time, and almost no one encourages us to take the time to look deeper, to patiently and persistently gather the details that make up the true picture. Today, even the most respected media turn history or current affairs, at least in part, into a form of entertainment. Everything has to look appealing, to astound us in one way or another. Raw information is becoming a smaller and smaller part of media productions, because the primary interest is not to present a historically and statistically correct account of what happened in the past or what is happening now and in the world or locally.

When I try to put all these observations together, I end up feeling like I am in a world where the wigs and make-up of the 17th century European elites, with all their obvious self-importance and ridicule, have returned among us today—in a different form but with no different impetus or psychology to the phenomenon. In a way, this makes sense. A culture is limited to what its elites can grasp. And rarely in history have encyclopaedic figures successfully set the tone for the quest for complexity as a goal for a larger number of people in a generation, and this century is no exception.

The apparent complexity resulting from the development of technology and globalisation has rapidly disintegrated under the pressure of our need to create a culture in which we can easily and comfortably find ourselves, a synthetic one, a common denominator of the contemporary cultures present in our part of the world. This common denominator is characterised, at least in part, by cynicism, scepticism, individualism and relativism—and a dose of spectacle and superficiality that is hard to accept and hard to admit.

Anyone who reads at least one good book a week will probably add that it has always been this way, that there have always been elites and masses, and the implicit consequences of this division on an age. Well, yes, but as we live in the century with the greatest access to information in history, wouldn’t it be nice if more people, not just the elites, knew the truth about ourselves?

Norel Iacob is editor-in-chief of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.

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