Storytelling Through Images

Le Cinéclub Screening Silent Film in a Church to Introduce a Wider Audience to Classic Movies

Photo courtesy by Le Cinéclub.

The identities of churches have significantly changed over the course of several years. No longer do they simply represent places of worship, but they have been appropriated and recently transformed into homes, shopping centres and now temporary movie theatres.

Le Cinéclub: The Film Society will hold a fundraiser at the Westmount Park United Church, screening the 1923 silent horror film The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Funds amassed will allow the club to continue offering regular classic film screenings at Concordia.

“Firstly, to watch a movie in this context is fairly unusual and unique today. Adding to the experience are the fine acoustics and the fact that you can actually sit on a church bench with a popcorn in one hand and a beer in the other,” Philippe Spurrell, Le Cinéclub’s event producer, explained.

“Coincidentally, the average beer bottle fits snugly in the slot behind each bench where the Christian bible is meant to go!”

Founded in 1992, Le Cinéclub is an organization that welcomes cinephiles every second Sunday, allowing them to enjoy motion pictures dating from the 1890s to today. The group’s aim is to present the films in a communal context while projecting movies in their original film formats on large screens, for the sake of preserving tradition.

“The idea was to offer something more intimate and convivial rather screenings found in some multiplexes,” Spurrell said.

With Halloween around the corner, as markets and corner stores begin to display pumpkins and costumes, Le Cinéclub has decided to screen the movie starring legendary silent film actor Lon Chaney, Sr.

Originally a novel written by French writer Victor Hugo, it is the story of Quasimodo, the hunchback bell-ringer of the Gothic church Notre-Dame. Quasimodo must save the beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda, who is framed in a murder case.

“Every October, we screen a silent film that has a connection to horror cinema. Last October, we screened [1925 film] Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney, Sr. We decided to offer another large-scale epic involving the same lead actor with The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” said Spurrell.

With the church’s fine acoustics designed for a choir and organs, the organization decided to feature an orchestra that will accompany the film, filling the void of silence and helping to narrate it through sound.

“The architecture of the sets on the screen is mirrored by the architecture in the church venue. Your eyes are tempted to go from the screen to the surroundings to make it a near religious experience,” explained Spurrell.

Although silent films are not very popular among the younger generations, the genre has witnessed a resurgence within the mainstream audience with the 2011 Oscar-winning film The Artist directed by Michel Hazanavicius.

“The beauty of silent films is that they can appeal to a wide range of people and cultures with purely visual means. Chaplin knew this well, which is why he continued to make silent films several years after sound films became the norm,” Spurrell said.

“The Artist was successful because it felt fresh, it had heart and was simply a very well-made film.”

Watching a silent film entices the audience to shift their senses, making the images on screen—the gestures and expressions of actors—carry weight over words and narrate the storyline.

“You need to adjust yourself to the visual language of the silent-era film. It may at first appear like a simpler language, but you eventually realize that it has just as much emotional depth as modern films, if done well,” he said.

“Don’t be surprised if you see people looking emotionally drained by the closing credits of a film. The key is to base the film on solid written works and maintain the spirit of it,” he added.

Spurrell believes that it is a necessity in our digital age to experience older films displayed in their original formats and context to drive people away from their iPads, TV screens and smartphones in order to enjoy a genuine theatrical experience.

“As with many art forms, to develop an appreciation, people just need to open themselves up to the unusual or less-hyped. In the last two years, Le Cinéclub has noticed more of the curious becoming regulars. And that’s a good thing,” he said.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame // Oct. 3 and Oct. 4 // Westmount Park United Church (4695 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.) // 7:30 p.m. // $9 students, $13 regular