Expressing spirituality through the silver screenWAEGWAN, North Gyeongsang ― One of the first Korean movies Sebastian Rothler watched in a theater when he arrived in Korea as a Catholic missionary in 1966 was “Three Henpecked Generations” (Gongcheoga Samdae), a comedy about men who are busy trying to flatter their wives. But as he was watching it, he knew right away that the director was parodying a puppet government under the military regime.
To no one’s surprise, the movie closed down after a few weeks, the ostensible reason being that then-President Park Chung Hee thought a dirty train in the movie could prove a national embarrassment.
“The theater was packed with people,” says Mr. Rothler, 69. “I knew then that Koreans had a special sense for a good film.”
As a Catholic priest ordained in Germany and a media educator at Benedictine Media, a Catholic organization under the St. Benedictine Abbey in Waegwan, North Gyeongsang province, that distributes religious books and films from abroad, his position confronts the paradoxical ideals of Christian values and the interest of an industry that often exists to challenge societal mores.
His dilemma between those conflicting values resembles that faced by some of the characters in the films he has distributed to Korea within the last 20 years, like “Edith Stein,” about a Catholic nun whose life reflected the tension between Christians and Jews during the Holocaust.
A reporter from PBC, a Catholic broadcasting outlet and newspaper, who has written about Mr. Rothler, said, “He’s like Alfredo, the old man who runs the film projector at the Cinema Salvatore in the film ‘Cinema Paradiso,’” comparing the character in the Italian movie who does not give up his job after losing his eyesight, to Mr. Rothler, who uses a cane after being in a car accident in 1987.
Among church insiders, Mr. Rothler has a reputation for being persistent, as well as a natty dresser.
On a recent damp Thursday, Mr. Rothler bumped into a fellow Korean monk who was heading to a chapel for a midday prayer.
“Aren’t you hot,” he asked, frowning at Mr. Rothler, who was clad in a long gray jacket and a black beret. “You hopeless German gentleman.”
Since the early 1970s, Mr. Rothler has translated, dubbed and distributed over 60 films, including a collection of shorts by Charlie Chaplin, “A Man for All Seasons” and “Dekalog,” a Polish production by Krzysztof Kieslowski that focuses on the 10 Commandments and the first film officially released under the name of the Benedictine Audiovisual Center in 1993. The movies initially were mostly distributed to church attendees, but now the range is broader.
Mr. Rothler’s taste for European arthouse films was an unusual treat for church officials in Korea who had expected the center’s role as a distributor of mainstream religious films to reflect such movies as “The Ten Commandments” or “The Passion of the Christ.”
When he brought “Winter Light,” a film by Ingmar Bergman dealing with the pastor of a rural church who suffers from a crisis of faith, Mr. Rothler got a call from an angry pastor who was concerned about the film’s genuinely pessimistic tone about the presence of God. Months passed and the Korean pastor called back, saying he finally understood the meaning of the film.
Another film Mr. Rothler brought to Korea, “Ladybird, Ladybird” by Ken Loach, a famed leftist British filmmaker, based on the story of a single mother with four children by four different fathers, ran into complaints from the church about its views on family and sexual morality.
“Sisters from the church couldn’t seem to accept the woman’s relationship with the new lover she’s found after all,” he said. “Some films don’t talk about gospels directly. Yet they convey values. That’s also spirituality.”
“It’s easy to dismiss Father Sebastian as a peddler who hops from one church to another to sell videos,” says Jo Gwang-ho, a professor of religious art at Incheon Catholic University. “But he has a strong belief that good movies can move people’s hearts. He’s a man of God.”
Shortly after he was sent to Benedictine Media in 1973, Mr. Rothler traveled to towns where people had no access to theaters to hold special screenings. His roaming took him to college campuses and prisons. Nearly 4,000 people attended one of the screenings he held at a factory in Masan.
“Back then, I traveled around, carrying a large projector and speakers on my back,” he said. “The roads were rough, so I always ended up buying an extra bus ticket for my equipment to prevent my projector lamps from breaking on the road.”
His efforts have partly paid off, as the Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea recently gave him an award for bringing to the public films to promote Christian values.
His contribution to the Korean church, though, may be deeper than that, since he is probably one of the few Christian educators in Korea who brush aside “The Passion of the Christ,” a film that was a blockbuster in Korea, as an anti-gospel film.
The bloodshed in the film was supposedly aimed at emphasizing the brutality of Jesus’s persecution. But in the actual gospels, Mr. Rothler says, the scene in which Jesus was whipped was described in one short line.
“I didn’t go to see the film,” he said. “I heard about the film. That was enough.”
Much of his time and energy, instead, is focused on discovering films that delve into the plain use of visual metaphors, such as those by Andrei Tarkovsky, a Russian director whom Mr. Rothler could spend all night talking about, and Andrzej Wajda, a Polish director recently added to Mr. Rothler’s distribution list.
“Films by Tarkovsky are loaded with spirituality,” he said. “They delve into our conscious through incredible depth. They seem complete. I’ve watched most of his films more than 10 times, and I still find new things in them.”
So far, his organization (www.benedictmedia.co.kr) has distributed six of Tarkovsky’s films, including “Andrei Rubliov” and “The Genius, The Man, The Legend,” a film about the making of the director’s last film “Sacrifice.” Shortly after he was injured in the car accident in 1987, Mr. Rothler hurriedly hired a staff from his hospital bed to translate the director’s diary, which was eventually released in Korea with the title “Sealed Time.”
His mission is evidently carried in his Korean name, Im In-deok, which is made up of the Chinese characters meaning “endurance” and “goodness.” That says everything about his faith.
Benedictine Media has had financial difficulties, however, and Mr. Rothler said, “If the debts get bigger, we will have to give up the business eventually.”
by Park Soo-mee