Interview

Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati on the current pandemic: between religion, society, and visual media

28. 5. 2020 | The current pandemic has everyone talking about the end of days, but despite being an ancient, mainly religious concept, most people’s idea of the apocalypse is heavily influenced by how it has been portrayed in film. Professor Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati researches the interplay between religion, society and visual media, and we talked to her to find out how the global society is thinking about the pandemic.
Prof. Dr. Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati
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(© Prof. Dr. Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati)


Prof. Dr. Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati


Prof. Pezzoli-Olgiati, your work focuses on religion in the contemporary world. What first brought you to this subject?


Prof. Pezzoli-Olgiati: I’m Swiss Italian and we learn foreign languages from very early on, like French and German and English, so I have always had a really deep interest in languages and cultures. When it came to the decision of what to study, I chose theology because you have languages, you have cultural knowledge, but you also have philosophy and history of culture. I was also really interested in the overlap between religion, culture and film because I was born in Locarno, which has a very important film festival. In that way I developed an early passion for film and visual media.



Have you noticed any trends in the way that people, governments and the media discuss the pandemic, perhaps in a way that uses religious imagery or symbolism?


I can give you some impressions. What does it mean when people speak about the apocalypse? You make a connection to a historical tradition that goes back to early Judaism and Christianity. So the end of the world and all this type of imagery is something we have inherited from antiquity. So is the idea of crisis; it’s also a religious term. If you consider the context of the New Testament, crisis is a phenomenon where people try to judge what’s good and what’s not. There’s also the idea, which is not true, that human beings are equal in front of the virus which is maybe less explicit but you could link it to religion, too, and ask anthropological questions like being all equal in front of a creator.



So do you see any parallels to our current situation from the depictions of the apocalypse, for example in film?


This is a very important question. We can reconstruct very precisely when the apocalypse went into cinema, it was in the 1920s. The particular film that used, for the first time, the Book of Revelation is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It had a huge, long-lasting influence on cinematic production all over the world. So all these spectacular depictions of the apocalypse we see on film is a result of an encounter between the history of religion and the history of cinema. The apocalypse is used in film, like in religious texts, to announce an end that leads to a new world. If you then look at this pandemic–we see media discourse such as, ‘we have to face this crisis, we have to look for a new world.’ In scientific jargon, we would say that we use the apocalypse as a way to activate a kind of cultural imaginary. We have to actively face this end and propose a new beginning. So I think apocalypse films are not just about entertainment, it’s not just about representing society or being critical–it’s also about giving ideas as to how we can interpret the world we are in.



One of the main concepts it makes one think about is the idea of the plague as a test or punishment from God. Do you feel as though that kind of rhetoric is being used?


It would be very interesting to research this topic. Because in the formal media, representatives like the Pope or representatives from Muslim communities avoid this kind of rhetoric. They do not say ‘we are guilty and God is sending us the plague.’ But there are, of course, groups who are arguing in this direction, and it would be very interesting to reconstruct who is arguing this way and why.



This leads on nicely to our next question which is, what are your thoughts about how religious leaders have communicated the pandemic to their communities, now that many places of worship have been closed as part of the lockdown policies?


First of all, the pandemic has hit in a time of year where many religious festivals take place. For instance, now we just had the Roman-Catholic and Protestant Easter, a week later the Christian Orthodox Easter and Ramadan has just begun. Representatives of these traditions use media to give an idea of continuity in celebrating the festivities and performing the rituals, which in fact is not possible because of all the gathering restrictions. It was very impressive to see the Pope, seemingly alone on St Peter’s Square, showing himself as a fragile human being and celebrating Good Friday alone. I would also mention Queen Elizabeth among the group of religious leaders; her Easter speech was very religious, emphasising harmony between religions and the importance of festivals and coming together. She’s another example of a leader that tries to cope with the crisis using the media.



The other important aspect is the question of funerals and how leaders have approached performing proper rituals facing all the death. My impression is that people are realizing how important rituals in fact are. In normal times, we perform funerals without thinking about the function of a funeral. We can’t do that anymore, and we begin to see that we need this kind of ritual to realize what it means that someone you love has died.



That’s a very good point. Do you think that this time will introduce breaks from traditional rituals that will stay post-pandemic, or will we try to hold tighter to the old ways?


Tradition is always about innovation. Let’s think of a tradition like Judaism. No tradition survives so many different languages, countries, cultures, times, without always adapting very quickly to innovation. It would be impossible. But it is presented as something that was always there, and that is exactly the challenge for the religious communities. The pandemic has, in a way, allowed a huge experiment. Rituals are rather performed at home by individuals and in this sense they become more active and creative. It is impossible to say how this will impact religious communities in the post-pandemic world. It will be very interesting to observe.



That’s a fascinating insight. Thank you very much for your thoughts and for speaking to us, Prof. Pezzoli-Olgiati, it’s been captivating.

  (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)
Questions were asked by Emilie Steinmark for AcademiaNet and Spektrum.de

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