Post-secular cinematic parables : theology, philosophy, and ethics in the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

  • Joel Mayward

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis integrates theology, philosophy, and film studies in a theological analysis of the filmography of Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. I propose that the Dardenne brothers create post-secular cinematic parables which may evoke theological and ethical responses in audiences' imaginations through a distinct filmmaking style I call "transcendent realism." In Part I, I outline a method for theological interpretations of cinema. Chapter 1 draws from the fields of theology, philosophy, and film theory in order to propose a dynamic interdisciplinary approach for greater appreciation of the Dardennes' "post-secular" cinema. Chapter 2 presents an original phenomenological hermeneutic for cinema based on philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s description of "parable" and his concepts regarding the world behind, of, and in front of the film. I then apply this Ricoeurian parabolic hermeneutic to the Dardennes' filmography in Part II. Chapter 3 attends to the world behind the films: the Dardennes' biography, their early films, and Luc's philosophical and theological ideas found in his writings. I give particular attention to the apparent influence of philosopher Ernst Bloch on the Dardennes. Chapter 4 addresses the world of the films through close formal analysis of ‘The Son’ (2002), ‘The Kid with a Bike’ (2011), and ‘Young Ahmed’ (2019); I outline the distinctive traits of the Dardennes' transcendent realism. Chapter 5 explores the world in front of the films—that is, how the Dardennes' parables may reorient audiences' imaginations through affective states and cinematic ethics. I demonstrate three Dardennean theo-ethical themes through pairings of the brothers' six remaining major films. In the conclusion, I suggest that the Dardennes' cinematic parables are doing theology, what I call "theocinematics."
Date of Award1 Jul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorGavin Richard Hopps (Supervisor)


  • Theology and film
  • Film-philosophy
  • Film theory
  • Film criticism
  • Theological aesthetics
  • Theological ethics
  • Film ethics
  • Parable studies
  • Post-secularism
  • Dardenne brothers
  • Paul Ricoeur
  • Ernst Bloch
  • André Bazin
  • Belgian cinema
  • Phenomenonology
  • Hermeneutics
  • Philosophical theology

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 7th June 2026

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