With the Oscars recently behind us, I continue to think about some of my favorite movies. Perhaps I find myself a bit like Binx Bolling, the main character of Walker Percy’s wonderful novel, The Moviegoer. Binx was trying to make sense of his changing world within an often conflicted and troubled personal life. With his past wounds, he found it difficult to connect to real people and real situations. As he tries engaging the real world, he finds books and movies more stirring and real than his own life. As he embarks on his vague search for meaning, he often gets lost. The lines between books, movies and reality become blurred, but real life keeps butting in. He is constantly forced to redefine who he is and his place in the world.
Unlike Binx, I don’t think I get lost in movies, but they certainly do help impact who I am and will be. I often discover a clearer and more hopeful vision of reality because of the better books and movies I encounter. I might come to understand myself and society better. I can even meet God. We all need to seek meaning in our lives at times, for life is hard and answers are not always black and white. Believe it or not, movies can help root us to a more sacred reality; one filled with possibilities. What makes a great film isn’t necessarily the awards received, the box office gross receipts, or other marks of popularity. A great film will challenge our biases and help build us up morally, ethically or even theologically while it entertains. Even when no clear answers are possible, our wrestling with issues raised by great films can encourage us as seekers and help guide us on our way. In my opinion, a truly great film has the power to touch our hearts, enrich our lives, and help transform our interaction with others and our world. Such films don’t separate us from the world as they tended to do with Binx. Instead, I argue a great film can help root us into a deeper, more sacred story; one which touches us all. Whether a secular film or explicitly religious, science fiction or biographical, such films can inspire us to seek out and cooperate with the breaking in of the kingdom of heaven into our ordinary world.
Thinking about such things, I decided to share a fistful of movies; five of my favorites. I am sharing older and perhaps less well know movies from a very long list. They might be hard to find, but they are available in the United States. The list isn’t in any order other than alphabetical, nor do I suggest they are the greatest of the great or perfect in any way. These movies only serve to exemplify my belief that movies can enrich one’s material and spiritual life. They have done so in mine. If you see them, I hope they enrich your life too.
1. Cold Fever (Á köldum klaka), 1995: This Icelandic movie follows a modern Japanese business man as he travels to Iceland to honor his deceased parents. His grandfather has asked him to forgo his Hawaiian vacation in order to perform a religious ritual at the site of his parent’s death. Unfortunately, the site is a remote spot within the Icelandic interior and the trip during winter. Along the way, he certainly experiences many misadventures within this curious foreign culture and harsh landscape, but he also finds himself; reconnecting with his parents, culture, and his faith along the way. Throughout, one encounters our modern struggle to find meaning, build and maintain relationships, and believe in something greater than oneself. It is a quirky but wonderful movie with incredibly haunting landscapes and a subtle but poignant spirituality. (Icelandic and Japanese with English subtitles, along with English sections.)
2. I accuse! (J’accuse!), 1939: Jean Diaz is a scientist who has witnessed unspeakable horrors during World War I. Haunted by the memories of his dead compatriots, Diaz becomes obsessed with using his talents to end war. He develops an invention that could do just that, but with war clouds forming, the government usurps his invention for its war machine. Made as World War II was about to begin, this sci-fi movie seems somewhat prophetic. As political leader defends the move towards war and the need for military buildup, Diaz makes a passionate plea that accuses those who have forgotten the dead and not learned from history. Rather than needing defensive tools and patriotism, Diaz shouts that what the world really needs is a heart. Although the special affects and script might seem dated in places, this movie continues to challenge us who live in a real world facing real threats. (English subtitles.)
3. The Mission, 1986: In the 1750 Treaty of Madrid, Spain ceded part of Jesuit Paraguay to Portugal. As a result, the indigenous mission communities of Guarani and Jesuits were oppressed and disbanded. Rather than be disposed of their land and enslaved, the Guarani War began. It is within this context that we encounter a group of missionaries headed by Father Gabriel. He loved and respected the Guarani, and the Guarani them. Together, they created the mission community of São Miguel das Missões. Soon after in a nearby city, a slaver, Rodrigo Mendoza, kills his brother in a fit of jealous rage. Unable to forgive himself, he is helped by Father Gabriel to truly discover what it means to be loved and to love. In the process, he powerfully experiences the forgiveness of his former enemies, the Guarani, and it helps transform his life. As the Treaty of Madrid goes into affect, the Jesuits wrestle with how to respond to protect the people they love. Father Gabriel along with some other Jesuits desires a peaceful resistance. Mendoza and still others take up arms to help defend the defenseless. As a former soldier and police officer, I am moved and challenged by this moral and ethical conflict. Who is right? At the end of the movie, I am not sure we will ever know. In a final exchange between a Catholic cardinal that approved of the transfer of lands and a Portuguese official, the official laments that what happened. He explains it and his responsibility away as “we must work in the world; the world is thus.” The cardinal powerfully replies with repentance and regret, “No, Senhor Hontar, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.” What more can each of us do to love our neighbors as ourselves in such a world? The music and scenery adds to the powerful affect of this film.
4. Pathfinder (Ofelas), 1987: Based upon an ancient Sami account, this Norwegian film proves an excellent adventure for young and old alike. An invading warlike people have killed Aigin’s family. He flees, is captured, and then agrees to lead them to another escaping clan if only they will let his village’s captured holy man live. They betray that promise, and now, Aigin is seemingly alone in trying to save his fellow Sami people. Through this trial, Aigin will discover his life’s sacred call and rediscover the value and purpose of community. I appreciate the indigenous faith shared along the way to include the Sami belief in the White Reindeer – reminiscent to me of the White Buffalo and faith of the Lakota, a people I deeply love and who have taught me much about holiness and community. (English subtitles.)
5. The Spitfire Grill, (1996): A young woman, Percy, is released from prison and moves to the small town of Gilead, Maine. The kind but gruff owner of the local café, The Spitfire Grill, gives the young woman a chance to restart her life despite disapproval and suspicions within the community. As the intricacies of the story unfold, lives are changed and renewed, especially as Percy is faced with making the ultimate sacrifice out of love for another. The film explores the themes of redemption, compassion, interdependence, and more. Funded by the Sacred Heart League, keep an eye out for their popular Sacred Heart statue on a dashboard (as in country music fame). Proceeds from the film helped construct a school run by the Congregation of the priests of the sacred Heart in Mississippi. Their cafeteria is named the Spitfire Grill. (I served with these priests and brothers at another one of their schools, St. Josephs Indian School in Chamberlain, SD.)
As I said, this list isn’t meant to be all inclusive. I also number Babette’s Feast (1987; set within a Danish Lutheran/pietist community, people rethink what it means to truly believe, live, and love in the world), A Bridge Too Far (1977; a movie meant to be about the futility of war, but it inspired me through the honor and courage displayed within an imperfect system and hellish war), Joyeux Noel (2005; about the informal peace on the World War I front lines on Christmas Eve 1914), Smoke Signals (1998; a modern reservation story about reconciliation and healing), of course Luther (2003; about Martin Luther and the Reformation), and many more among my list of great films. I encourage you to create your own list.
Whatever movies or books you choose, I hope you will try to seek out our God who – just as in life – is often hidden within. Through that search, may you also be gifted with a new vision; a clearer ethical, moral and theological vision for your life ahead. Such “moviegoing” just might help free us all from the struggles of our everyday life, while, unlike with Binx, empowering us to see beyond our limitations in order that we may embrace all of life more fully.
“What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” – Binx Bolling
Note: If you would like help in viewing your movies through a theological lens, I suggest you visit http://theofilm.wordpress.com (The blog is written and supported by students, faculty and staff of Union Presbyterian Seminary, of which I am an alumnus, from both their Richmond and Charlotte campuses. Its resources are both helpful and free.)
© 2011 The Rev. Louis Florio. All contents not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.