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Faith and Film: 8 Movies That Inspire the Spirit

In Career, Fun on March 11, 2014 at 7:57 pm

What film has affected your personal biography?

Movies use the art of cinematography, music and acting to create an emotional response within the viewer. Whether it’s the sacrifice an actor makes for the role (Christian Bale in The Machinist) or how the intricacies of a soundtrack reinforce the film’s symbolism, even movies that aren’t religious raise real spiritual questions and offer spiritual lessons.

Here are eight films with spiritual themes you can take to heart this Lent:

Les Misérables (mercy)

Jean Valjean is one of “the wretched ones” faced with suffering in a world set against the poorest class.  The movie begins with Valjean gaining his freedom after years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her child.  No one will hire him because or take him as a lodger because of his criminal record until a bishop invites him in as a guest.

During the night, Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware.  He is quickly detained and brought back to the bishop to face accusation.  Instead of accusing Valjean, however, the bishop gives him the rest of his silver and sends him away with a blessing.

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The bishop’s compassion for the poor is an echo of Christ’s mercy. It’s as though an interior wall crumbles within Valjean in that moment, opening his heart to the idea of grace. From then on, he is transformed from a bitter, desperate man into one who tries to share the mercy he experienced with others.

The moment with the bishop opened him to the ability to be compassionate and show mercy toward those around him. Inspired by the bishop’s mercy, he repays the gift continually and is rewarded. That imagery is emphasized again at the end of the movie during his death scene.

Tree of Life (grand design)

Faced with the death of their son at the beginning of the film, a couple despairs and asks “Why?”  Tree of Life answers the question with another:

“Where were you when I founded the earth, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

Tree of Life shows the glory and beauties of the world against the hardships and brutality. It shows the world from a macroscopic lens of grand design. The characters themselves are expressions of Nature and Grace, elements that create balance in the universe. Nature is violent and coarse, the tough side of the world, while Grace is love, forgiveness and a gentle nature.

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The tree of life symbolizes the connected nature of the universe. From the stars to blades of grass, everything is interwoven. The crash of Nature and Grace throughout the universe is part of a grand symphony being played throughout time. Tree of Life makes the viewer feel like a tiny yet important piece of that symphony.

You can’t understand what suffering is about in the moment, but can you accept it as part of the state of the universe? (For a much more eloquent discussion, watch Fr. Robert Barron’s comments on the film).

Lord of the Rings (divine intervention)

The Shire seems like an idyllic place to live, but despite its remoteness it falls under the shadow of darkness spreading across Middle Earth.

The Lord of the Rings begins with an intercession from Gandalf the Gray, the avatar of grace throughout the series.  Tolkien wrote the wizards (the Istari) as servants of the Valar – immortal spirits that helped give the world its form. They are semi-angelic beings sent to aid the people of Middle Earth through wisdom and teaching. 

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Among the Istari, Gandalf stands out as a guardian angel. Not only a wise mentor but a spiritual guardian, Gandalf bolsters the courage of the warriors of Minas Tirith before aiding them in the fight against Sauron’s evil.  It is his meddling that sets the paralyzed people of Middle Earth into motion against Sauron and the fallen Saruman.  His presence alone is enough to make people want to be better, which kinda makes him Superman if you think about it.  Cool!

Gravity (trauma)

Trauma is by nature emotionally damaging, so there’s no way for a person to “snap out of it.”  Still, the way people handle trauma makes a difference in how it affects them. Pain can control you if you let it, make you disjointed and scattered – too frozen to act. Stranded in space with failing equipment and dwindling time, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) reveals to fellow astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) that her daughter died; after the trauma, Stone shut down in the face of her grief.  

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Later in the movie, Stone once again surrenders to her trauma and resigns herself to dying in space. While she is suffocating, Kowalksi encourages her to fight through the hopelessness and walks her through the steps that will carry her through the ordeal.

Trauma can be the birth of grace, a place where faith speaks quietly that the pain can be overcome. When negotiating trauma from a point of faith, you can discover within yourself a way toward a solution and a way to begin working through the pain.  It’s not immediate – it never will be – but it provides solace and hope through the darkness.

District 9 (compassion)

Wikus van de Merwe is in charge of evicting insectoid aliens from a ghetto in order to move them to a newer, “better” internment camp. Shot documentary-style, District 9 shows the appalling conditions the aliens are forced to live in and the indifference of men.

It’s a film about the cruelty of human condition caused by ignorance and pride. Wikus begins the film looking down on the “prawns” as he walks among them. He condescends to them, ridiculing them for the ways they’ve coped in their limited situation.

Wikus is literally transformed during the movie. The sickness has a humbling effect on him. Once he falls from his previous status, he begins to understand what the aliens are going through.

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Compassion means sympathetic pity and concern for a person struggling or in pain. It isn’t disdainful. Compassion comes from a point of humility because it implies caring and emotional understanding between two people, which is difficult to share if one is inflated by pride.  Only through being stripped of his pride does Wikus arrive at compassion for the suffering of others.  I think it’s a beautiful point to make.

Star Wars (sacrifice)

There is a grand scheme within Star Wars, a fight of good versus evil that goes beyond political drama.   The Rebel Alliance is a group of underdogs who understand the call to self-sacrifice in order to protect the galaxy and defeat the Empire.  Everyone in Red Squadron knew the impossible odds of taking down the Death Star, but they remained steadfast because the mission was that crucial.  Many X-Wing pilots (and Bothans) sacrificed their lives, and that sacrifice was not in vain.

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Early in the series, Obi Wan Kenobi is an analogy for saintly virtue while Darth Vader represents the corruption of evil.  During his fight with Darth Vader, Obi Wan Kenobi sacrifices his life. He didn’t have to die. If anything, he could have beaten Darth Vader. But he sacrificed his life because he understood that, through the transcendent power of the Force, life doesn’t end at physical death.

In the end, Luke Skywalker resisted the Emperor’s temptations of power. He, too, proved willing to sacrifice his life to remain committed to what he understood to be true: that redemption is possible for even those who seem lost the most.

Good does prevail over evil. Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

Forrest Gump (sincerity of heart)

forrest gump

Forrest Gump doesn’t question whether to act. If he thinks an act is the right thing to do, he carries it out without hesitation. He fulfills his promises and supports his friends. People see Forrest as weird, simple or just plain stupid because he understands the world without cynicism. The world isn’t an infuriatingly complicated place of bitterness and inequality.  It’s a place of promise. Forrest’s actions carry with them a sincerity of heart that inspires.

Through his life and pain, Forrest remains unchanged by the world around him. He experiences war, pain, grief and loss without letting it turn him against the world. Lieutenant Dan comes through the Vietnam War with devastating physical and emotional damage. Jenny survives childhood abuse with lasting emotional scars. While both Dan and Jenny initially resent Forrest for his optimism, his honest-natured good will is a beacon of light in the darkness of their lives.

The Breakfast Club (communion)

Let me summarize it for you: five high school students from different cliques meet in detention and learn they have a lot in common beneath the surface.

The Breakfast Club is a classic because it does a wonderful job demonstrating the harmful effects of stereotypes. Judging the way you anticipate a person will act or think undermines the ability to communicate with them on anything more than a superficial level. It confines that person’s personality to a box and pressures them to live up to your expectations. To break from the box is to risk being vulnerable.

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Stereotypes prevent communion – that is, the close friendships built on sincerity and genuine love for your fellow man that Christians aspire to. At first, the characters in The Breakfast Club are abrasive with one another, each jibing the others in order to protect themselves from being hurt. It is only after they open up and communicate their feelings and fears that they recognize the potential for lasting, meaningful friendships exist.

“You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.” – Brian Johnson

Think of a movie that changed the way you thought about virtue, about friendships or your role in the world. Can you find one that stands out as meaningful? Does a movie strike you as beautiful or as a cause for awe?
Let me know in the comments below!
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