Ten Spiritually/Theologically Significant Films of the Decade

Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay and I have just completed our list of ten spiritually/theologically significant films of the last decade.  Check it out after the jump and please share your suggestions as well.

Before we step boldly into the new decade and new year, let’s take a moment, along with every other pop culture critic and fan, to share our reflections on the “best of” the decade.  Unlike those others, this isn’t necessarily a “best of” list, but rather a highlight reel, so to speak, of ten films that we found spiritually or theologically significant.  This is, of course, perhaps more nebulous than any other “best of” list because spiritualities and theologies are so deeply personal and individual. Most importantly, like all good spiritualities and theologies, hopefully this list inspires conversation and reflection.

We’ve tried to include a range of favorites, from religious blockbusters to indie films, Academy Award winners to films that were largely ignored. Some of these films deserve a second look. Two films are documentaries and one is animated, which may reflect the greater significance of these forms of storytelling over the last decade. There is one French film (or, in the argot of the decade, “Freedom Film”). Notably absent are the massive blockbuster franchises that so many of us spent our movie money on during the last ten years. This is not so much because these films were lacking in spiritual significance. Far from it: many of them were quite spiritual. But perhaps we wish to call attention to quality rather than quantity (of budget, box office, or audience). And maybe in our studies of pop culture, we’ve seen enough books with titles like, “The Gospel According to HarryPotterStarWarsTolkeinTheMatrixTwilightSpidermanX-MenStarTrek.” Regardless of our choices to sum up this difficult and difficult-to-summarize decade, the title of a pioneering work in our field by John Wiley Nelson (Westminster Press, 1976) continues to resonate: Your God Is Alive and Well and Appearing in Popular Culture.

The Third Miracle (2000)

The Third Miracle should be known as “The Best Spiritual Film of the Last Decade You didn’t See.” It was only on 30 screens nationwide at the height of its six-month run and made $736,592–about enough to buy a house in the Bay Area.  It’s a shame, not the least of which because the film features three first-rate performances by known actors: Ed Harris, Anne Heche, and Armin Mueller-Stahl (of Shine (1996) and Angels and Demons (2009)) and the work of a talented but unsung director, Agnieszka Holland. Her most well known film is The Secret Garden (1993), and she’s also directed episodes of The Wire and Cold Case.

Holland is a practicing Catholic of Polish origin and Jewish descent, and the film bears all the marks of a spiritual biography. It’s framed by a miraculous event in the midst of the Allied bombing of German-occupied Croatia during World War II. As soldiers, priests, families, and townspeople run for their lives, a little girl clutches her statue of Mary like a doll, and prays quietly and confidently in the middle of the town square. Time stops.

The film skips forward to a contemporary priest, Father Frank Shore (Harris) who we find in a rescue mission in Chicago. Going through what seems like a persistent crisis of faith, he’s called in from his midlife meltdown by the Archbishop (played with hedonistic relish by Charles Haid, an acting and directing veteran of such hard-boiled TV shows as Hill Street Blues, Nip/Tuck, ER, and Breaking Bad). It seems there’s a statue of Mary in the Saint Stanislaus parish courtyard that appears to cry blood when it rains in November. The statue was a favorite of a laywoman named Helen O’Reagan who lived in the parish convent. There are rumors that healings have taken place after praying to her departed soul, and local believers and sufferers have come out to pray by the statue. Father Shore, who has a reputation as an investigator, or “postulator,” for American saints is cynical; he’ s bet his faith on pious Catholics with a loyal following before and lost badly, but he takes up the job because the archbishop tells him to.

He’s especially skeptical when he meets O’Reagan’s daughter, Roxane (Heche), whom the “saint” abandoned for convent life when Roxane was only 16. Heche and Harris expertly play two broken souls trapped in a tantalizing but futile flirtation. “Are you sure you’re a priest?” “Yeah, why.” “Cause I can tell you really like this.”  Shore soon comes up against a bishop named Werner, the “Devil’s Advocate” against O’Reagan’s canonization who fortunately is Austrian and therefore plays a ripping Church Nazi. Over the course of the ensuing hearing over whether or not a pious housewife on American soil could be a saint, all parties have their spiritual handicaps laid bare. Shore is an alcoholic and, with Harris in the role, exudes a natural sexual easiness not seen in a movie priest since Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944). The Chicago Archbishop runs his office like the political machine it probably is, where greasing the palms of local officials seems more important that mystical revelations. Bishop Werner is hobbled not only by what appears to be a war wound (a missing leg) but an icy distain for common believers and their down-and-out priests, like Shore. What hurts Werner the most, once Father Shore moves from investigator to advocate for O’Reagan, is that he appears to have some spiritual insight into this woman that the bishop doesn’t. Shore unearths a moment from the bishop’s past (hint: it has something to do with that little girl praying in Croatia), an act of God that the bishop thinks Shore is far too crass, too impious, to understand. How could this fallen priest and this common housfrau be the vessels for astounding and miraculous events?

What The Third Miracle does, in addition to providing an unvarnished character study of a fallen but still fighting servant of God, is question the morality of the miraculous. Is it right for God to grant miracles to some and not others in a universally suffering world? Part gumshoe movie, part mafia movie, and part courtroom drama, this film is spiritual noir. The standard detective movie unveiling of clues to the mystery of O’Reagan’s past and the two miracles that seem to have happened because of her faith (she needs three to be canonized) also serve as spiritual revelations in the life of Father Shore. Ultimately, it’s God that’s at the center of this mystery, and it’s God that’s on trial. It’s the kind of film we could stand to see more of in an era where made-for-TV “miracles” are doled out on Oprah and Extreme Makeover Home Edition as Prozac pablum to a frenzied and neurotic nation.

In a decade in which so much of what we thought we knew about the world was thrown out of whack, miracles seem both commonplace and tragically absent. Often, the “miracle” at hand was a situation when human decency, courage, and determination re-established themselves in the midst of historical momentum that threatened to tear civilization apart. For many of us Barack Obama’s election was one of those moments, not because the man was perfect, but because it showed America could still respond to its grander nature. The brief moment of unity in New York City and Washington after 9-11 was another historical miracle. (I’m referring to the sense of mutual care and spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood that reigned in these usually fractious places. The jingoistic rantings of a cowboy President were not divinely inspired.)

Spirited Away (2001)

For more than sixty years, Disney was the one name synonymous with feature length animation. Their hold on animation was so extensive that the state of the art often rose and fell with the company’s commitment to it. In my childhood, Disney released a few low-quality animated films (The Great Mouse Detective (1986), anyone?) and was known primarily for its theme parks and occasional re-releases of its classic animated feature films, which were brilliant on the big screen but culturally mildewed. In 1989, the studio’s hand-drawn animation experienced a resurgence with The Little Mermaid. But the formula had changed little from the golden era: a downtrodden but plucky hero with fairy tale roots, adorable (and highly marketable) sidekicks, a malevolent villain, a little song and a little dance and please leave your cash at the box office, thank you. Pixar films and Dreamworks shook things up in the mid-90’s, bringing to life fantastic new worlds through computer-animated features. But they too became formulaic–bright, flashy, colorful characters for the kids, and wink-wink ironic humor for the adults. Pixar and Dreamworks served an important function, however, in that they released animation from its Disney spell (although Pixar is now owned by Disney. Or is it? One can never tell these days). Whoever owned what, the ‘aughts were a period when animation came into its own, not just as a cartoon genre for kids, but as a technique for fantastic storytelling.

The ‘aughts saw the introduction of the Academy Award for feature-length animation, signaling the industry’s commitment to the technique. The award has mainly served as a means of funneling Oscars to Pixar, thus placing a veneer of Academy respectability on a megahit money factory. Several films that were more artistically satisfying that could not get past the Dreamworks/Pixar marketing juggernaut were The Triplets of Belleville (lost out in 2004 to Finding Nemo, the most profitable G-rated film of all time) Persepolis (which lost out in 2007 to a comparably excellent Ratatouille) and Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Waking Life (2000) two brilliant films which were not nominated thanks to Academy Award abortions Kung-Fu Panda (2008) and Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (2001). Despite the Academy’s preference for big bank over originality, several films of truly transcendent animated art were nominated, including the previously-mentioned Persepolis and Triplets. And 2005 was the can’t miss year when Wallace and Grommit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, and Hayao Miyazaki‘s Howl’s Moving Castle were the three nominees (Wallace and Grommit won). Besides Ratatouille, the outstanding winner of the animation category during the ‘aughts, and the most spiritual of the lot, was Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

There are other reviews that can tell you the plot of Spirited Away more competently than this reviewer. Suffice to say, a 10 year-old girl named Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase in the English-dubbed version) is lured along with her parents into what they think is an abandoned “theme park.” The parents soon become obsessed with eating strange food that has been set out in the booths of the park and turn into pigs. Chihiro meets a slightly older boy with magical powers named Haku (voiced by the talented Jason Marsden) who promises to help her and takes her to a traditional Japanese bathhouse on the grounds of the park. There she meets an evil megalocephalic witch named Yubaba (vividly voiced by Suzanne Pleshette) who steals her name and puts her to work. In the course of her work in the bathhouse, which has been set up for spirits to come and refresh themselves, she meets duck spirits and plant spirits, a hilariously large and bulbous radish spirit, a river spirit who must be freed from mud and pollution, the mysterious masked “No Face” and a walrus-mustached, octopus-armed man named Kamajii (the sublime David Ogden Stiers) who keeps the whole thing running by pulling levers, mixing herbal bath solutions, and keeping the boiler for the hot water stoked.

Exquisite detail is the hallmark of a Miyazaki film. The scenery around the bathhouse, both inside and out, is lush and colorful, from waves of grass and water to gardens of intoxicating flowers to floating clouds, involving hundreds of meticulously painted backdrops and cells. The viewer gets a strong sense of setting and place, which is at once familiar and magical. There are details that amuse and confuse: soot sprites that painstakingly carry one piece of coal at a time to hurl into the boiler; a giant baby turned into a mouse that is flown about by a long-suffering fly; three detached green heads that bounce about Yubaba’s quarters, making them perhaps the most useless henchmen in fairytale history; and a train that runs only one direction-away from the bathhouse-on tracks partially submerged by a vast sea.

The story feels like Grimm and Lewis Carroll, with a darkness that marks the best children’s literature and films. The romantic relationship between Chihiro and Haku is delicately handled, with an insightful understanding of a preteen girl’s erotic interest, which can attach itself to a kind older boy or to a handsome, wolf-like dragon.

The most beautiful scene may be where Chihiro, the mouse-baby and his fly companion, and the mysterious No Face take the train to see Yubaba’s kinder twin Zeniba. The quiet scene travels across a landscape typical of Miyazaki that favors rural landscapes, and reflects nostalgia for the simpler Japan that existed between military empire and economic superpower. As with much anime, there is reflection on the fearful and liminal space of adolescence or pre-adolescence, when, in a strongly Confucian culture, selfishness and fantasy must be given up for seriousness and communal responsibility. This beautiful ride through the spiritual landscape of Japan and late childhood does nothing to advance the story, but brings about a sense of the meditative–something American animation rarely has time for, as it jumps to the next eye-popping gag or song and dance number. (The English film was of course dubbed and released by Disney/Pixar, but the film is completely a creation of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli.)

Miyazaki seems to fear that something has been lost in the material success of modern-day secular Japan. The Shinto spiritual ethos of old Japan that animates this film seems to have the purpose of reminding as much as entertaining: “Look, the spirits are still alive if we just take the time to notice them.” Christianity has taught many of us Westerners to mistrust animistic religions as superstitious, idolatrous, or at the very least, theologically flimsy. Here we see an animated feature that has much to teach Westerners about the value of seeing the divine in the diverse “spirits” of everyday life. The loving and detailed craftsmanship of the film, and its meditative pace, serves as part of its spiritual message.

Spirited Away and the other films mentioned above were movies that were created and released as animated films. But perhaps the separate genres of the animated film and the special effects film now rest on a distinction without a difference. Both the Star Wars prequels and the Lord of the Rings series used such extensive computer animation, including in the construction of major characters, that calling these films “live action” seems a misnomer. The development, and often overuse of CGI (see: Lucas, George) means the ‘aughts have ushered in an era in which all limits to what can be created on screen have been erased. This has led to some spectacular vehicles, chase scenes, character designs, explosions, space travel, and battle scenes over the last ten years. But in all but a few cases, the viewer’s eye knows what is CGI and what exists in the material world. The spaceships in the original Star Wars trilogy were more concrete, and therefore felt more “real” because they were built by hand as models–a connection to the material world that was no longer deemed necessary in the prequels, to their detriment. A film classic like Ben Hur would no doubt be shot today using extensive CGI, perhaps leading to tighter action sequences and more spectacular crashes, boats, and backdrops, but would lose the almost documentary sense evoked by real horses, real chariots, and real spectators. (Will we ever again see a real “cast of thousands?”)

The handmade look of Wallace and Grommit, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) (the recent Wes Anderson film) and Miyazaki’s mostly drawn and painted masterpieces are all the more special because we know that hands have molded the clay, moved the models, and drawn every stray hair and waving blade of grass. As humans we resonate with art that bears evidence of the beautiful imperfection of human touch. Absent that–and there have been spectacular stories told in the last ten years using increasingly perfectible tools of cyberspace–the best animated/special effects films are the ones that keep the focus on story and character, where the special effects draw as little attention to themselves as possible, and where the film makers remember that for a film to resonate with humans, it must look like it was made by humans.

Le Fils (The Son) (2002)

In the recent musical, Nine (2009), Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, an Italian filmmaker experiencing an intense case of creative block.  In a press junket for his latest film, for which he has no script, a journalist asks him to discuss the plot of this film.  He cunningly responds, “To talk about your movie is to kill it.”  Of course he’s deflecting here, but there’s a truth to this statement that applies to a discussion of our next film, Le Fils (The Son) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.  Film critic Roger Ebert included this film in his list of the best of the decade, and  I want to quote his brief discussion of it at length:  “In a career filled with great films, “Le Fils” by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is stunning. It focuses intensely on two characters: Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), a Belgian carpenter, and Francis (Morgan Marinne), a young apprentice that a social worker wants to place with him. Olivier refuses. The moment they leave, Olivier scurries after them like a feral animal, spies on them through a door opening and leaps onto a metal cabinet to look through a high window. Then he says he will take the boy.  That’s all I choose to say. What connects them is revealed so carefully and deliberately that any hint would diminish the experience.”

While it seems like a cop-out, especially given the lengths with which we have engaged the other films on this list, this critique of Le Fils will remain brief so as not to spoil the viewing experience. The Dardenne’s style of filmmaking is the least technologically complex of the lot, yet they accomplish so much with so little. Stripping their films of any extraneous effects or music, we are more intensely focused on, and thereby invested in, Olivier and Francis.  In fact, we experience the perspective of the main character as the Dardennes keep their hand-held cameras positioned just over Olivier’s shoulder throughout much of the film. 

Le Fils embodies some of the same theological themes of another film on this list.  Suffice it to say that the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are at the forefront of this film and in more intimate ways, given the characters’ relationships, than in The Three Burials of Melquiades.  In fact, another Dardenne film of this decade, L’Enfant (2005), could have made the list, as it tackles oft-treated topics in freshly serious ways.  Le Fils and the rest of the Dardennes’ films are not only narratively inspiring but artistically as well…that is to say they are examples of what aspiring filmmakers can do with minimum resources.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

More than anything else, the ‘aughts could be seen as the decade of the documentary. The combination of affordable digital cameras and editing software gave the keys to the kingdom to a new generation of young filmmakers. Independent film festivals like Sundance and Tribeca flourished, as the studios lined up to buy fresh films and distribute them through their boutique indie distribution departments. The recession has now dried up funding for all but the scruffiest of indie filmmakers, as even the mighty Miramax has been gutted by Disney. It remains to be seen if the thriving indie film market of the 90’s and ‘aughts will survive. But for one, brief, shining moment, documentary makers had audiences lining up to pay first-run ticket prices to see films like Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Born Into Brothels (2004), March of the Penguins (2005), Why We Fight (2005), and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), not just at the art house, but at the Cineplex.

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 (2004) was the first weekend film leader ever for a documentary and earned an unheard-of 119 million dollars during its theater release alone. The most partisan of Moore’s agitprop gadfly acts, F-911 lanced an angry boil for the 50 percent of the country who were not comforted by George W. Bush’s post 9/11 cowboy act. Moore’s three other films of the decade, Bowling for Columbine (2002), Sicko (2007), and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) were arguably the more important films, as they challenged three of the most peculiar, unexamined, and destructive American institutions: private, unregulated citizen arsenals, a private, unregulated, non-universal healthcare system, and unregulated, unquestioned, unethical supercapitalism.

There were many documentaries about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Begun shortly after 9-11, these campaigns in the so-called War on Terror will not be completed by the end of the decade. Perhaps the best title for this state of events is the 2007 doc No End in Sight. But one of the best films about the current wars is most effective because it is not specifically about the current wars, and that’s the 2004 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.

Errol Morris’ off-screen grilling of the 87 year-old Defense Secretary under Kennedy and Johnson leads to riveting testimony, clipped together scrapbook-style with footage from McNamara’s tenure, and the wars (World War II and Vietnam) that he shaped (and shaped him). The minimalist score by Philip Glass adds to the sense of trudging, mechanistic destruction that characterized the 20th Century.

McNamara, who is blamed, along with Johnson, for escalating the war in Vietnam despite everyone’s misgivings (including their own) bears an uncanny resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld: the know-it-all press conferences, the feisty repartee, the “You fight with the army you have” arrogance, even the rimless glasses. McNamara, who studied philosophy at Berkeley, however, asks questions of morality that will never ghost the mind of Rumsfeld, as he sits in comfortable retirement, awaiting what he sees as his inevitable vindication by history.

McNamara is cagey and candid as he both claims responsibility and evades it–like someone repeatedly pulling a large, heavy coat over his shoulders only to let is slide to the ground. For every shocking admission, e.g. that in developing the strategy for the drastic firebombing of 68 Japanese cities prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gen. Curtis LeMay and McNamara both acknowledge that they probably committed war crimes, there is an exception: “But remember, I was part of a vast mechanism.”

Still, like Pilate in the gospels, he asks the best questions: “Was killing a hundred thousand people in Tokyo in one night moral if it helped us win the war?” “What makes it immoral if you win, but not immoral if you lose?” “How much evil is permissible to be done in the service of good?”

In his taped conversations with Kennedy and Johnson over Vietnam, the repeated theme going back to 1963 seems to be, “We’re in. Now how do we get out?” The answer always seems to be, especially after Johnson takes office, “escalation.” The same sad questions and unlearned answers of the last ten years crackle over both the Oval Office tapes and the footage of speeches and press conferences of the 1960’s. Private doubts are covered over with confident public speeches about “winning hearts and minds,” and creating “security” for the noble people of the nation we are trying to help–mainly by killing the noble people of the nation we are trying to help. As a smug Johnson says in a public speech, and Bush would one day paraphrase, “we have declared war on tyranny and aggression”–mostly by means of tyranny and aggression. “Rolling Thunder” and “Shock and Awe” blur together and expose themselves in the eyes of history for what they are: democracy at the barrel of a gun.

The chief insight from the film might be McNamara’s Lesson #1: “Empathize with your enemy.” Of course neither the hawks in the 60’s nor in the ‘aughts could stomach such a piece of advice. In their minds, our communist enemies in Vietnam were, like our Jihadist enemies, evil pure and simple. But McNamara points out that it was precisely this empathy when LeMay was screaming to take out Cuba during the Missile Crisis that saved us from nuclear destruction. McNamara points out that he did not learn until the 1990’s that U.S. intelligence during the Missile Crisis was wrong–the warheads were already in place and ready to launch at 90 million U.S. citizens if we invaded Cuba. Those who had dealt with the Soviets before realized if they could give Khrushchev an out, a chance to save face and say he saved Cuba, he would turn back. Empathy saved the day–and probably the species.

McNamara points out that the failure in Vietnam and by abstraction Iraq was a failure of empathy. They did not understand enough about the Vietnamese to realize that although the Americans were fighting a war against the spread of Communism, the Vietnamese were fighting a civil war. Compare this to the assumptions that our troops would be greeted in the streets of Baghdad as liberators, and one begins to despair that the lessons of history must be learned anew by every generation. As McNamara points out, “belief and seeing are both often wrong” (Lesson #7) because people in power see what they want to see, whether it’s a domino effect or stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

In a decade when traditional investigative journalism was deemed too unprofitable to pursue, documentary filmmakers filled an important niche in the functioning of our democracy. It may be that when history is written, Al Gore’s dorky power point, An Inconvenient Truth (2006) (combined with the national disgrace of Hurricane Katrina) will be seen as the turning point in addressing the problem of human-induced climate change, a shift that may save the planet.

In short, today’s documentary filmmakers are the modern-day prophets, naming the inconvenient truths our society would rather not face. Like the Hebrew prophets of the scriptures, when the pain being caused by a society’s coarseness and carelessness becomes too great to ignore, their voices rise up in anguish, accusation, and, sometimes, healing.

Dogville (2003)

Lars von Trier‘s films do nothing if not inspire impassioned responses, angry disapproval from his staunchest critics or lofty praise from his most ardent supporters.  Dogville is no exception. Though it broke with his Dogme 95 plan, which was a commitment to purify filmmaking by refusing expensive and spectacular special effects, postproduction modifications and other gimmicks, it does have a minimalist aspect that remains faithful to the spirit of his vision.

This is the sad tale of the township of Dogville, in the Rocky Mountains, and the seemingly good, honest folk that lived there.  The small town’s rhythm is disrupted when a young woman, Grace (Nicole Kidman), fleeing pursuing gangsters seeks refuge in Dogville.  At the town meeting the following day, Tom (Paul Bettany), the young man the helped Grace the night before, provides a quick summary of the events.  The town agrees to let Grace stay for two weeks, with stipulations however.  Soon the townspeople’s work turns into exploitation.

Dogville painfully reveals the hypocrisy and violence of religious fundamentalists who adhere to a works-righteousness that imprisons the spirit of God.  Yes it’s over-the-top, and perhaps unfair, but there are nuggets of truth to this tale that anyone who has lived in a small town will quickly recognize.  Where Le Fils exhibits a genuine minimalism, Dogville‘s is highly constructed. The floor plan set design and construction serve as a metaphor for the transparency of the town’s morality and hospitality. Distracting at first, they quickly fade into the background as Kidman’s performance and the townspeople’s menacing behavior move to the forefront.

Like the rest of the filmmakers on this list, other von Trier films of the decade have significant spiritual and theological implications, not the least of which are Manderlay (2005) and Antichrist (2009).

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

2005 will go down as the year when Hollywood blinked, when the singular visions of the two directors who best captured the restive mood of the nation, Michael Moore and Mel Gibson, found themselves outside the party that had toasted them so lavishly in the past. The most profitable documentary of all time, Fahrenheit 911, and the most influential religious film of the last 50 years, The Passion of the Christ, were summarily ignored at the Academy Awards. As wholly forgettable films like Million Dollar Baby and Ray took home the gold, the culture-war elephants in the room stamped quietly in the balcony.

The Passion is problematic in the vein of The Birth of a Nation (1915). Because it is so hopelessly flawed, its influences on culture are bound to be negative, and yet the film is so influential it can’t be ignored. Let us remember the Lenten season of 2004, when churches were buying out theaters and giving away free tickets on the way to making The Passion the most profitable movie of all time. And when young children who were not allowed to watch Sesame Street or go to public schools for fear of being secularized were being taken to see a bloody, frightening R-rated torture film.

The film presents Christ as a kind of he-man, whose primary contribution to the world seems to have been his ability to endure super-human amounts of pain brought about by increasingly exquisite devices of torture. Gibson makes a horrible artistic decision early on in the film, bashing in one of Jesus’ eyes and forcing Jim Caviezel to act a mostly mute part in a foreign language under pounds of makeup.

This is a classic horror genre technique called “the injury to the eye motif,” and the film owes as much to Hollywood horror as the Bible. The opening scene in Gethsemane is filled with foreboding, as we approach Jesus in a point-of-view shot in which the camera stalks the lead character. After turning Jesus over to the Chief Priests, Judas is haunted by demons that resemble the evil doll Chucky in the Child’s Play series. At one point, the film becomes a reenactment of The Birds (1963), as the non-believing criminal on the cross has his eye pecked out by a crow. By the end of the film, the Christ looks more like Pinhead from the Hellraiser series than a holy card vision.

Gibson’s staging of the story continues the questionable assumption of most Christians, that everything that happened to Jesus was foreordained as the events came to be written in the Gospels. There is no sense that the events unfold in the confusion of history, or that their significance theologically may not have been sorted out until years after the fact. Even the disciples and Jesus’ mother seem to take comfort in the Biblical inevitability of the events, posing carefully for the Pieta like a family lining up for the required snapshot at the Grand Canyon.

Is it anti-Semitic? Yes, but so are the later Gospels. What’s most offensive are the great pains to which Gibson goes to absolve the Romans. Standing side by side with the Pilate before the crowd as equals, Jesus is careful to tell the Curate that the one who turned him over has committed the greater sin than his actual executioners. (This is a biblical line, but Caviezel’s reading is everything here – he’s granting Pilate absolution). The Roman leadership is continually represented as being more compassionate than the Jewish rabble, despite their inability to control their soldiers’ bloodlust in torturing Christ. Here Gibson seems to suggest the Romans were decent, orderly sorts of people who would eventually build a nice Church.

Of course, Gibson claimed to be “just following the Gospels.” Much of the material in fact comes from other narrative traditions, mining the horrors of the visions of the German stigmatic nun Anna Catherine Emerich, with none of the moments of transcendence the mystic found in Christ’s suffering. The DVD continues this pious charade in being organized not according scenes, but according to the Stations of the Cross, each one denoted with a scriptural quotation, and with not just director and producer commentary, but theological commentary by several priests.

I’ve been admonished in my objections to the film by Catholic friends who remind me about the importance of suffering in Catholic theology. And, lest I allow my comfortable middle-class American perspective to once again silence the voices of the developing world, I’m told the film has a strong affinity for those who have suffered from poverty or torture at the hands of corrupt governments. And yet, Gibson is not proposing a work of liberation theology. This film, produced by this wealthy/flawed/addicted director, reveals a childish, stunted theology: namely, in order for the atoning sacrifice to “count,” Jesus had to suffer super-human feats of agony, more physical pain than anyone else in history.

I continue to believe that Jesus died so I wouldn’t have to see a film like this.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Muted in the popularity (or controversy) of other films released in 2005 like Brokeback Mountain, Crash, or Hustle and Flow, a simple western film showed audiences the difficulty and power of forgiveness. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada proved his worth both behind the camera and in front of it as well. The film received much critical acclaim, but as a contemporary film, its theological implications have yet to be explored. In his directorial debut, Jones uses the borderland of Texas and Mexico as a palette on which he paints a critique of the “American dream,” commentary on immigration, and an imaginative view of forgiveness and reconciliation so desperately needed in both these issues. By walking this imaginative path to forgiveness, this film shows, in one way, how we as a society may break the cycles of violence that enslave us.

The Three Burials tells the story of two friends, Pete Perkins (an American, played by Jones) and Melquiades Estrada (an illegal Mexican immigrant, played by Julio Cedillo), both of whom work on a cattle ranch in Texas. They form a fast friendship that culminates in Pete’s promise to Melquiades to bury him in Mexico if something ever happens to him. Unfortunately, their friendship is tragically broken when Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a rookie border patrolmen, accidentally shoots and kills Melquiades, forcing Pete to uphold his promise. Jones flashes back and forth between scenes around Melquiades’ death and scenes of his friendship with Pete for the first part of the film. The majority of the film, however, follows Pete’s journey back to Mexico to bury his best friend, a journey full of theological implications.

First, a note on the film’s socio-political commentary. Jones critiques the “American dream” through the vacuous Norton marriage, an incompetent legal system (symbolized by Sheriff Frank Belmont (Dwight Yokam)), and an unfaithful truck stop waitress who has affairs with both Pete and Sheriff Belmont. In terms of immigration, the film presents a porous border and is unwilling to locate itself in either Mexico or the United States, and indeed, the failures listed above serve as the strongest “American locators.” The film’s dual depiction of border patrol officers as either violent, vigilant, and unforgiving or apathetic and racist further comments on the immigration issue. Critics like Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Manohla Dargis, and Mick LaSalle all hint at the film’s stinging socio-political critique. Some critics even suggest at spiritual or religious themes in the film: for example, in his review of the film, Roger Ebert notes, “[…Pete] takes justice into his own hands. And not simple justice, which might involve killing the agent [Mike], but poetic justice, which elevates the movie into the realms of parable.” However, most critiques begin to crumble when they approach anything resembling the religious or spiritual.

The film offers its main theological contributions in Pete’s journey to Mexico to bury Melquiades. Pete does not make the journey alone, forcing Mike to come with him as part of his punishment. Rather than having Pete kill Mike in revenge or having him punished by the state, the film envisions a punishment for Mike that produces both forgiveness and redemption/reconciliation. Pete’s punishment is a specific response to the particular evil that Mike committed, rather than a generic, impersonal one. By placing The Three Burials in conversation with a contemporary theological text, Marjorie Suchocki’s The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology, we see theology’s ability to enrich our film-watching and also film’s ability to strengthen theological discourse. Suchocki’s understanding of the relatedness of humanity and her redefinitions of sin and forgiveness places this film in a new, refreshing light. Of sin, Suchocki’s writes: “Sin is the violence of rebellion against creation. Sin is unnecessary violence against any aspect of existence, whether through act or intent, whether consciously chosen or otherwise. Sin is the violation of creation, and therefore rebellion against creation’s well-being. Insofar as creation involves God as creator, sin also entails a violation against God” (16). In light of this definition, our perceptions of sin, victims, and violators in the film become simultaneously clearer and more complex. To be critical of Pete, his punishment of Mike is not without violence of its own; however, Mike brings much of this violence upon himself by trying to resist this proper form of punishment.

Of forgiveness, Suchocki adds: “To forgive is to will the well-being of victim and violator in the fullest possible knowledge of the nature of the violation. Forgiveness, then, is the exercise of transcendence through memory, empathy, and imagination; it is the hope of our humanity since it wields the power to break the cycles of violence. The event of forgiveness is a lifetime investment in naming ourselves and each other as we are and as we can be in the continuing evolution of humanity” (14). If Pete and Mike’s journey to Mexico seemed unique on its own, when placed in conversation with Suchocki’s definition of forgiveness, it becomes a journey of memory, empathy, and imagination. Pete “forces” Mike to empathize with Melquiades by having him sit at his table in his shack, to wear his clothes, and to drink from his cup as they depart for Mexico. This process of forgiveness is a memorable one (as is the film) with Melquiades’ rapidly-rotting corpse along for the ride. Finally, the journey to Mexico is an imaginative one because Pete’s punishment of Mike does not kill or demean him but ultimately brings him back to life and affirms Melquiades’ life in ways totally antithetical to a prison sentence or the electric chair. Thus, The Three Burials transcends a long line of revenge films into which it could have so easily fallen.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada calls into question the treatment of Mexican immigrants in the United States, the ideal of the American dream, and mindless forms of punishment often fueled by revenge. In doing so, the film presents a corrupt, broken world full of victims and violators often indistinguishable from one another. Yet it also holds out hope, presenting another way of being in the world, revealing a path to forgiveness that we can all walk with memory, empathy, and imagination.

Children of Men (2006)

Children of Men‘s apocalyptic dystopia is a hauntingly prophetic vision of what our world is in danger of becoming. A depiction of the near future, it proposes a world in which human reproduction has mysteriously stopped. The aftershocks of this biological mystery include a nuclear attack on New York City, terrorist attacks on the only bastion of civilization, Britain, and thousands of refugees or “fugees” from around the world being taken into the UK and detained in camps as the ultimate immigration problem. Legal suicide kits are advertized on television with the usual cheery/bleary pharmaceutical ad graphics, and a piece of graffiti on public transport says, “Last one out, turn out the lights.”

A group of leftists contacts Theo Faron (Clive Owen) to transport a precious piece of cargo that they have captured, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young woman, a fugee, who seems to have conceived a child. He must bring her into the heart of the fugee detainment camp in order to help her escape, with violent terrorist, state, and insurgent threats at every turn. The film becomes a fight for survival that resonates with the Nativity story and the flight to Egypt in the Bible, as Theo and Kee resist both the forces of the state and the leftist guerillas who want to claim this miracle of birth for their own political purposes.

Another compelling aspect of Children of Men is its notion of salvation that seeks peace but requires some form of violence to be achieved. There is a complexity here that mirrors much of our lived experience in the last decade, believing in the notion of peace, but recognizing that it is often a hard, violent road we take to get to it. There are echoes of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism, which has become so fashionable of late with Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations-acting individually or in concert-will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

Contrasting with this mid-20th Century theological perspective are themes of liberation theology. Echoing the Jesus narrative, humanity’s salvation comes from the margins of society, and is placed in the hands of a young mother with little societal support. A woman of no privilege is privileged by a God-given gift, and it is up to those with power (in this case, a white British man) to act in solidarity with her for the greater good of the world.

The film is one of a trio of excellent films from one of the decade’s best directors, Alfonso Cuaron, who also directed Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Cuaron joins Alejandro González Iñárritu [Amorres Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006)] and Guillermo del Toro [Hellboy (2004), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)], three Mexican directors that produced some of the decade’s most memorable and spiritually relevant films.

For the Bible Tells Me So (2007)

Few topics have, rightly or wrongly, defined American Christianity in the past decade like gay rights, gay ordination, and marriage equality. Unfortunately, it appears that these controversies are not fading away anytime soon.  Taking a cue from Philip Clayton and Tripp Fuller’s Transforming Christian Theology, perhaps we need to find a new way to talk about our differences of opinion. One could argue that film provides a wonderful conversation starter and an embodied means of communication. While Daniel Karslake’s documentary, For the Bible Tells Me So should not be seen as the last word on this discussion, it should be the first.

In this documentary, Karslake definitely has an agenda, to reveal the hypocrisy of conservative, evangelicals’ belief in Biblical inerrancy and the hatred for homosexuals that it fuels. However, he balances this agenda by focusing his film on five families who, at different points in their life, had decidedly opposite agendas. Karslake examines families who were all staunchly opposed to homosexuality quite simply because the Bible told them so. However, each family had this faith shaken by a child who announced his or her homosexuality.

Far from presenting monolithic responses in any direction, Karslake reveals a variety of reactions from a mother who rejected her daughter outright to parents that soon became champions for civil rights for gays and lesbians. Karslake draws from average American families from across the country with Richard Gephardt’s and Gene Robinson’s families being the notable celebrity exceptions.

Karslake loads his documentary with news and church footage of ministers condemning homosexuality as an abomination before God. He laces these clips with interviews with the families about their religious views on homosexuality before their children came out of the closet. He then interviews ministers and scholars who take a different scriptural interpretation. Here, Karslake turns on the celebrity status, at least as far as religious academics are concerned. The likes of Bishop Desmond Tutu, Peter Gomes, and Robinson offer their more liberating readings of Scripture.

Of course, the most disturbing portions of the film are scenes of verbal and physical abuse of gays and lesbians. These tirades are all fueled by the oppressors’ interpretation of Scripture. Citing six or seven verses of Scripture, they mount a crusade largely championed by Dr. James Dobson and politically purchased by the Republican party. However, it is hard to take these readings seriously when respected ministers and scholars so deftly, and occasionally humorously, refute them, citing the necessity of considering the social context of their creation.

The gay and lesbian “issue” just happens to be the paramount symptom of the argument surrounding Biblical inerrancy. If some readers are willing to outlaw homosexuality and make a constitutional amendment protecting marriage, in what form will they protect it? Will it be a marriage between a man and a piece of chattel property, the accepted view of women in Biblical times? Will it be between one man and multiple women, a common practice in those days? So, in the end, we are left with no true Biblical inerrantists, but rather a horde of readers who pick and choose Scriptural passages to suit their social location and to protect them from their worst, irrational fears.

No matter your response to the myriad questions that surround these discussions, For the Bible Tells Me So should be required viewing for all people of faith or no particular faith at all, because it humanizes what many people simply see as an “issue.” We Christians are portrayed in the film as the diverse, conflicted lot that we are. Of course, an open mind might make the viewing less frustrating…and that goes for more liberal audiences as well.

District 9 (2009)

This might be the one film that most readers would disagree with being on the list or at least wonder why in the world it is here. From a filmmaking standpoint, District 9 returned science fiction films to the low-budget arenas that they once occupied, eking out stunning visuals with relatively little resources while employing them to enhance the narrative and character development. From a spiritual or theological approach, it stands head and shoulders above its sci-fi peers, making it one of the best films of that genre of the decade.

District 9 takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, where 20 years ago an alien space ship arrived and hovered over the city. It did nothing…just floated there. Finally, a team of soldiers, scientists, and government officials infiltrated the spaceship to find hordes of malnourished aliens. In order to “help” them, they moved them to a shanty-town area of the city named District 9. There, the aliens reproduced but lived in ever-devolving situations scrounging for food in the trash, trading their weapons to Nigerian gangs for cat food, and even engaging in creature-to-creature prostitution. Fed up with the horrific conditions and situation, the people of Johannesburg demand that the aliens be moved further away from the city. Officials set up a refugee camp 200 km away and begin the process of forced evacuation/eviction. In this process, the director of the program Wikus Van De Merwe (first-time actor Sharlto Copley) is poisoned by an alien fluid which alters the entire process and his life.

Without knowing that the film only cost $30 million, one could easily assume that cost ten times that amount. This is an example of economic filmmaking the likes of which we haven’t seen since the earliest years of James Cameron‘s career (and look where he is now with Avatar, reportedly the most expensive film ever made). But not only is it economic filmmaking, it’s just damn brilliant too…a mix of documentary, surveillance, and hand-held footage that Neill Blomkamp (in his first feature film) combines in seamless fashion. Blomkamp, like the artists mentioned in our discussion of Spirited Away and animation, realizes the true nature of special effects to augment, not distract from, the story (special effects, what should have been the key ingredient in a film like Transformers:  Revenge of the Fallen (2009), actually ruined it). In the late nineties digital moviemaking started to proliferate, and the hope was that this would add a whole new layer of Verite to filmmaking. District 9 is the realization of that potential where the digital medium adds to the believability of the story, and the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred.

One might also be surprised that Sharlto Copley was a first time actor. Rarely, if ever, do Oscar nominations go to stars of sci-fi films, but here is a case in which it is certainly deserved. He plays a blundering office rat–a stuttering yes-man–who only gets promoted because he is married to his boss’ daughter. As he moves through District 9 serving up eviction notices, neither the aliens, nor his fellow officers really take him seriously. However, he is so deeply human and accessible throughout the entire film, which is no small feat for a first timer in a film like this.

At its heart, District 9 is a statement film about apartheid in South Africa, but not over-handedly so as the sci-fi action distracts, in a good way, from that story, keeping it from being too earnest. We are still left with a “message” or “messages,” which do abound. One of the things that is both frustrating and interesting is how the government and the Nigerian gangs were only interested in the aliens for their weaponry and technology. In a sense, they were military p(r)awns (pardon the wordplay). This, along with the notion that the creatures were in a sense “people” too and should have been treated as such, mirrors the real world scenarios in which powerful countries exploit immigrants and “third-world” populations for a host of reasons yet deny them basic human rights or services.

Two theological approaches emerge when watching this film.  The first involves David Chidester‘s definition of religion: “Discourses and practices that negotiate what it is to be a human person both in relation to the superhuman and in relation to whatever might be treated as subhuman.” (Chidester, interestingly enough, is a professor of religion at the University of Cape Town.) Could there be a better description of the religious nature of this film? The aliens are both superhuman and subhuman. They possess superior technology but as their leaders have died and only the worker drones survive, they trade their ray guns for cat food. They are sentient and are capable of speech, but mostly exist on a lower level of intelligence than humans. Their bodies are just as vulnerable to bullets and beatings as ours, but they can rip a human limb from limb if provoked. Along with the themes of dehumanization caused by the military-industrial complex and immigration policy, the film offers the challenge of relating a “human rights” framework to beings that are sentient but slightly less than human on a biological level. (The exception of course being the brilliant alien Christopher Johnson and his son.)

The second theological approach is that of liberation theology, which recognizes that the privileged cannot ultimately understand what it means to be oppressed, because they can always choose to leave the situation of oppression. We could live on the streets and experience life as a homeless person, but it wouldn’t be the same as a real homeless person, because our level of education and family support would give us the option of leaving and returning to my middle-class life. The most we can do is be in solidarity with the oppressed. This film troubles with that assumption as Wikus Van De Merwe finds himself having to identify ever more closely with the aliens. But the point remains that for Wikus, as for anyone who wishes to be transformed into a more compassionate being, losing our assumption of privilege is a slow and painful process, almost like a metamorphosis. There’s a certain genuineness in Wikus’ transformation because it doesn’t take place overnight. There are many parallels that we could draw with our own lives and actions that need change which cannot happen instantaneously. Yet hopefully we live our lives on a path towards that goal of being transformed.