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Five Spiritual Films

I’ve been thinking about movies again. I have to, really, since the spring Film Seminar at Gutenberg College is starting in a few weeks. Christians have often had an uneasy relationship with film. The Christian worldview is in short supply in many of the world’s movies. Most good films are not explicitly Christian, and most explicitly Christian films are not good.

Occasionally, however, I find a film that resonates with me deeply, that speaks–however obliquely–to the spiritual issues we face as human beings before God. The following list contains several of those films. This list is very personal; I don’t for a minute claim that these are the only or the greatest spiritual films ever made. I could propose many more. And I don’t see them as any substitute for the more specific truths of the gospel. But for whatever reason, these films speak to me.

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

To tell the truth, any list of spiritual films would do well to start with all of Tarkovsky’s films. Tarkovsky saw his job as a filmmaker in this way: “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” All seven of his films reflect this conviction. Right now, however, the one that speaks to me the most is Stalker. Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, it is slow, artful, mystical, and demanding. It is not escapist fare. Instead, it speaks powerfully about the choices confronting the human soul.

Watching a few minutes of this collection of images from the film will give you a taste of its unique feel.

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A Man for all Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966)

Perhaps this movie about St. Thomas More is an obvious choice as a “spiritual” film. I don’t care; this movie has stuck with me since I first saw it at the age of 13. It is based on a play by Robert Bolt, who himself raised the question of why he chose More as his subject: “I am not a Catholic, nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian. So by what right do I appropriate a Christian saint to my purposes?” Bolt saw in More an existentialist hero, a man who would not choose against the values that defined his life. And although I do believe in the God that Bolt does not, I think he was exactly right.

This is a famous scene:

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Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009)

I have a taste for movies that are quiet, soft-spoken, and a little quirky, so I was probably bound to love the recent movie Get Low. (How can you beat a movie with Robert Duvall and Bill Murray?) What I was not prepared for was how it left me thinking about self-knowledge, confession, and grace long after the movie ended.

Here is the trailer:

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Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989)

Woody Allen is a confirmed atheist, and his personal life is no model for anyone. I don’t know of any popular filmmaker, however, that asks the right questions as often and in such an interesting way as he does. Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of his most thoughtful explorations of the problems of life without God.

In this scene, the main character (played by Martin Landau) has a vision:

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Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987)

I am the most Protestant and non-sacramentalist Christian imaginable; Babette’s Feast, however, makes a powerful artistic and emotional case for a sacramentalist mindset. Based on a story by Isak Dinesen (the heroine of Out of Africa), this is a beautiful and quietly moving film.

Here is the trailer (I like the fact that the trailer is in the original Danish; it gives the feel of the movie without telling you too much):

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