The Most Spiritually Literate Films of 1997
By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
The Top Ten / Ten More Recommended Films
Monday night, March 23, Hollywood honors its own at the annual Academy Awards presentation. The Oscars are given for the best performances and production values in the previous year's film releases. Our choices for the best of 1997 reveal our interest in "spiritually literate" movies--films that enable us to recognize the presence of Spirit in our experiences and in the world around us.
The films reviewed below speak to us about key practices that have long been affirmed by the world's religions: beauty, compassion, faith, love, mystery, transformation, wonder, and yearning. These practices, included in The Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy, are cherished ingredients of the spiritual life.
THE TOP TEN
Paradise Road (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) is a triumphant celebration of the human spirit in the face of suffering. Based on true incidents, this drama written and directed by Bruce Beresford recounts the experiences of a group of European, Australian, and American women who are captured by the Japanese during World War II after their ship is sunk while fleeing Singapore.
Ulee's Gold (Orion Home Video) shows us how the spiritual practice of compassion opens up one troubled man and puts him on the path of heart. For the first time, Ulee gets in touch with his feminine side, acknowledges the mystery of life, jettisons some of his rigid ideas, accepts help, and even begins to see his enemies as suffering souls similar to himself.
Welcome to Sarajevo (Miramax) is an ethically powerful film that explodes with outrage over the Serbian desolation of a city and the carnage of its innocent residents. It is also a film that softens the heart in the face of such terrible suffering, and lifts up compassion as the quivering of the heart in the presence of true pain.
Ponette (Arrow) is an astonishing film experience the kind of intimate drama that stops you in your tracks and leaves you marveling at the magnificence of the human soul. Writer and director Jacques Doillon has created a masterful study of childhood grief and the ways in which a sensitive and imaginative little girl tries to handle her deep feelings of loss. The film also reveals how important it is for adults to watch what they say and do in the presence of little ones because everything has significance to them. "Ponette" honors the resiliency and spirituality of children.
Amistad (DreamWorks) celebrates the holy grail of freedom and how the quest for justice is fueled by a yearning for home and the spirits of ancestors. Steven Spielberg's direction compellingly draws out all the moral nuances in this searing drama about the invidious evil of racism and the waywardness of politics tainted by greed and face-saving. Amistad presents a mesmerizing portrait of human dignity under fire and salutes the spiritual firepower of justice.
Titanic (Paramount) sets a love story against the backdrop of the most spectacular calamity of the twentieth century. Unlike other disaster stories, this one focuses all our attention on Rose and Jack although there are two other characters who win our allegiance an Irish-American woman, Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), and the architect of the ship, Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber). The finale is a special effects dazzler but those scenes pale in comparison to the dramatic and creative ways Cameron exalts the salvific power of love.
Contact (Warner Home Video) offers an inspired and inspiring close encounter with the ineffable mystery that lies at the heart of each individual and at the core of the majestic universe. Robert Zemeckis has fashioned a truly awesome movie that celebrates the spiritual practices of listening, wonder, love, and zeal. It affirms that there are times and places where reason must yield to mystery. Contact is also the only film of 1997 to present its audience with a mantra tailor-made for what ails our crazed and time-starved society: "Small moves."
Good Will Hunting (Miramax) probes the complicated themes of love, work, ambition, self-esteem, and failure. "You are destined to fly but that cocoon has to go," Nelle Morton once wrote about that important moment in our lives when we must risk change. In this salutary film, Will sheds his cocoon with the help of three true friends of his soul.
Le Huitieme Jour: The Eighth Day (PolyGram Video) is a buoyant spiritual film that celebrates the mysteries of friendship and the moments of wonder when we are graced with an appreciation for life's bounties.
Shall We Dance? (Miramax) shows how desire is a force field that takes us beyond ourselves and enables us to transform our lives. By letting himself go, Shohei (the main character of the film) is liberated from his middle-aged malaise. He learns to live in the moment, to trust his body, and to flow with the magic elan of dance. And best of all, Shohei enables Mai to see dance competition afresh with the enthusiasm of an amateur. This irresistible Japanese film celebrates the spiritual uplift of boundless desire.
TEN MORE RECOMMENDED FILMS
Although the following films did not make our Top 10 list, they all are highly recommended because they are about key practices of the spiritual life as defined in The Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy.
Gabbeh (New Yorker) is a magical and visually stunning film set in the countryside of Iran. This poetic and picturesque movie celebrates story as a life-shaping force.
The Full Monty (20th Century Fox Home Video) is a funny a nd fetching film about how some unemployed men in an English town find a way out of their helplessness and hopelessness.
Oscar and Lucinda (Fox Searchlight) revolves around two oddballs who are destined to meet and to fill each other with delight. The drama delineates what it means to be soul mates.
Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (Miramax) explores the unusual and platonic friendship between the Queen of the British Empire and her Scottish servant in the late nineteenth century.
Molom: A Legend of Mongolia (Norkat Company) is a spellbinding film set in Mongolia about an orphan boy who is adopted by a shaman and taken on a spirit-testing journey.
In the Company of Men (Columbia Tristar Home Video) is the scariest horror film of the year with its portrait of the dark side of corporate culture where gamesmanship, deceit, power, and ruthless competition turn individuals into soulless zombies. This riveting film encourages us to be alert to sin and evil in the world.
Seven Years in Tibet (Columbia Tristar) is about an egocentric Austrian mountain climber who turns into a gentler and more sensitive man after he becomes friends with the young Dalai Lama.
The Apostle (Universal) is a highly engaging drama about the fall and redemption of a Pentecostal preacher from Texas.
The Quiet Room (New Line Home Video) is a flawlessly acted Australian film about a seven-year-old girl's emotional response to the complicated small world she lives in.
John Grisham's The Rainmaker (Paramount) is an edifying drama about a rookie Memphis lawyer whose meat-and-potatoes case is a suit against a large insurance company that has refused to pay a policyholder's claim.