The Most Spiritually Literate Films of 1998
By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
This is the time of year when the various national boards, film critic societies, and newspaper, magazine, broadcast, and online film reviewers issue their Best of the Year selections. Every critic has his or her own particular preferences in films; some emphasize story and overall impact; others focus on performances or place in film history. Our choices for the best of 1998 reflect this website's interest in spiritual practices. We have chosen films that illustrate practices in the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy a set of spiritual attitudes and activities that are recognized in the world's religions as being signs of the active presence of Spirit in the world.
Movies can model the spiritual life. The Ten Most Spiritually Literate Films of 1998 provide examples of characters engaging in the spiritual practices of being present, compassion, imagination, kindness, love, meaning, questing, transformation, you, and zeal.
The Horse Whisperer (Buena Vista) is an exquisite screen adaptation of the bestselling 1995 novel by Nicholas Evans. A compelling story that opens its arms to us in a warm embrace, The Horse Whisperer reminds us of the pleasures we often forget and neglect in our hectic lives the beauty of tenderness, the eroticism of touch, the glory and mystery of animals, the joys of truly inhabiting a place, and the riches of savoring the present moment with serenity.
Central Station (Sony Pictures Classics) is an emotionally affecting Brazilian drama that depicts the slow opening of the protagonist's heart as she travels across Brazil. Roman Catholic writer Henri J. M. Nouwen once wrote, "The joy that compassion brings is one of the best kept secrets of humanity." This extraordinary film publishes that secret, and we receive it with tears and glad tidings.
The Mighty (Miramax) celebrates imagination as the firepower that enables two outsiders to transcend their disabilities, loneliness, and familial problems. The myth of the Knights of the Roundtable inspires them to become all they are meant to be. The Mighty delivers a fresh and fine depiction of friendship.
Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks) War is not an adventure. It is a nightmarish descent into Hell where human life is cheap and human dignity expendable. The incredible, painful, and dramatic opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, which lasts over 20 minutes, exposes the hellishness of war as no other film has done before. Steven Spielberg proves with Saving Private Ryan that he is the world's greatest director, a creative genius whose movies always stir the emotions as well as bringing all the senses to alert. This is the most important antiwar drama ever made.
Shakespeare in Love (Miramax) snap, crackle, and pops with mistaken identities, rowdy brawls, rule-breaking adventures, and comic reversals. The lively and literate screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard accent uates the link between love and boundless creativity. This engaging drama reveals that geniuses are able to use anything and everything to cobble together a masterpiece. Shakespeare in Love is a beautifully realized tribute to the rush of imagination as one of the great creative force fields in the universe.
Smoke Signals (Miramax) is the first commercial feature film written, directed, and acted by Native Americans, and it is one of the freshest and most emotionally appealing dramas of the year, revealing how ritual and friendship can be healing medicine for anyone caught up in grief.
Men with Guns (Sony Pictures Classics) reiterates a theme of several other films by John Sayles (Lone Star, City of Hope, Matewan) we must break down the walls that keep us isolated from others. The filmmaker challenges us to leave behind the cocoon of our cosseted lives, to cross borders into alien worlds, to stand in solidarity with the poor and the dispossessed, and to confront those meanings which hold the key to life and death.
Down in the Delta (Miramax) marks Maya Angelou's debut as a feature film director and her work is strong and convincing. The sturdy screenplay by Myron Goble depicts the subtle yet very realistic ways in which the protagonist's life is turned around and renewed through her exploration of family roots and the legacy of her ancestors. The film also celebrates the spiritual possibility of transformation and the truth that every family has a potential for resiliency and growth, no matter what the problems.
Pleasantville (New Line) uses comedy to deal with the value conflicts which continue to divide Americans. The film sides with free spirits and the spiritual practice of transformation, sending the message: don't trust or join any group, organization, or community that is frightened of change or that wants a monochrome world. Follow your bliss. Express your deepest and truest emotions. And never fail to celebrate the many-colored splendors of your true spirit!
Patch Adams (Universal) is an inspiring drama based on the book "Gesundheit: Good Health Is a Laughing Matter" by Hunter Doherty Adams with Maureen Mylander. It presents the true story of a Virginia medical student who breaks all the rules by daring to proclaim that the best medicine for patients is listening, love, compassion, laughter, and play. This exuberant and enthusiastic character, more than any other screen hero in 1998, demonstrates the spiritual practice of zeal being aroused by life.
TEN MORE RECOMMENDED FILMS
Although the following films did not make our Top Ten list, they are highly recommended because they, too, model practices of the spiritual life.
Mrs. Dalloway (First Look) is a deeply sensitive screen adaptation of Virginia Wolff's novel focusing on one day in the life of an emotionally cool upper class English woman. The film portrays the spiritual way in which despite social and psychological differences we are all connected.
Simon Birch (Buena Vista) is true to the spirit of John Irving's beloved novel ("A Prayer for Owen Meany") about a pint-sized curmudgeon who believes he has been put on earth as "God's instrument." The film offers a rare and wonderful testament to the ardor and resilience of faith.
Babe: Pig in the City (Universal) champions the cause of some homeless animals. Once again the little pig comes across as a great moral exemplar of kindness. He always sees the good in others. He is generous and self-sacrificing. You just gotta love him.
The Big One (Miramax) is a feisty and clever documentary in which satirist Michael Moore ("Roger and Me") travels across America on a book tour for his bestselling "Downsize This." In different cities, he tries to get corporate executives to explain why they are laying off thousands of workers when their companies are making staggering profits. The rich are different, he proves, and right now they are very busy widening the gap between the haves and the h ave-nots with a vengeance.
The Eel (New Yorker) is a powerful and convincing Japanese drama about the beginning of a relationship between two souls who are trying to move beyond the wounds of the past. They water the precious seeds of love slowly, with respect.
Life Is Beautiful (Miramax) is an Italian film about a Jewish father who creates an elaborate game in order to keep his young son's mind off the harsh reality of suffering and death going on around them in a concentration camp. This comedy reveals how laughter can set the spirit free even in the most dire circumstances.
Passion in the Desert (Fine Line) is an exotic movie that stops you in your tracks and transports you to a strange and compelling realm somewhere between dream and reality. A soldier's encounter with the mysterious and dangerous world of a wild leopard challenges us to reverence the otherness of animals.
The Truman Show (Paramount) is tailor-made for our era of celebrity spectacles, theme parks, and the incursion of pop culture into all aspects of our lives. This quest drama speaks to the yearnings we all have to explore a wider world, to smash our self-imposed chains of fear, and to find the kind of love that makes our hearts turn somersaults.
Wide Awake (Miramax) is an enchanting film about a fifth grader at a Catholic school who decides to go on a quest to find God following the death of his beloved grandfather. This wonder-filled drama proves that questions can be powerful allies on a spiritual journey.
Clockwatchers (BMG Independents) is about the funny, poignant, scary, and outrageous things that happen in the work-a-day world. It boldly dares to go where so few American films ever venture into the everyday lives of women doing menial jobs. It is hard for them to hold on to any self-esteem when they are subjected to the insecurities of temp jobs and are treated like lowlifes in the office.