The Most Spiritually Literate Films of 2004
By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
The most spiritual scene in a 2004 movie comes toward the end of the foreign language film The Motorcycle Diaries. Ernesto, a young man who will become world famous as Che Guevara, is working as a doctor with lepers in South America. The hospital, laboratory, and living quarters of the staff are on one side of the Amazon river; the leper colony is on the other bank. On the last day of his service, Ernesto toasts the doctors and nurses who have been so kind to him. Then he swims across the Amazon river to say farewell to the lepers. This spontaneous act of solidarity with his outcast friends marks the transformation of Ernesto's heart.
Crossing over to the other side to stand with the poor and the downtrodden, the outcasts of society, the despised and the reprehensible, is a major spiritual challenge and practice of this century. The gap between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the diseased, the haves and the have nots, the fortunate and the unfortunate grows wider every day. And so it is truly a moment of grace when a movie shows us how to bridge the separations.
This year's most spiritually literate movies have other such moments. Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of a heroic African who finds a safe place for his family when the genocide begins in his country in 1994. Then at the urging of his wife, he expands his circle of compassion and saves his neighbors and even complete strangers. He shows us what it means to cross over in a time when our world is experiencing staggering violence and divisions.
Other films on our lists provide us with good empathy practice, encouraging us to put ourselves in the place of those we would not normally identify with. In The Woodsman, we are drawn into the struggle of a paroled child molester to reclaim his life. In Vera Drake, we follow a sincere and kindly English housewife who has for years been performing abortions; the law says she is a criminal but she thinks she is doing the right thing by responding to women in need. In The Sea Inside, we are asked to understand the anguish of a quadriplegic who wants to end his life; since Spain does not allow euthanasia, he must to turn to others for help. In Two Brothers, we find ourselves empathizing with two wild tigers; the civilized world looks quite different when seen through their eyes!
One definition of spirituality is the "art of making connections." Crossing over and empathy are two ways to practice. Another is creating and recognizing new ways of being a community. Several films this year show people improvising a new kind of family. In Finding Neverland, J. M. Barrie, the English playwright, is married but yearns for a larger family. He becomes friends with a widow and her four sons who then become the inspiration for the playful story we now know as Peter Pan. In Million Dollar Baby, a lonely woman boxer and her crusty old trainer become a family, helping each other fulfill their dreams and being there for each other no matter what.
In A Love Song for Bobby Long, a young woman inherits a house from her mother and discovers it comes complete with two alcoholic men; these three have an enormous impact on each other and become a family. In A Home at the End of the World, a bisexual young man creates a family with his male and female lovers. Finally, Sideways and The Motorcycle Diaries, two very different films, have the same theme the benefits of having buddies along on a journey of transformation.
We encourage you to look for your own spiritual messages in this year's films. The movies on these lists are good places to begin.
The Ten Most Spiritually Literate Films of 2004
Hotel Rwanda (United Artists) is an ethically rich true story of a heroic African who, during the 1964 genocide in his country, responds to the deep dimensions of violence in a chaotic world by widening the circle of his compassion.
Vera Drake (Fine Line) delivers what is rarely seen in contemporary films: a deft and sympathetic depiction of a good person whose compassion and kindness are the real thing.
I Heart Huckabees (Fox Searchlight) is a playful metaphysical comedy that embraces the spiritual uplift derived from our connections with others amidst the muck of human separation that characterizes most of present-day life.
The Terminal (DreamWorks) is a light-hearted and thoroughly entertaining film about the joys that can be ours when we slow down, practice deep listening, and cultivate the art of patience.
Finding Neverland (Miramax) presents a convincing and tender depiction of the ties between imagination, play, and creativity as demonstrated in the life of J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan.
Million Dollar Baby (Warner Bros.) is a powerfully emotional drama about a woman fighter, a crusty old trainer, and the strange circumstances that draw them together for a journey of the heart.
Two Brothers (Universal) is an extraordinary film about two wild tigers and the human beings who are changed irreparably by their encounters with these magnificent and mysterious creatures.
Silver City (Newmarket) is a profound and prophetic film probing the warps of contemporary politics, the equation of big business with democracy, the wanton desecration of the environment, and the abuse of illegal immigrants in contemporary America.
The Woodsman (Newmarket) provides plenty of difficult empathy practice through the story of a pedophile just released from prison who faces many challenges as he tries to reclaim his life.
Sideways (Fox Searchlight) is a buddy movie that is a delight from start to finish; it offers a round-trip ticket to the rewards of friendship and the follies and frustrations of middle-age.
The Ten Most Spiritually Literate
Foreign Language Films of 2004
Silent Waters (First Run Features), set in a small village in Pakistan in 1979, explores how Islamic fundamentalism and a visit from some Sikh pilgrims from India upends the life of a middle-aged woman and re-introduces her to great anguish.
Moolaade (New Yorker) is a triumphant ode to the bravery of a visionary woman who leads a rebellion against the practice of female genital mutilation in her African village.
Osama (MGM) delivers a cry from the heart of subjugated women in Afghanistan under the merciless rule of the Taliban.
House of Flying Daggers (Sony Pictures Classics) registers as a triple threat as an amazing martial arts film, a sense-luscious drama, and a romantic love story that touches the heart.
A Very Long Engagement (Warner Independent) is a romantic film set during World War I that presents an incisive portrait of a young woman's unswerving love.
Goodbye, Lenin! (Columbia TriStar) works exceedingly well as an intimate drama about nurturing love and as a political parable about the fall of the German Democratic Republic and the rise of Western consumerism.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Columbia TriStar), set on a floating raft monastery in Korea, is a luminous meditation on the wisdom of Buddhism.
The Motorcycle Diaries (Focus Features) is an extraordinary drama about the spiritual transformation that turns an intense young man into a revolutionary who would later be known as Che Guevera.
Maria Full of Grace (Fine Line) depicts the dangerous journey of a courageous and adventuresome 27-year-old Columbian girl who will do anything to escape a life of poverty.
The Sea Inside ( Fine Line) tells the true story of a quadriplegic in Spain and his efforts to convince the courts of his right to die.
The Ten Most Spiritually Literate
Documentaries of 2004
Lost Boys of Sudan (Shadow Distribution) is an excellent cross-cultural study about the struggles of two African youth to adopt to their new life in America.
Control Room (Magnolia Pictures) gives a riveting and unforgettable behind-the-scenes look at the Middle-Eastern news agency Al Jazeera's coverage of the second Iraq war.
Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral On a Moving Train (First Run Features) is a rousing documentary about the radical historian and activist who has risked all to make a prophetic call for peace and justice in America.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (First Run Features) is a chilling documentary that compels us to consider the terrible things human beings can do to one another because of fear, ideology, or just following orders.
The Story of the Weeping Camel (THINKFilm) is a wonderful Mongolian film about the deep and powerful bonds that link human beings and animals together in a common need for nurturing.
Divan (Zeitgeist) is a lively documentary about one woman's quest to explore her Hasidic roots; it mixes fact, emotion, and religious tradition with the spiritual practice of questing.
The Corporation (Zeitgeist) offers a bold, creative and insightful critique of a beast that has grown too powerful and too dangerous to ignore any longer.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Columbia TriStar) makes the case that the Bush Administration has served the interests of the haves and the have-mores with unjust domestic policies and a terrible and tragic war.
Super Size Me (Hart Sharp Video) takes a hard look at the link between the junk food industry and the obesity epidemic in America.
Born into Brothels (THINKFilms) is an extraordinary documentary about a photographer who draws out the wonder and the creativity of some poor kids in Calcutta.
Ten More Spiritually Literate Films
Before Sunset (Warner Independent) is an enthralling love story that puts a capital S in Seduction and reveals just how important communication is in intimate relationships.
Garden State (Fox Searchlight) is a spunky romantic comedy about an enthusiastic young woman who transforms her lover with the good medicine of her presence.
A Home At the End of the World (Warner Independent) celebrates a natural born lover who brings joy, pleasure, and sexual fulfillment to those lucky enough to be part of his extended family.
Collateral (DreamWorks) is an engrossing thriller set in Los Angeles about a procrastinating cab driver whose life is transformed by his scary encounter with a merciless hit man.
The Door in the Floor (Focus Features) excels with its mature treatment of sexuality, loss, and the emotional education of a young man.
Vanity Fair (Focus Features) is an exquisite screen adaptation of Thackeray's novel about the poison of envy and the social climber in us all.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Universal) is a fascinating psychological drama exploring the manifold complications of memory, love, desire, and disappointment.
A Love Song for Bobby Long (Lions Gate) is a heart-affecting drama about a young woman searching for her roots and the two men in her life who are trying to get back on their feet and find their way into the future.
Napoleon Dynamite (Fox Searchlight) is a quirky and appealing comedy set in Idaho about an oddball teenager who waits patiently until he gets his chance to shine on his own terms.
Spider-Man 2 (Columbia Pictures) takes comic book action pictures to a new level of possibility with its sensitivity to the emotion of its leading characters.