Goodness, Truth, Beauty in the Cinema

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At the end of September, Pope Francis, addressing the annual plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications meeting in Rome, said “The challenge is to rediscover, through the means of social communication as well as by personal contact, the beauty that is at the heart of our existence and our journey, the beauty of faith and of the encounter with Christ.”

It is not a totally neglected challenge. The website, Impact Culture (http://www.impactingculture.com) recently published a list of films made in the last decade (in chronological order) – to celebrate the good movies that are still being made.

The Passion, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and The Chronicles of Narnia are not on this list. That’s just because they’re explicitly Christian. These others are not.

“The cinema,” Pope John Paul II said, “with its vast possibilities, could become a powerful means of evangelization.” These movies undoubtedly tell some of the “good news”. If you haven’t seen all of them, we must issue a SPOILER ALERT. A lot of them are chosen because of the way they end, so… beware, you’re going to be told how how they end.

Spider-Man (2002)
I remember reading an article by a seminarian when this movie was in theaters, and what he said has stuck with me ever since. He compared Peter Parker to a priest. In the film, Peter’s Uncle Ben tells him, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter takes the words to heart – his superpowers are meant for something great, and he has a responsibility to use them for the good of society. What’s more, the weight of this responsibility (this is where the priest bit comes in) means that he must sacrifice his desire to be with Mary Jane, the girl of his dreams. Being Spider-Man is Peter’s vocation.

Finding Nemo (2003)
If you read Uninterested, you probably already know where I’m going with this one. In fact, a few of these films were selected on the basis of this same theme: the theme of fatherhood. It’s a theme that I think resonates with a very broad audience because fatherhood in our culture is so broken. Nemo’s father, Marlin, overcomes all his fears and character flaws, faces death and danger, all for love of his son. The film beautifully explores the meaning and power of friendship as well. The love of friends helps all the characters grow in one way or another to become better people (er… fish).
Also, you should know that I originally had a lot of other Pixar films on this list, but I figured that was a little unfair – Pixar is not the only studio making great movies (although they are probably the only one that consistently makes great movies). So Finding Nemo is basically representing all Pixar films on this list – it just happens to be my favorite one.

Cinderella Man (2005)
This movie, like Finding Nemo, was chosen mainly because of its portrayal of fatherhood, but also because of its broader theme of family. Few films show us a stable, nuclear family anymore. Despite all the obstacles this Depression-era family faces, the audience never worries that Jim Braddock will leave his wife and kids or that his wife will leave him because he can’t provide for them. The family is a source of strength and motivation for Jim Braddock – he does everything he does in the film for the sake of his family, and his family, in turn, is always there to support him.

I Am Legend (2007)
This film actually took me by surprise. The symbolism, especially at the end of the movie, is very obviously Christian. At least it was obvious to me when Will Smith literally gives his blood to save the zombies – his blood is pure, untainted, immune to the disease that has turned the rest of the human population into monsters, and he has spent his years of solitude searching for a way to use his blood to cure them, to make them human again. But as soon as he finds the cure, the monsters are closing in. He sacrifices his life to give a woman and her son a chance to get away, but not before he gives them a vial of his blood – the cure. A man pouring out his blood and giving his life to save humanity from their own depravity… sound familiar?

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Far too few people have seen this movie, and when I tell you what it’s about, you might think I’m crazy for putting it on this list. Lars is a reclusive young man whose only real companion is a sex doll he ordered on the internet. But trust me, this movie is not what you think. It’s actually a very sweet story about community. When Lars orders this doll, he succumbs to the delusion that she’s a real person, and we soon find out that this delusion – this illness – is a manifestation of Lars’ fear for his pregnant sister-in-law’s life. The love and compassion of the small town community around Lars helps him to overcome his illness and his fears.

3:10 to Yuma (2007)
This is another father one. Christian Bale’s character is, in a lot of ways, similar to Marlin. He starts out afraid. A coward. But by movie’s end, he’s stepping in front of bullets for his son. There’s also something beautiful here about Russell Crowe’s character. He’s evil through and through for almost the entire movie. But by the end, we see the flicker of mercy and nobility.

The Dark Knight (2008)
Like I Am Legend, I think the Christian symbolism in this one is hard to miss. Batman chooses to take on the sins of another. Putting his physical life on the line for others is nothing new – he’s always done that. But this time around, he’s willing to be counted among sinners and thieves for the sake of Gotham City.

The Blind Side (2009)
This one’s almost too easy – I debated putting this one in the same category with LOTR and The Passion. I really don’t think the filmmakers realized what they had on their hands, though, so I’m putting it on the list. This movie shows us what it really means to put our money where our mouth is as Christians. The themes of family, honesty, integrity, and courage are all explored in this little gem.

The King’s Speech (2010)
There’s nothing obviously Christian about this film, but I love it for its portrayal of marriage. The king has a strong, happy marriage as does his speech therapist. The husbands love their wives, and the wives support their husbands. It strikes me now that I’m writing this that the films I’ve chosen for their portrayal of marriage and family are period pieces… interesting. Anyway, there’s also a lot here about duty and courage and patriotism too.

Tangled (2010)
Okay, this is my one cheat. I chose this movie more for what it’s not than for what it is. I want to draw a comparison here between this movie and The Princess and the Frog. I was a little disturbed by the latter, and it really put me in doubt about Disney’s ability to deliver quality children’s movies. The prominence of voodoo and the assertion that voodoo can be good just really rubbed me the wrong way – probably because I know that the voodoo culture actually exists and thrives in some regions. Tangled, on the other hand, is purely fairytale. It’s set in an imaginary place, and the “magic” in it is not rooted in reality in any way. Plus, Rapunzel is one of the better heroines I’ve seen in recent times – a strong, driving protagonist, but still completely feminine.

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