Finding Spiritual Values in Oscar’s “Best Pictures”

Courtesy of the Presbyterian News Service

Each year the Academy for Motion Pictures and Sciences nominates five to ten films for the “Best Picture” category. I wish that it were a full ten this year, with the addition of Martin Scorcese’s haunting Silence rounding out the number. This well-filmed story, based on the terrible persecution of the Jesuits and the “Hidden” or “Silent Christians” in 17th centuryJapan is the most challenging theological film to come along in a long time.

Despite this omission, the nine films that did make it onto the list offer people of faith much pleasurable entertainment plus the opportunity for reflection and discussion about important themes or issues. The following observations are meant to spur you to seek out the films, either in the case you missed them during their theatrical runs, or to revisit them and discover anew the values and themes that, in addition to their cinematic merits, led to their consideration for Hollywood’s highest honor.

Arrival

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 56 min. Luke 2:10.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi tale of humanity’s first meet-up with aliens is light years away from such fear-driven films as Independence Day or War of the Worlds. It is closer in spirit to Steven Spielberg’s great Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The central character is Dr. Louise Banks, an expert linguist called upon by the military to try to communicate with the aliens, whose tall space ships have arrived in twelve countries around the globe. She and a male colleague are working against the clock to understand the strange language so their motives for their arrival can be cleared up, because fear among the peoples of the earth is growing, including the U.S. military. The film champions patience in dealing with a difficult situation; openness to the new and strange; courage in acting upon one’s convictions; and toward the end, international trust and cooperation. What a delight that Hollywood has produced such an intellectually stimulating film that appeals to adults, rather than another fear-based potboiler appealing to juveniles who enjoy watching cities being destroyed!

Fences

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 18 min. Philippians 6:1-4.

Director Denzel Washington also stars in this adaptation of August Wilson’s celebrated play, which provides us with an intimate glimpse of a black family amidst the corrosive racism of the late 1950s. Although Troy Maxson is from the South, the setting is in the North, the city of Pittsburgh, where he and best friend Bono load trash onto a garbage truck. The conflict is between Troy and his youngest son Cory, and then also with wife Rose, who soon is at odds with him. Once a talented baseball player, Troy had not been able to follow Jackie Robinson from the old Negro League into the majors, attributing this to racism rather than, as was probable, his advanced age. Cory is deeply upset when his father forces him to work rather than play on the high school football team, even though he is being scouted by a college ready to offer him a sports scholarship. The pessimistic Troy believes he is saving his son from a

failure similar to his own, that a black has little hope for success in a white man’s sport. Worth exploring are his parenting skills or lack of them) in the light of the apostle Paul’s advice to the fathers at Philippi, as well as the character-warping effects of racism. The title refers to the backyard fence Troy keeps working on to keep the world out, about which Bono wisely observes, “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.” This could lead to a discussion of the fences that fear and other motivations lead us to build in our own lives.

Hacksaw Ridge

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 4 min. Matt. 5:38-39; Romans 12:2.

Director Mel Gibson’s true-story film is one war film in which the hero is far different from the usual John Wayne or Clint Eastwood type, celebrated for their prowess at killing the enemy. Desmond Doss is a young Virginian who, when Pearl Harbor is bombed, wants to join the Army, but not as a rifleman. An earnest Christian who fully accepts Christ’s command not to kill, he wants to save lives, not take them. At first refused to be allowed to become a medic, he in turn refuses to take up a rife during training, thereby becoming the target of intense persecution, and even a possible court martial. The scene in which a fellow trainee accuses him of cowardice and slaps him on the cheek to provoke retaliation is very intense, as are the later battle scenes on Okinawa where the young medic (finally achieving his goal) proves so brave and resourceful that he rescues over 75 wounded comrades over several days of savage fighting. As a study of a man of non-violence serving among men who have never questioned violence, this film is the opposite of the classic Sergeant York, the latter being the true story of a WW 1 soldier/pacifist who gave up his early refusal to kill once he found himself in combat. Desmund Doss stayed true to the apostle Paul’s advice to the Romans, whereas Alvin York gave in. This struggle of the individual against the dominant culture could trigger a lively group discussion. Also, this is a good opportunity to examine again Christ’s call to “turn the other cheek.”

 Hell or High Water

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 42 min. Proverbs 6:30-31; Romans 6:23

Director David Mackenzie’s modern day Western follows two Texas Rangers in pursuit of the serial robbers of a string of small banks. Although there are plenty of the usual thrills of the genre, the film is just as much of a character study, mainly of the older Ranger Marcus Hamilton and the two robbers, Toby and Tanner, who turn out to be the robbers. Using his experience and intuition, Marcus deduces that because the robbers take only untraceable smaller bills, leaving behind more valuable bonds and such, and that the banks already robbed are in a small geographical circle, the robbers must reside in the area and are stealing in order to pay off a mortgage, the times being financially stark. This is a good study of predators who are also victims, and who learn the hard way that one does indeed sow what one reaps. The desire of the one brother, a loving husband and father, to safeguard the welfare of his son, is especially poignant, and thus could result in an interesting discussion of the Proverbs passage.

Hidden Figures

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 7 min. Psalm 9:9-19.

Director Theodore Melfi’s historical film, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, is the story of three “hidden figures” whose mathematical genius helped insure that NASA’s astronauts landed safely in areas where they could be picked up by our military forces. They were hidden, despite there being two previous films about astronauts, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, because they faced two formidable obstacles back in the 50s and 60s, racism and sexism. People of faith holding to a God who favors the left-outs of society (the above Psalm reference is but one of many dozens of such passages that could have been chosen) will relish seeing and discussing the issues the film raises, perhaps even seeing in the three women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, modern counterparts to Mary, who dared to leave her sister Martha in the kitchen so she could sit at the feet of the greatest teacher of her time. Many good Hollywood films provide the opportunity to explore racial issues, but this one adds a touch of feminism as well.

 La La Land

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 8 min. Philippians 2:4

Damien Chazelle, whose previous film Whiplash dealt with musicians, treats us to an uplifting musical that both resembles and differs from those classic Hollywood musicals of a bygone era. Mia and Sebastian are as charming as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and almost as skilled dancers, as they aspire to make their dreams of Hollywood stardom a reality. The ways in which each encourages and pushes the other to keep trying can be discussed in the light of the many exhortations in the New Testament for believers to love and support one another. The film’s title suggests the unreality of most of the old Hollywood musicals, but this film’s bittersweet ending brings us down to earth, reminding us that career choices impact our relationships, the result being that matters do not always turn out as planned. Viewers could share how their own career choices in the past affected the way their dreams worked out.

 Lion

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 58 min. Luke 11:10 & 18:1-8.

Director Garth Davis’s feel-good film transports us to India where five-year-old Saroo is separated from his family and adopted by an Australian family as a presumed orphan, Nurtured by his adoptive parents unconditional love, he still longs for his birth mother, and as an adult sets out on a search for her. He tries and tries, but none of the usual methods work, until a friend tells him about Google Earth. The twin values of unconditional love and perseverance permeate this film, Saroo’s sticking to his search as strongly as did the widow in Jesus’ parable. The film’s title and his Indian name take on new meaning at the end of his long quest. The statement of Saroo’s adoptive mother about their love and choosing to seek a child through adoption rather than by birthing one should be discussed, with any in the group having adopted a child themselves being invited to share their experience.

Manchester by the Sea

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 17 min. Jeremiah 8:22.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s somber film centers on a lonely divorced father’s sorrow and guilt over a tragedy in his past. Having fled from the seaside town giving the film its name, Lee is forced back to it because his brother Joe has died, the latter’s will having assigned custody of his 16-year-old son Patrick to Lee. The two, once very close, become conflicted over where they are to live, the boy’s relationship to girls, and even over the question of Lee’s continuing his custody. There is much to admire in the film, but the way in which Patrick manipulates girls to go to bed with him, as well as the poor supervision of the girls’ mothers, will be disturbing to people of faith. Almost all of the characters are thoroughly secularized, so neither Lee not Patrick can find any “balm in Gilead” for the easing of their sorrow. Unfortunately, the only example of faith is in Patrick’s mother (and new husband), a recovering alcoholic—and hers is faith of rules and regulations, rather than a warm relationship with God and neighbor.

Moonlight

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 51 min. Romans 12:2a

Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ stark film is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s drama, Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Whites are seen only in the background, so racism is mostly a periferal issue, much as it is in Fences. The film is divided into three sections named after a Miami ghetto boy’s real name Chiron and two nick names, Little, and Black. In “Little” the 10-year-old boy is dubbed this by the bullies who enjoy beating the scrawny child. His only school friend is the Cuban-American Kevin who offers helpful advice. A drug dealer Juan and his girlfriend offer him acceptance and love when the boy flees from his drug addicted mother. In “Chiron” the boy is a teenager who discovers one night on a beach with Kevin, who has given him the nickname Black, that he is different in his sexual orientation. The same bullies accost him even more at school, with Black at last rebelling so strongly that he hits his attacker’s head with a chair, and thus is sent to a juvenile detention center. “Black” takes place in Atlanta some ten years later where he receives a phone call from Kevin, now owner of a restaurant in Miami. Black visits his mother and reconciles with her in a drug rehab center, and then meets with Kevin, who cooks him a meal and reveals that he is a straight father with a little daughter. In this slice of life film we meet  people who would never show up in our churches on Sundays, except perhaps to beg for money. Barry Jenkins shows us that “the least of these, my brothers (and sisters)” are more than the stereotypes by which society judges them, and also that God can use a most unlikely person, such as drug dealing Juan, as his agent of grace.

We should be grateful that the Academy has brought all of the above films to our attention. While wishing that the marvelously sensitive Paterson, as well as Silence, had been singled out, I will be happy with the choice of any of these films for “Best Picture.”

If you are reading this on line, there are hyperlinks that, by clicking onto the titles, will lead you to my full reviews. Otherwise, you can enter visualparables.org on Google to reach the Visual Parables site, and then type the title in the search window at the top.

Dr. Edward McNulty

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