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40 Ignatian-themed movies to see before you die

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: One of the big contemporary debates is whether film (cinema/DVD etc.) is mere distraction or entertainment, or is it a deeper reflection of culture and the human search for meaning? There is no doubting its popularity, however, though the traditional ‘going to the cinema’ has been eroded by streaming websites and internet downloads. There is something particularly engaging about ‘celluloid’ human experience though, whether it is drama, romance or horror, that moves us beyond ourselves (i.e. transcendence). We can be moved to tears, stirred to action or frightened out of our wits.

Two Canadian Jesuits, John Pungente and Monty Williams, have written an intriguing book on film, Finding God in the Dark, in which they relate film to Ignatian spirituality, the particularly Jesuit way of finding God in all things. It is based on the experience of St. Ignatius Loyola, who found God working within his everyday experience, especially in his moods and his imagination. The book shows how particular films capture the spiritual nature of human experience- how God works within people and invites them beyond themselves- and how through film, our imaginations are engaged to reflect and contemplate our own lives.

Film and television are powerful influences on our imagination, good films in particular are narrative portrayals of how people have made life choices and the resultant consequences. They allow us to explore from our homes or cinemas different lives and see how they sit with us. From an Ignatian point of view, powerful emotions and ‘movements of the spirit’ are evoked in us personally and can be a pathway to uncover God’s presence in our live and in the world. Many movies, if they are not totally superficial, reveal this drama of the human condition: the paradox of being immensely gifted or talented, and yet downplaying or squandering this gift. There is always a second chance however, and eleventh-hour deliverance and redemption is a very common theme. As in all authentic and believable films, human transformation always contains the essential elements of free will, choice and commitment, and also that of the Cross, the element of suffering that mirrors that of Christ’s self-sacrifice.

Often what engages us is the realism involving in portraying people’s lives as tragic and destructive, yet capable of great self-transcendence given the chance. It reminds us that God works with us, within the human condition, gently leading us towards a more compassionate and human response which overcomes darkness and despondency. The cost involved is dramatically portrayed, for good or evil, and though our imaginations we are asked to participate and to make commitments to our own life choices.

Movie list with Ignatian Spiritual Themes

  1. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): A fairly old film with Jack Nicholson about the mistreatment and institutionalism of psychiatric patients in a US hospital (Themes: the recognition of individual rights, personality and humanity, redemption as humanisation).
  2. Star Wars (1977): This film quickly became a cult classic with it’s fight against the evil empire and the struggle of the underdog. (Themes: good versus evil, the importance of religious training or formation, the inner life, integration of emotions as discernment and the “mission” aspect in saving the world).
  3. The Mission (1986)-: What more can I say about this masterpiece about Jesuit missionaries, featuring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro? (Themes: the value of indigenous people and culture in the face of ugly political manoeuvring, the struggle to live religious life).
  4. Babette’s Feast (1987): A Danish drama about a woman who manages to change a deeply divided and bitter community (Themes: expressing love though the gift of cooking with very strong Eucharistic themes, the creation of community).
  5. Mississippi Burning (1988) A classic with Gene Hackman from the 70s about a detective investigating racial discrimination in the deep south United States (Themes: the dignity of the human person despite colour or class, the fight against racism).
  6. Romero (1989): An obvious choice about the murdered Salvadorian Archbishop who goes through a conversion experience through his contact with a Jesuit, eventually giving his life in the serving of his suffering people. (Themes: disconnected religion, God present in the suffering people, the call to action).
  7. Jesus of Montreal (1990): A French-Canadian film about a group of ragtag actors who come together to put on a contemporary version of the Passion (Themes: Christ in our world today, inclusiveness, liberation, community).
  8. A River Runs Through It (1992)-. A beautifully shot, evocative film about the family of an American preacher and his two sons who go in different directions. It has Robert Redford as director and features Brad Pitt. (Themes: family relationships and the love that overcomes difficulties, false religion in terms of the loveless father, human frailty).
  9. Strictly Ballroom (1992): Another Australian film, a romatic comedy about a young couple breaking the rules of ballroom dancing and overcoming a lot of prejudice and hatred (Themes: the greatness of the human spirit, life-giving spirit as greater than human rules).
  10. The Grand Canyon (1992): American movie about the lives of a group of people that are seemingly brought together by coincidence but there is a higher plan at work (Themes: God as acting through human events to bring about love and community).
  11. The City of Joy (1992): About a very poor barrio in Calcutta where the social problems are overwhelming and yet the miracle of love overcomes all (Themes: Christ as present in the poorest of the poor, love as complete service of the other).
  12. Groundhog Day (1993): This is about a very unpleasant news reporter, Bill Murray, who wakes up one morning to find that he is living the same day over and over until he learns how to love (Themes: spirituality as a “waking up” from a deathly, repetitive, destructive cycle).
  13. Shadowlands (1993): The true story of an English poet/writer (Anthony Hopkins) who finds his life turned upside down by an American woman (Debra Winder) that unexpectedly comes into his life and then tragically dies of cancer (Themes: the real meaning of love as transformative and the role of prayer as an essential part of the human make up).
  14. Priest (1994): A tough film from the north of England on the decadence in the clergy and lack of credibility of Catholicism, nevertheless, the needs of people in trouble and the fight against evil is central (Themes: the centre of the faith as following Christ in reaching out to those in trouble).
  15. Swimming with Sharks (or The Buddy Factor; 1994): A powerful image of ruthless capitalism and the using of people as objects, with Kevin Spacey. (Themes: an image of desolation and a failure of the human project; the difficulty of getting over big hurts in life without faith).
  16. Once Were Warriors (1994): A New Zealand film about the decadence and violence among the once-proud Mauri people (Themes: the fight against evil and violence, the recovery of human dignity through culture).
  17. In the Name of The Father (1994): An Irish film about a group of Irishmen falsely imprisoned for the bombing of a pub in England, it’s a moving true story (Themes: the love of a father who sacrifices himself for his son, the struggle for justice).
  18. Ladybird, Ladybird (1994): A very tough “social-realism” film by Ken Loach about an English woman caught up in a cycle of abuse and violence who loses her children to the social services (Themes: the terrible reality of the human situation, redemption through love).
  19. Three Colours Red (1994): Polish director, about a retired judge who secretly intercepts the phone calls of his neighbours and through a freak accident comes into contact with a beautiful model (Themes: the importance of human communication, interpersonal relations, salvation through love).
  20. Legends of the Fall (1995): An epic, classic tale about an American family torn apart by war and love interests with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins (Themes: the tragedy of human existence, the strength of family bonds, love as suffering).
  21. The Shawshank Redemption (1995): An American prison movie about a man falsely imprisoned who through amazing courage and persistence manages to escape and bring about justice (Themes: the power of friendship, the triumph of love over hate/evil, redemption as an “inside job”).
  22. Dead Man Walking (1996): The story of a prisoner on death row who is befriended by a religious sister in trying to save his soul, but comes into conflict with the authorities (Themes: the terrible dilemma of forgiveness versus justice, facing the truth, salvation as a human event, the use of scripture).
  23. Shine (1997): An Australian film, a biographical drama about a brilliant pianist who loses everything through mental illness and yet is saved by a compassionate woman (Themes: the value of the human person, overcoming hostility and suspicion, redemption through human love).
  24. Body Shots (1999): A recent, very tough film about the sexual lives of young professionals in the US, seemingly very sophisticated but brought down to earth by an alleged rape of one of their friends (Themes: sexual morality, the consequences and desolation in betraying the human body and spirit).
  25. Matrix (1999): an iconic cult sci-fi/artificial reality film about the plot to deceive people by manipulating their brains and, in contrast, the Christ-like struggle to defeat them. (Themes: what is reality/manipulation; what is the truth; the idea of vocation, the “chosen one” and spiritual training or formation; “free your mind”. Spirituality is about waking up and responding to ‘reality’).
  26. Angela’s Ashes (2000)- A recent Irish film about the poverty in Ireland during the1940s, seen through the eyes of a young boy. A harrowing account of hardship and the effects of unemployment and alcoholism. (Themes: showing up piety or false religion as shallow and superficial, real religion as a triumph of the human spirit).
  27. The Devil Wears Prada (2006): ostensibly a comedy, though a dark one, it paints a vivid and totally credible picture of what the ‘strategies’ of good and evil would look like in a contemporary western culture, i.e. the corporate US fashion industry. What is significant is the key role that wealth, desire and attachment play in this all too real portrayal of the corporate world. The protagonist, Andy, is literally seduced by the glamour, wealth, prestige and selfishness, but there are unpleasant consequences. (Themes: desire; the ‘two standards’ from the Spiritual Exercises)
  28. The Kite Runner (2007): is a ‘redemption’ film. Set in Afghanistan on the verge of war, two childhood friends, Amir and Hassan, are torn apart by an act of betrayal. After 20 years of living in America, Amir returns to a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to face the shameful secret that still haunts him and seeks to atone for his sin. (Themes: critique of stereotypical Hollywood superficiality; God works through people and places; the spiritual truth that God invites humanity to healing and reconciliation).
  29. Into the Wild (2007): There has been a great deal of controversy over this story from wilderness experts who point out the protagonist Chris’s naivety and rookie mistakes (e.g. eating the wrong plants) to romantic idealists who applaud his commitment to nature, anti-capitalism and rejectionist stance. (Themes: the human outer and inner journey, the desire for something more, the rejection of narrow social conformism and unhelpful conservative values; decision making/discernment).
  30. The Hurt Locker (2008): an anti-war film which sends up an empty machismo. Tragically, the main character, Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), seems hooked on danger and never moves on from his ‘addiction’, never stopping to reflect or question. (Themes: how war dehmanises people; desolation as disconection from self and others)
  31. Grand Torino (2008) in contrast is a touching story of a white grouchy old man (Clint Eastwood) who is eventually converted by Korean neighbourly kindness. The climax of the film sees the main character’s own self-sacrifice, reminiscent of Christ’s, providing a deeply moving climax. (Themes: effects of culture, humanising effects of relationships, conversion of heart).
  32. Up (2009): this deceptively simple PIXAR film is a wonderful story of redemption, the waking up to the reality of life, love and relationships right under people’s noses. The central relationship in the film between Carl and Russell has a mutually beneficial aspect which they both gain enormously from. (Themes: the importance of human friendship and how God’s love is experienced through that; connecting people and giving them meaning and hope).
  33. The Blind Side (2009): The film is based on the book and depicts the remarkable true story of Michael Oher, a destitute African-American youngster from a broken home, who is taken in by the Tuohys, a well-off white family. The Tuohys, and in particular the sassy mom, Leigh Anne, provide a much needed caring environment for the neglected child, and help him fulfill his potential as a football player. Understandably, Oher’s presence in the Tuohys’ lives challenges them to reflect on their own lives and helps them gain some valuable insights.
  34. Avatar (2009): Spiritual purists will see a lot of pantheism (identifying God with nature) in the film, however, it does have eco-spirituality as centre stage. It represents a challenge to Christianity, which is often criticized as being too abusive of the planet, allowing humanity complete control. The other interesting aspect is the ‘network of relationships’ concept that characterises the local people, their connection with nature and with divinity and their ancestors. (Themes: an ‘incarnate’ or nature spirituality; the centrality of relationships, originating in the Trinity).
  35. The Book of Eli (2010): This is an extraordinary film about Christian values and the Word, as represented by the mysterious book. Eli embodies a lot of these values in his treatment of others and the relationships he develops, especially with Solara. The values of social cohesion and construction of civilization are seen to reside with this book, though Eli seeks to use it for the good of humanity and Carnegie as a way of controlling others and elevating his own position.
  36. Sully – Miracle on the Hudson (2016): Airline captain “Sully” Sullenberger in 2009 landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan after both engines were disabled by a bird strike. All his extensive training and experience were seen as “deposits.” When he safely landed the plane against impossible odds on the Hudson River, he made one huge “withdrawal.” (Themes: making good decisions; the inner sense of what’s right; over reliance on technology).
  37. The Silence (2016): This film is like a silent retreat: it is long, torturous, boring in parts, has occasional glimpses of something breath-taking, is deeply challenging but ultimately rewarding for those who stay the course. It’s ‘based on a true story’ account, Shūsaku Endō’s historical novel, of two Jesuit missionaries, Rodrigues and Garrpe, in 17th century Japan. It questions deeply ingrained assumptions about the nature of God, humanity’s role in the world, and the challenge of explaining God’s silence at crucial moments.
  38. Wild Rose (2019): A redemption story. The main protagonist, Rose-Lynn, is released from jail and is trying to get her life together. The challenge is huge: pick up with her two estranged children who’ve been minded by her mum, and simultaneously keep her dream alive of being a country singer. The central tension is that her mother, brilliantly played by Julie Walters, is frosty and angrily disapproving of her abandoning of her two children, who hardly know her. The film pivots around these central relationships.
  39. Blinded by the Light (2019): At its heart is the story of a Pakistani teenager, Javed, growing up in Thatcher’s Britain of the 80s coping with the effects of unemployment on his family and discrimination; the National Front features prominently. We are given an insight into the hostile environment of anti-immigrant racism, pretty blatant at times, and the struggle to survive. The drive is to engage with the world with the help of Springsteen’s music, act in a different way and wake up to the fact that he has responsibility, choices and options.
  40. Bohemian Rhapsody (2019): On one level it is the story of the rows and reconciliation of a famous band but on another level, it is the story of Freddie Mercury, the classic outsider; an Immigrant from Zanzibar who finds his God given talent in spectacular fashion and then, tragically dies of AIDS. There is an element of a Greek tragedy about it; it is only very late on in the film when he realises who his real friends are, what real love is and how he has been deceived in many ways.

Finally, this is not meant to be an exhaustive or comprehensive list. Rather it is a very personal take on various Ignatian themes in various films.

What can be helpful in viewing a film therefore, is to reflect on the portrayal of the following elements:

  • The human person
  • God & the Spirit
  • Relationships
  • Community
  • Life purpose or meaning (ethic)
  • Redemption – transformation