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Popcorn for the Soul

With its special power to convey transcendence, cinema is perfect for exploring metaphysical themes. Here are 10 of our favorite spiritual films.

Sunday morning was time for church in the neighborhood where I grew up, but for my friends and me, a different cavernous, quiet space was more of a draw. Maybe it was because we had had religion stuffed into our little souls all week long at St. Joseph’s Grammar School. Maybe it was our way of beginning a nonconforming quest for a flicker of wonder and inspiration. Or maybe it was the buttered popcorn.

The movies we saw on those stolen Sabbaths probably didn’t stack up to Father Dowling’s homilies —- the Park Theater was no art house, and that suited us prepubescents just fine —- but there was a discipline in this ritual that was as mystical as it was mischievous. Even at a young age, we understood the power of the cinema to transport us to worlds unforeseen, to bring transcendent moments into our lives.

At the movie house, it’s just you and this piece of art, alone together for two hours. How rare is that in this day and age of distraction, of surfing and roaming, of call waiting and picture-in-picture, of never being alone with anything? The medium of film plucks you out of your everyday environment, tells you a story unimpeded by SUV commercials, makes you laugh or cry or both (OK, so there can be some multitasking involved), maybe asks you to suspend some beliefs, and sends you on your way a changed person. Has there ever been a time in American history when our culture has been more in need of existential refreshment?

Just as some people have used entertainment as an escape from the horrors of last September’s terrorist attacks and the retaliation that followed, many are seeking out films that can serve as touchpoints of meaning, of spiritual sustenance. Seeker-cineastes will find many such films out there; themes and images of spirituality and meaning have churned through the history of cinema. Sometimes the result is Cecil B. DeMille splashy: Charlton Heston as a VistaVision Moses in The Ten Commandments. But more often, as with so many things mystical, it is more subtle.

What are the best spiritual films? Any such list is bound to arouse controversy . From the vast array of movies that address the spirit either overtly or symbolically, we offer here ten suggested titles — none of which is so esoteric it couldn’t be tracked down at your local video store, or on-line.

Life Is Beautiful. Director: Roberto Benigni, 1997.
Steven Spielberg reportedly walked out of a screening of this film. Could there be any stronger endorsement of Benigni’s disarming story about a father’s inventiveness in preserving his children’s fragile innocence amid the atrocities of World War II? This one is no product of the Hollywood assembly line. In the absence of plastic packaging and manipulative banality, Benigni’s organically grown film spills over with pathos, humor, and, most of all, grace. The impassioned Italian is as brilliant in front of the camera as he is behind it. He wins the heart of the woman of his dreams by pulling off all sorts of Chaplinesque pratfalls, then puts all his heart into protecting his children at a time when their childhoods -— and lives -- are being threatened. How does a father transform a Nazi concentration camp from haunted house to playhouse? He does it with love and imagination -— just what go into a great film.

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