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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.

Groundhog Day. Harold Ramis, 1993.
If the obligatory annual viewing of Itís a Wonderful Life leaves you feeling like you have imbibed too much Christmas spirit, hereís a dose of feel-good existentialism thatíll sneak up on you like Punxsatawney Phil. Bill Murray is a cynical TV weatherman whose one venture out of the studio each year is for that dreaded human-interest story in small-town Pennsylvania. Human-interest stories donít interest him, because humanness doesnít interest him. But then the cosmos intervenes, and this cynic who has dreaded this day is karmically fated to live it over and over. Eventually, nightmare turns to blessing as Murray learns to be in the moment. Enlightenment comes when he does as the groundhog does: He sees his own shadow.

The Day the Earth Stood Still. Robert Wise, 1951.
Science fiction has long been rich in spiritual and mythological themes, and this forerunner of the cinematic genre offers some of the more overt imagery. Wise, who had edited Citizen Kane and would go on to direct Star Trek, is not subtle in his depiction of an alien coming to Earth with a Cold War threat: Continue your aggressions toward each other, and you will be destroyed. What takes this film a little deeper is the alienís quest to understand humans; the fear and distrust so prevalent at that time (and this time?) makes the alien seem loving and compassionate by comparison.

The Last Temptation of Christ. Martin Scorsese, 1988.
Jesus Christ has been depicted as everything from deity to superstar, but what about human? Under the direction of Scorsese, no stranger to spiritual subjects (Kundun), Willem Dafoe puts pain and confusion at the forefront of his portrayal of a figure heretofore known mainly for parables and miracles. As a fragile, fearful human with doubts and failings, this Jesus is a lot easier to relate to, even aspire to. If he can fight off his demons and resist his last temptation, why canít we all? This controversial film, based on the provocative 1955 Nikos Kazantzakis novel, transforms Jesus from omniscient to inspirational, creating an ingeniously moralistic tale.

Harold and Maude. Hal Ashby, 1971.
Itís a perfect match: A death-obsessed 20-year-old meets a woman of nearly 70 who loves life. This cult classic is smart and funny, unleashing a flood of spiritual messages --along with a celebration of rebelliousness and good-heartedness -ó that never feels overbearing. For anyone who has knelt before a graybeard guru, then felt let down, Ruth Gordonís Maude is a guide with integrity.

Wings of Desire. Wim Wenders, 1988.
The angels of the silver screen usually watch and observe us from above, omniscient guardians boosting us beyond our human limitations toward what we desire, or at least what we need. But what of their desires? Do they dream of having what we have? Wendersís daring, dreamy film weaves existential ó or perhaps we should say nonexistential ó crisis into a love story that burns on a multitude of levels (certainly a lot more than the tepid 1998 American remake, City of Angels). Amid a stark backdrop of Berlin before the Wall came down, the angel played by Bruno Ganz yearns to get to the other side, to be with the woman he has loved from so close yet so far ó but even more, to be human, with all the mundane moments and profound beauty that implies. This is a rare celebration of life, one without delusional romanticism.

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