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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.

The Straight Story. David Lynch, 1999.
It’s hard to believe that the same guy who brought us the unnerving Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks could come up with something so gentle and so sincere. But Lynch does indeed play it straight in this telling of a true story of an aged man’s journey to see his estranged brother one last time. With no other transportation available to him, Alvin Straight opts to make the trip on his tractor mower. It’s slow going, with stops and starts, all of which bring Straight into contact with numerous people who help him understand the import in his overdue family reunion. Straight might as well have made the trip on his knees, it feels so much like an act of penance. In the end, we realize something the great sages have been telling us for centuries: The journey is the destination.

Ikiru. Akira Kurosawa, 1952.
The title’s English translation —- “to live” —- says it all. Mr. Watanabe is a bureaucrat who has worked at Tokyo City Hall for 30 years and has no life to show for it. This becomes a matter of urgent concern when he is diagnosed with life threatening cancer. Will he achieve his goal of one worthwhile accomplishment in the time he has left? The more important question Kurosawa seems to pose to the viewer: Will you live your life the same way after sitting through this film?

Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? Bae Yong-Kyun, 1989.
The story of an old monk in residence at a mountaintop monastery, a younger disciple who has fled there from a frenzied world, and an orphan boy brought there from a nearby town is poignant enough, particularly when it explores the paradox of Zen withdrawal from worldly attachment. But what brings this film to life is its unhurried, relaxed pace. Its aesthetics extend beyond beauty into pure spiritual experience.

Dogma. Kevin Smith, 1999.
Chris Rock plays Rufus, Christ’s 13th apostle. George Carlin is a PR-conscious cardinal, head of a “Catholicism Wow!” campaign. Rock goddess Alanis Morrissette portrays a God who smiles a lot, takes time to smell the flowers, and can’t quite do a handstand. It may not be The Greatest Story Ever Told, but underlying this film’s wacky irreverence are some serious satire and sharply cutting commentary. When an angel of death talks about the things God dislikes most about our world, they happen to be three things -- “war, bigotry, and televangelism” —- that thrive like weeds in the world’s religions. In Smith’s spirituality -— a tattered remnant of his Catholic upbringing -— organized religion is anything but sacred.

Boston-based writer Jeff Wagenheim can often be found sitting in the dark in mid-afternoon, taking in a double-feature matinee.

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