Faith in the Movies

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At first glance, the movies Groundhog Day (1993) and Vertigo (1958) don’t seem to have much in common. Both, however, were included in the 2003 exhibit “The Hidden God: Film and Faith,” put on by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. These box-office hits—along with other surprising candidates, like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992)—were used as examples of films with “spiritual” themes. Similar programs have been organized by Parabola magazine (“Cinema of the Spirit”), the Pacific School of Religion (“Image to Insight”), and the International Buddhist Film Festival, to name a few. The events seem to indicate a trend: a desire to see movies, old and new, that illuminate our potential for transformation.

“There is a new movement on the rise: spiritual filmmaking.” So claims Maurizio Benazzo, a director-producer whose terrific Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela documents a huge festival held every 12 years in India. Many American filmgoers, Benazzo notes, are sick of major-studio fare. “They want something different,” he says. “Something uplifting.”

But such films certainly aren’t “new.” The Wizard of Oz (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), for example, are about as transformational as films get. What is new is the movement to categorize films as “spiritual” and to package the genre for message-starved baby boomers and New Age types. Indeed, when you think about it, many great films might be called spiritual. Casablanca (1942), Life Is Beautiful (1997), and the Matrix series (1999–2003) all contain transformational themes. Even Shrek (2001) and Spiderman (2002) address the profound impact that love and solitude can work on the human (or ogre) psyche, and the need to accept our true nature.

But these movies are well known. The new champions of spiritual film strive to bring relatively unknown works—culled from film festivals and the bottomless pool of short-subject documentaries—into public view. The most visible promoter of this emerging trend is the Spiritual Cinema Circle (www.spiritualcinemacircle.com), cofounded by Stephen Simon. Simon is best known for producing What Dreams May Come (1998), which starred Robin Williams in a sort of Divine Comedy lite. The Spiritual Cinema Circle is trying to create a community for those viewers who “are part of the 60 million Americans who say they are ‘spiritual but not religious.’” The outfit hopes to present films that “are entertaining, and most importantly, have a redeeming message that is in some way uplifting to the viewer.”

Each month, for $24, the Spiritual Cinema Circle sends its members (which now number some 10,000, in more than 55 countries) two DVDs, which are theirs to keep. The first contains mostly short works, chosen from film festivals and filmmaker submissions. The second holds a full-length feature, previously unseen in U.S. theaters. I watched two of the full-length releases. Lighthouse Hill, in the second month’s package, is a quirky British romantic comedy, while Finding Joy, an Australian offering from the first month, is a bit precious for all but the most devoted Oprah fans. To define either as “spiritual” seems a stretch.

If the features are uneven, the shorts are sheer squirmfests. Even when the idea is intriguing—as in Gabrielle, in which a transient spirit gets a preview of the suffering that awaits her next human incarnation—there’s always a cringe moment. I mean, I’m as “spiritual but not religious” as the next guy, but Gabrielle’s rainbow coalition of hopeful souls, chanting their rebirth credo in white robes, set my chakras on edge. My patience was similarly tried by two shorts from director Geno Andrews: Jillian’s Vantage (about a date between the title character, a blind therapist with a “gift,” and an emotionally wounded man) and The Visits (an account of another emotionally wounded man’s eventual emotional healing).

The problem with the whole concept is that spiritual is not synonymous with uplifting—as anyone who has done a meditation retreat or traveled to India knows. Spirituality is a path, and the way is often difficult; it is not simply a matter of following a yellow brick road. Films with “spiritual” themes may make us feel good, but they don’t necessarily promote spiritual growth.

Of course, many contemporary seekers would enjoy a resource offering superb new films with complex and intelligent content. Such films are certainly out there. Baraka (1992), The Cup (1999), and My Life Without Me (2003) come to mind.

One promising venue for such works is the International Buddhist Film Festival (www.ibff.org). When the festival premiered in 2003, its program included Travellers & Magicians (directed by Khyentse Norbu, the Buddhist monk who directed The Cup), a Korean feature called Hi! Dharma, and an Australian documentary, Chasing Buddha—all impressive works.

“There is no spiritual film ‘movement,’” says Gaetano Maida, the festival’s executive director. “Film has always been a medium for people with strong spiritual connections. It shows in the films of Tarkovsky, Buñuel, and Kurosawa. The difference today is the availability of production equipment and outside-the-box marketing, so that many new voices can be heard.”

Clearly, programs like “The Hidden God” and the International Buddhist Film Festival point to a fascination in the medium as a tool for spiritual inspiration. And Spiritual Cinema Circle’s success speaks to the failure of the mainstream movie industry to satisfy filmgoers’ spiritual hunger. But filmmakers and film lovers alike would do well to remember that, just as spiritual literature didn’t begin with The Celestine Prophecy, spiritual cinema has been around virtually since the medium’s invention.


Contributing editor Jeff Greenwald’s feature on Burma, which appeared in our November 2003 issue, recently won an award in the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition.