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Popcorn for the Soul

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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.

Groundhog Day. Harold Ramis, 1993.

If the obligatory annual viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life leaves you feeling like you have imbibed too much Christmas spirit, here’s a dose of feel-good existentialism that’ll 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 don’t interest him, because humanness doesn’t 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 alien’s 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 can’t 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.

It’s 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 -— that never feels overbearing. For anyone who has knelt before a graybeard guru, then felt let down, Ruth Gordon’s 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? Wenders’s daring, dreamy film weaves existential — or perhaps we should say nonexistential — 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 — 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.

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.