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November 28, 2005

The other day, Darren at Long Pauses posted a list of his Top Five Spiritually Significant Films, and invited others to do the same in the comments. I've decided to compose my own list here instead, since cinematic discourse on spirituality is a favorite topic of mine (right on par with cinematic sexuality). My appreciation of it is twofold: I love films that deal with human morality in the secular sense; I also love films which challenge my rejection of that which I perceive as illogical. There is a quote from Einstein (paraphrased in Before Sunset) that sums up this trait: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." There's another I like, which gets more specific: ""My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind."

My real top five on this subject would of course be full of Bresson and Bergman. To make things more interesting, I'll avoid both (which still leaves me with a handful of predictable choices, two of which I can't help but include).

1. The Decalogue (Kieslowski, 1988). There are approximately 1.5 instances of overt spirituality in Kieslowski's' masterpiece of moral complexity: the first is the iconic imagery that closes the first episode, and then there is the case of the young man who appears in the background of all but one of the ten segments, to whom various religious significance has been assigned. Is he an angel? Christ? Kieslowski claims that he is just a man who is there, randomly, meaninglessly - but he knew what he was doing when he included him, and it is such a detail that lends these otherwise extremely intimate films a wider scope. This figure represents, to me, a standard against which the moral complexity of the characters and their dilemmas is suddenly made clear; the concept of right and wrong is distilled to its simplest essence. There is nothing judgmental in these films, but they are not works of moral relativism, and in that constancy one can recognize - if one wishes - a thread of connection between what is innately human and what might be divine.
2. La Passion De Jeanne D'Arc(Dreyer, 1928). By fixing his camera on Jeanne's face for the majority of the film, Dreyer is essentially creating a record of the process of faith. Her expressions, and the emotions that are made transparent through them, deflect and transcend any incredulity on the audience's part. Her martyrdom is all the more tragic because of the human connection this perspective facilitates, but there's something victorious about it as well. Whether or not her achievement is a divine one is open to interpretation, but there is no doubt that it is a triumph of the spirit.
3. Magnolia (Anderson, 1999). Human transgression and forgiveness have never been more beautifully elucidated than in this, one of my all-time favorite films (how does Anderson manage to be so bombastic and subtle simultaneously?). This is an exquisitely moral picture, but unlike Kieslowski and The Decalogue, Anderson suggests that judgment of a higher sort will eventually be passed on his characters; Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), a terrible man made sympathetic through considerate writing, remains unforgiven and pays the price for his sins - he's deprived of the easy exit of suicide when a falling frog knocks him unconsicous, presumably leaving him to perish in his burning house. The meaning there is pretty unavoidable, and those frogs? In the words of the narration, "this cannot be 'one of those things. This, please, cannot be that."
4. The Rapture (Tolkin, 1991). Here, on the other hand, is a film that is hardly subtle in its meaning; moving from a satire of born-again evangelism to a very physical realization of the apocalypse (the scene in the jail, with the bars falling from the cell doors, is rather awe inspiring), Michael Tolkin openly confronts and engages what are, for many Christians, traditional (and casually understood) concepts of faith and spiritual duty. It is an imperfect but important film.
5. Solaris (Tarkovsky/Soderbergh, 1976/2002). Both of these adaptations of Stanislaw Lem's novel deal with the concept of mankind's response when faced with a higher, incomprehensible power. Soderbergh's version, trimmed of all but the most essential narrative details, cuts to the core of the mystery with greater impact but less subtlety (although I'm speaking of relative subtlety here); Tarkovsky's is more oblique, and therefore more open to interpretation. Take which one you will: I love both.

And as one last addendum: my favorite use of cinematic form to convey the divine is the last few seconds of The Last Temptation Of Christ, in which the film is splashed with Brakhage-like bursts of light and color before, seemingly, catching in the projector and disentegrating. Talk about breaking the fourth wall.

Posted by David Lowery at November 28, 2005 04:38 PM


Phil Parma? I think you mean Jimmy Gator.

Posted by: Matt at November 28, 2005 09:41 PM

Goddamn it - I've come undone!

Posted by: Ghostboy at November 28, 2005 09:46 PM

La Passion De Jeanne D'Arc

can't agree with you more, that's the first thing that sprang to mind..

Posted by: brad at November 28, 2005 11:35 PM

Great post, David. Have you seen Agnes Varda's "Cleo from 5 to 7"?

Posted by: Karsten at November 29, 2005 11:33 AM

No, but I know I need to (I actually passed up a screening of it a month ago for a friend's birthday party). I'm now going to saunter over to Netflix and act on this reminder...

Posted by: Ghostboy at November 29, 2005 12:21 PM

it's funny.........i think we would have the exact same lists if asked this question......
although i would include Wim Wenders' WINGS OF DESIRE as well....talk about the beauty of mortals and the triumph of spirit.
very moving to me....

Posted by: Frank Mosley at November 29, 2005 02:21 PM

You picked Solaris over Andrei Rubalev? Interesting.

Posted by: Wiley Wiggins at November 29, 2005 05:50 PM

Frank: Indeed...plus Nick Cave is in it!

Wiley: My public reason for not including Andrei Rublev is that, for the sake of variety, I didn't want to include any of the titles that Darren listed. My more covert explanation is that...yep, I haven't seen it.

*bows head in shame*

Posted by: Ghostboy at November 29, 2005 05:50 PM

I haven't seen Andrei Rublev either... but my mistake is worse; I started to see it.... but couldn't keep interest. I may havve changed, so it's on my shortlist.

"Cleo from 5 to 7" is the best new wave film, and the most overlooked. After one viewing I was sold, after owning the Criterion disc for a half a year and repeated viewings... I'm in love.

Posted by: Karsten at November 30, 2005 11:38 AM


AND STALKER. That for me may be THE most spiritual and profound film ever.

It's too bad more people in America aren't familiar with Mamoru Oshii's ANGEL'S EGG. That one is monumental.

Posted by: David at December 1, 2005 06:36 PM

Andrei Rublev should be arriving next week...

Posted by: Ghostboy at December 2, 2005 04:31 PM