227: Conversation with a spiritual film critic on “Top 10 DVDs for Autumn”

d McNulty has been exploring the intersection of faith and film for longer than most current American moviegoers have been alive — so he’s had a lot of experience explaining this spiritual connection. He says it best, I think, in his most practical book, “Faith & Film: A Guidebook for Leaders.
   Don’t be put off by that word “Leaders” in his subtitle. If you’re intrigued by Ed’s Top 10 list today and you’re reading this introduction right now — he’s referring to you.
   We’ve written a lot at ReadTheSpirit about the chasms opening in American popular culture, separating many of us into camps. This is especially true at the movies, where you’ll find me a couple of times a week — usually with a crowd far younger than my own 50-something age group. This age segregation at the movies is a problem I talked about in June with Stephen Simon, the founder of the Spiritual Cinema Circle. It’s one of the chasms opening up between Americans.

   Well, Ed is in his early 70s, older than Stephen or me, and yet he’s living proof that creativity has no age limit. I am deeply impressed with his eye, his heart, his mind for spiritual cinema. He has attained through the years, I think, a kind of prophetic bravery in recommending films — some of which carry hard-R ratings and may not be easy choices for most spiritually minded viewers.
   But Ed sees his vocation quite clearly.
   In the opening pages of “Faith & Film,” he writes: “The God of Israel and of the church is far greater than our sanctuaries and carefully crafted worship services can contain. We believe that the God who spoke to the patriarch Joseph through dreams and to Moses through a burning bush continues to speak in unexpected ways and places to those who have ‘eyes that see and ears that hear’ — even in a movie theater or video store.”

   Today’s Conversation is formatted a little differently than most of our weekly Q-and-A interviews.
   Ed began by writing up his list of Top 10 DVDs for Autumn 2008, then we talked about his picks. He decided to limit himself to “new” films, most of them released in the past year or so that now are available on DVD for the first time.
   Whatever you think of Ed’s selections, make sure you send us an Email or click to leave a Comment below. And, if you like his taste in films, don’t miss the CARE TO READ MORE section at the end of today’s story. (Click here — on any cover today — to jump to more background on each book or film.)


1.) “Lars and the Real Girl”

DAVID: Ed, I’m amazed you began with this as your No. 1 choice. Most people won’t pick up this DVD, period. And fewer still will pick it up thinking of spiritual themes. But there’s a real surprise here, right?
   ED: Yes, I was taken by the film’s preposterous premise. I watched it and I was very impressed by how all these characters in the film expressed agape-love for Lars and brought him through this.

   (Rated PG-13. Directed by Craig Gillespie. MGM Home Entertainment. Running time:1 hour 46  minutes. 1 Corinthians. 13:7 & 11; Romans 15:1 & 7. Recommended audience: Adult.)
   ED’S REVIEW: Can a sex toy become a means of grace and the focus of attention bringing together a family, town and church? I almost skipped this film because of the quirky plot involving the pathologically shy Lars turning to an “anatomically correct female doll” for companionship. Lars, taking it around in a wheel chair, introduces “her” as Bianca, a Danish/Brazilian missionary he met at a conference. His compassionate sister-in-law leads her husband into accepting Lar’s delusion, both of them glad that Lars finally is socializing. The family doctor is the next to support Lars, then his church, and finally, virtually the entire town. Told with no tone of mockery or condescension, the story is as inspiring as it is amusing. As the wise doctor had surmised, their loving acceptance leads to Lars emerging from his enslaving shell into wholeness and freedom. Seldom has a church and pastor been shown so positively.

2.) “Persepolis”

DAVID: I just watched this film myself and it’s animated — not what people might immediately choose for a night at the movie — but it really does transport us into this girl’s experience in Iran and in other lands far away. It’s one woman’s personal story — not everyone’s story — but I love films that take us inside the everyday spiritual struggles of real people.
   ED: This is a wonderful visual parable. One of my main aims is to help people find great films that they’ve overlooked, which is why I’m starting the list with films like these.

   (Rated PG-13. Directed/Written by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. Sony Home Entertainment. Running time: 1 hour 29 min. Luke 23:34; Romans 12:2. Recommended audience: Adult & Youth)
   ED’S REVIEW: Although the filmmakers use flat animation, this is probably the most realistic of films, thanks to the autobiographical story of co-director Marjane Satrapi, whose graphic novels form the basis of the film. Beginning in Iran during the days of the Shah, the film follows the progress of a little girl coming to maturity amidst the regress of her country from tyranny under the Shah to a far worse one under the fundamentalist mullahs who force him out of power. Determined to be her own person, Marjane resists her teachers trying to convince her that the veil is freedom. Her liberal parents decide to send her to Vienna for her safety. There her clash with the nihilistic pop culture of the West and her series of mishaps that lead to deep introspection are wonderfully captured by the largely black and white animation and the expressive voices of the actors. Informative as to the recent history of Iran and inspiring through its feminist theme, this is a good film for all ages above junior level to see and discuss.

3.) “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

   DAVID: OK, we’ll you’re not making it easy on viewers. You really want to challenge them, don’t you? A movie about a guy with a blow-up toy, an unusual animated film and now a movie that opens with the limited visuals that are glimpsed through the eyes of a recovering patient. Interesting choices, but I’m following you — people will be intrigued.
   ED: This one is difficult to watch, especially in the opening scenes when you’re so restricted by what Bauby sees when he’s first recovering. But this is such a testament to human life.

   (Rated PG-13. Directed by Julian Schnabel. Miramax Films. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.  Matthew 10:29-30. Recommended audience: Adult.)
   ED’S REVIEW: How can one communicate when one’s body is so paralyzed that the only part of the body that moves is the left eye? And if one could, wouldn’t it be best to ask for euthanasia? Jean-Dominique Bauby had been the editor of the French fashion magazine ELLE when a terrible stroke left him paralyzed. The answer to how he can communicate comes from his ingenious therapist Henriette Durand who devices a chart of letters beginning in descending order with those most often used in speaking. He winks his eye when she (and family members and friends whom she trains) comes to the right letter, and then moves on to the next, and so on. It is so slow that the frustrated Bauby does want to give up, but Henriette will not allow this. How he and his loved ones struggle to communicate and even his writing his memoir, makes this one of the most inspirational testimonies to the human spirit that you are likely to see. Some interesting scenes on faith and religious commercialism add to the film’s rich mixture.

4.) “The Lives of Others”

   DAVID: Now, here’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser, I think. I’ve heard from a good number of spiritually themed writers who strongly recommended this film to their readers. I’ve recommended it, as well, and even wrote one day’s meditation in Lent, this past spring, based on this film.
   ED: I’m impressed with the subtlety of this film. It’s a film that Hollywood would have ruined. They couldn’t have left the ending the way it is in this film — they would have messed it up.

   (Rated R. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Sony Pictures Classics. Running time:2 hours 17 min. Matthew 5:16 & 13:33. Recommended audience: Adult )
   ED’S REVIEW: It is relatively easy to show the power of evil, but goodness is more difficult without the portrayal becoming cloying. The old saying “one bad apple spoils the bunch” is turned around in this Oscar-winning film that shows the power of goodness in the least likely of circumstances, the last years of the East German government. Secret Police Capt. Gerd Wiesler is assigned to spy on Georg Dreyman, the nation’s leading playwright, to catch him in a subversive act or word. Bugging the man’s apartment, the spy listens for long hours, discovering much about his intimate life, but nothing about any subversive thoughts or activities. Dreyman is no saint, spending much time with the actress who is his lover. He does offer sympathy to his blacklisted mentor, but without endorsing his cause. Ultimately Wiesler does an uncharacteristic act of grace, the film ending with a subtle but moving moment of thanks.

5.) “The Great Debaters”

   DAVID: I’m glad you put this on your list. To be honest, I didn’t want to see this film at first. It felt like something that I “should see,” but wouldn’t enjoy. Then, I heard an interview with Denzel Washington and it really made me want to go see the movie. I’m so glad I did. Great themes — but a great story, too.
   ED: This is just a great film about social justice and what it really was like to be a black man or a black woman in this era in the South. It’s so well told that the truth of the story carries you through the film.

   (Rated PG-13. Directed by Denzel Washington. Weinstein Films. Running time: 122 minutes. Ephesians 6:10-14. Recommended audience: Adult & Youth)
   ED’S REVIEW: Set in 1935, director Denzel Washington’s fact-based film tells the story of a controversial poet and professor at an all-black college in Texas whose radical ideas about organizing share croppers, white and black, aroused the ire of the local sheriff and other white leaders. Using unorthodox teaching methods, Prof. Tolson coaches four carefully selected students so well that they become the first team to debate and win against a white team. In the face of immense racist-based opposition, they win an invitation to debate the greatest team in the nation–at Harvard (though actually it was the University of Southern California.) A true story of the triumph of the oppressed, it is all the more powerful because one of the students was James Farmer Jr. who rose to become an influential Civil Rights leader.

6.) “Sweet Land”

   DAVID: This is one of two films on your list that I haven’t seen. It came and went, didn’t it?
   ED: Like so many films, it was almost impossible for people to find it — then it was gone from theaters. Thank God for DVDs to bring back gems like this for us to enjoy.

   (Rated PG. Directed by Ali Selim. 120dB Films/Libero. Running time:110 minutes. 1 John 3:14-22 & 1 Corinthians 5:13. Recommended audience: Adult & Youth)
   ED’S REVIEW: Set in rural Minnesota two years after World War I when hatred of the Germans was still strong, this is the story of a man and woman’s love overcoming the prejudice of their community and pastor. Seen in flashbacks, Olaf Torvik with his best friend Brownie meets his mail order bride from Norway, Inge. However, when it comes to light that Inge is not Norwegian but German, Minister Sorrensen refuses to marry them. Supported only by Brownie and his wife Marta, the couple vow to make a life together. They almost fail economically, but divine help, delivered through the church, saves the day. Beautifully photographed, this is one of those little-noticed films that I love to bring to the attention of VisualParables readers.

7.) “In Bruges”

   DAVID: OK, talk about challenging films. I watched this film and my wife was overhearing the soundtrack in the other room, one evening. Based on the foul language and a couple of pretty hard-R-rated scenes in this film, she told me it didn’t sound like something worth watching. But, the story — particularly toward the end — takes your breath away at some of the ultimate choices made by the characters. I won’t spoil it by saying more.
   ED: You’re right. The ending is a real surprise. You’ve got watch this film closely to see it all unfold. I’m sure that’s the difference in experience. Just listening from a distance — it may seem like something you wouldn’t want to watch. But there are some unexpected turns here that you won’t forget.

   (Rated R. Directed/written by Martin Donagh. Universal Home Entertainment. Running time: 1 hour 47 min. John 15:13. Recommended audience: Adult)
   ED’S REVIEW: In this dark comedy two hit men are dispatched from Dublin to the small Medieval city of Bruges, Belgium, to wait until the heat over a killing has subsided. Ken, the older of the pair, is to baby sit Ray, who has just botched his first job. In dispatching his target, a priest, he also killed the altar boy who was present. To their boss Harry, the killing of a child is unforgivable. Ken grows to love the city and its art, but Ray will scarcely look at anything, preferring to complain while longing to be back in Dublin. Then the two come across a crew shooting a film, a main character being a dwarf. One of the crew members is a beautiful girl, whom Ray befriends and arranges to meet the next night for dinner. Ken stays behind in their room to receive the expected phone call from Harry. When it comes through he is disturbed that his order is to kill his undependable partner. Meanwhile, Ray is launched on an adventure that includes his fending off a robber and befriending the dwarf as well as the girl. Back at their lodgings Ken wrestles with his conscience, believing that there is potential for good in Ray–and yet his orders are explicit.

8.) “Into the Wild”

   DAVID: I’ll take issue with you on this next one, Ed. I really was impressed with the original book, which I think underlined how crazy it can be to head off alone — to separate yourself from other people in this way. I don’t think the main character came out as such a romantic hero in the original book as he appears to be in the film. And I wasn’t impressed by the way the film ends. Some details were manipulated, I think, to make a more uplifting ending.
   ED: I wasn’t focused so much on the ending of the film. I liked a lot of the earlier scenes. What I liked about the film is that it showed so many moments of grace in which people touched this young man’s life  in remarkable ways.

   (Rated R. Directed/written by Sean Penn. Paramount vantage. Running time:2 hours. Ecclesiastes 2:1-5. Recommended audience: Adult & Youth)
   ED’S REVIEW: Based on the life and death of 22 year-old Christopher McCandless, this marvelous entry into the road genre of films is packed with the young seeker’s earnest encounters with grace-filled people whom he meets on the road to Alaska. After graduating from Emory University, Christopher has been accepted into Harvard’s Law School, but he turns his back on it and his family’s materialistic lifestyle and heads west, burning his credit cards and money along the way. He meets an aging hippy couple, a wheat farmer in the Dakotas, a teenaged singer, and a lonely old man who wants to adopt him as his grandson. To each and from each Christopher imparts and receives grace and wisdom. His end in Alaska is sad, but the maturity gained, as seen by such observations in his notes as “Happiness is only real when shared,” shows that he did not live in vain.

9.) “Man Dancin'”

   DAVID: Here’s the other film I haven’t seen on your list. You really do watch the landscape pretty closely to find something like this.
   ED: The filmmakers have had a hard time getting this one to viewers. It was filmed in 2003, but it’s just been released. I like this film so much that I’m writing a discussion guide for this film.

   (Rated R. Directed by Norman Stone. Vision Video*. Running time: 1 hour 53 min. Isaiah 53:3a & Matthew 23:27-28. Recommended audience: Adult & Mature Youth)
   ED’S REVIEW: When Jimmy returns to Glasgow from prison his former gang boss and the corrupt police officer expect him to return to his life of crime. However, he has changed, which we see right away when he offers to take the beating which his drug addicted younger brother deserves. Under the tutelage of a priest Jimmy reluctantly joins the church drama group, winding up in the role of Christ in a passion play. How Jimmy changes those around him as he fights the dark powers trying to draw him back to his old ways makes for inspirational viewing. The film is not for every one, the R being well deserved for profane street language and sexuality, but those who liked Jesus of Montreal will appreciate this modern day passion story. 

10.) “There Will Be Blood”

   DAVID: You started with a surprise — and you ended with a surprise. As much as I wanted to like this movie, I came away not liking it. There’s a final scene in this film that’s just so brutal, so evil — a hopelessly corrupted preacher lies dead in a bowling alley and the film’s main character rises from having beaten him to death. He says, “Finished,” and the film ends there. Wow. Disturbing.
   ED: Well, you might think of this as the mirror reverse of what Jesus did on the cross. This is the flip side — a journey not to heaven but into Hell. And there’s a lot to think about in this film.

   (Rated R. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Paramount Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 38 min. Psalm 52:1-7 & Matthew 6:24. Recommended audience: Adult)
   ED’S REVIEW: I had no intention at first to include this dark film in this list, but after seeing it and discovering the many Scriptural connections, I reluctantly decided to eliminate “August Rush” to make room for this one. Like “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” which Mr. Anderson says he watched many times in preparation for filming his story, this is the chronicle of a man losing his soul as he cuts himself off from human contact during his quest for wealth and power. Some see it as a critique of the ruthless business culture of the robber barons that began to dominate America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Certainly Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis, for which he won an Oscar) would have agreed with the anti-hero of Wall Street, who declared, “Greed is good.” Daniel sacrifices his foster son, fakes a religious conversion, lies and cheats, and murders, finally reaching an end, when, even though he is in an alcoholic haze, he says, “I am finished.” 

   In addition to his basic book about faith and film, Ed has two more books in print that are month-long devotional guides to reflecting on movie themes. (And, no, you don’t have to know all the films to appreciate his books.)
   CLICK ON ANY COVER TODAY to jump to our bookstore where you’ll find Ed’s books and DVD selections listed for your futher exploration. (If you purchase any of them through our Amazon store, you’ll get Amazon’s regular discounts and you’ll also be helping to support ReadTheSpirit.)
   AND — VISIT ED’s OWN WEB SITE, Visual Parables. It’s a subscription-based site mainly for preachers, teachers and other group leaders who pay $36 a year for a steady stream of Ed’s reviews that connect movies with biblical and spiritual themes.

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