Raising spiritual questions in Oscar Best Picture nominees

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Best_Picture_posters_for_2013_Oscars.jpgBy EDWARD MCNULTY

For years, the Rev. Edward McNulty has been creating study guides to popular movies. Congregations nationwide use his faith-and-film materials. Learn more about Ed’s work at the end of this column. Here’s Ed …

EARLIER, I posted my own list of the 10 Best Spiritual Movies from 2012. Of course, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reaches far beyond spiritual themes—but this year, the Academy did a pretty good job of nominating very thoughtful films. That gives us, as people of faith, great opportunities to delve into these films for lively small-group discussion. The following items are not complete study guides, but I am sharing some quick tips here, including a suggested biblical passage—and a few questions to get your discussion started. 


Ecclesiastes 11:8; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a.
Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, this film starts where most love stories end—the lovers have grown old together. They are in their mid-eighties and then one suffers a stroke that turns the other into caregiver.
QUESTIONS: How many films can you think of that deal with old people in love? Some films to compare: The Last Station; Iris; Away From Her; On Golden Pond. What do these films get right about these issues? In Amour, what significance do you see in the pigeon scenes? In the long sequence of the six paintings? What do you think of the ending? Is this evidence of love? Do you see any sign of hope in the film?


Psalm 7:1-5.
This delightful escape yarn in which Hollywood helps the State Department and the CIA rescue six hostages from Iran during the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Iran would seem too far fetched if it were not based on history. The film celebrates courage, first that of CIA agent Tony Mendez and Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, and then that of the doubtful and fearful hostages.
QUESTIONS: Compare this real-life story to fairy-tale thrillers such as the Bourne or Mission Impossible movies. What’s missing in Argo? What new insights do we get? Discuss the international issues involved. How has history colored our conflict with Iran to this day?


Psalm 69:1-2
I included this film set in a remote Louisiana bayou in my list of Best Spiritual Films. First-time director Benh Zeitlin created the remarkable pint-sized heroine known as Hushpuppy. Drawing on the genre of magical realism, Hushpuppy confronts everything from a major hurricane to the release of mythic beasts through global warming.
QUESTIONS: Compare this film with other films that spin stories of magical realism, such as Moonrise Kingdom or Pan’s Labyrinth. Those films also focus on young main characters. How does Zeitlin’s Hushpuppy take this genre in a new direction? Also, talk about the culture clash between the community in this bayou and government officials who interact with them.  What do you think of the symbolism of the giant beasts in this story?


Psalm 10:7
Director Quentin Tarantino’s over-the-top story is full of his usual blood and gore, but also leaves viewers thinking about the greater violence that was slavery. Many viewers clearly enjoy the movie; many others want nothing to do with the film.
QUESTIONS: Which bothered you more: the blood and gore or the use of the N-word? Do you accept the myth of redemptive violence or reject it? Do you see other global myths reflected in this film? Is this a valuable commentary on the institution of slavery and racial injustice—or are those important issues lost in the Tarantino’s style of movie making?


Genesis 33:9-10; 1 John 2:7-10.
This classic tale of two ways of living—by strict law or by love and grace—focuses on ex-convict Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. The songs open up feelings of the characters better than the straight dramatic versions, helping us experience their inner turmoil.
QUESTIONS: See my full study guide to this film.


Acts 27:27-37
I also featured this film in my Best Spiritual Films list. One of the most explicitly religious films in this list, The Life of Pi also is a tale of survival at sea. Director Ang Lee deserves praise for his memorable adaptation of what to some seemed to be an unfilmable novel.
QUESTIONS: Discuss the references to dangers at sea that run through the Bible, including this famous story in Acts 27. Why does the sea evoke such deep spiritual reflection? What do you think of Pi’s approach to religious traditions? What do you make of the strange episode on the island? Fans of the story have come up with lots of interpretations of that island.


Romans 8:28.
Steven Spielberg again delves into American history, this time two decades after the incidents he chronicled in Amistad, his film about Africans who stage an uprising on a slave ship. The sheer artistry of Daniel Day-Lewis’s and Sally Field’s performances as the anguished Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln make this a must-see movie. The storyline could serve as a midrash on Jesus’s admonition that his disciples be “as harmless as doves and wise as serpents.”
QUESTIONS: Read my entire review of Lincoln. And, you will also enjoy my story about the religious life of our 16th President.


Philippians 2:3-4.
This tale of a half-crazy family, and of two damaged souls in particular, is funny and poignant. Pat Solatano, just released from a mental institution, and the disturbed Tiffany each seek help from the other, eventually discovering that they have enough in common to overcome their initial hostility.
QUESTIONS: What do you think of the way that bipolar disorder is dealt with in the story? Do you know someone like these characters? What do you think about the father—could he stand some therapy too? Discuss the scene in which Tiffany says, “I opened up to you, and you judged me.”


Isaiah 59:14, Luke 17:2-5.
Kathryn Bigelow’s film raises hotly debated questions about torture & its effectiveness during the CIA’s decade-long search for Osama bin Laden. From a very different perspective, the film succeeds well as a feminist tale of a strong woman making her way in a culture of male domination.
: Many Americans already are debating the morality of steps taken in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Also, what do you think of the masculine culture at the CIA and the way that Maya responds to it? There is a lot for church groups to discuss in this controversial story.

Where to find more from Edward McNulty …

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