I was once a movie reviewer, so I have watched a ton of movies–good, bad, and in-between—over the years.
Next to needlework, my favorite way to pass the time is watching movies. My favorite “comfort food” of choice is a classic movie.
Sometimes when I watch these, I am surprised by the spiritual messages that are present but may not be immediately noticeable.
Below are five of my favorites. While many may have already heard of or seen these films, try watching them again with new eyes. You may be surprised by what you see:
1. La Dolce Vita (1960)
While many echo the phrase, “Living la dolce vita” (the good or literally, “the sweet life”) to signify a good time, few realize that the title of Fellini’s best-known movie is ironic.
The “good life” is an empty life totally devoid of anything spiritual or meaningful. The film follows a week in the life of a gossip writer, Marcello, and his encounters with the so-called beautiful people of Rome—actors, singers, and an odd assortment of rich, bored people. (One of the brilliant things about this movie is that Fellini cast actual well-known actors of the era to appear as themselves.)
Together, they drink, party, have sex and try to think of new ways to have fun. Marcello’s attempts to live la dolce vita while trying to find deeper meaning in his life is at the heart of the movie. Also, look for a brief appearance by a pre-famous Nico in a scene as a party goer. (Nico would later go on to become a singer/icon before her own excesses lead to her untimely demise in 1988.)
2. Darling (1965)
This film earned Julie Christie the 1965 Oscar for Best Actress. In it, she plays a model named Diana Scott who is blessed with beauty but not much else including any sort of moral compass.
While her beauty brings her fame, money and even an actual prince for a husband, none of this makes her happy. One of the last shots of the movie—that of an unattractive, old woman who doesn’t have a quarter of the material comforts that Diana has but nonetheless appears genuinely happy—is one of the most powerful images I have ever seen. It reminds us that true happiness doesn’t come from having stuff or our appearances but rather from within.
3. Citizen Kane (1941)
While it’s another movie that shows success and money cannot buy happiness, Citizen Kane also shows the need that we all have—no matter how rich or powerful we are—to be loved for ourselves. One of the most poignant episodes in the life of Charles Foster Kane is his doomed marriage to a no-talent would-be opera singer whom he sincerely believes loves him for himself.
It turns out, though, that she does not. Kane’s death in his enormous mansion surrounded by all the stuff money can buy but not a single friend or loved one is all the proof one needs that money can buy everything except the one thing that matters most—love.
4. Planet of the Apes (1968)
It’s easy to get swept up in the ape make-up and Charlton Heston’s over-the-top acting (“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”), but Planet of the Apes raises some important issues such as humankind’s treatment of “lesser” species as well as the question if humans, with their tendency towards self-destruction, truly are “superior” to other animals.
While George Taylor (Heston) is ostensibly the hero of the movie, I always thought that Zira, the ape psychology who is an expert on human behavior, is the real hero. Despite all her training and being her entire life told that humans cannot talk or are capable of higher intelligence, she is willing to change her beliefs as she gets to know Taylor. Ultimately, she helps him to escape despite the fact that if caught, the move would cost her both her job and her freedom.
Zira’s decision to do the right thing against huge societal pressure to do otherwise is a great reminder that sometimes doing the right thing comes at a heavy cost and the “right thing” may not even be obvious to others at the time.
5. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)
George Lucas has never made any secret that the Star Wars films are full of spiritual themes. However, Return of the Jedi will always have special meaning for me because I can still recall watching it for the first time at age 12 in 1989 and being amazed when Darth Vader turns against his master, The Emperor, to save his son.
Anyone who watched the first two original films in the series knows that Vadar is a bad guy. He has no qualms about killing people or even blowing up entire planets. However, he ultimately proves that no one is without the potential for redemption.
Also, seeing the frail, disfigured old man behind the mask was a shock as well. The truth is, all “monsters” no matter how scary, are human beings. Even though the decision to save his son ultimately costs him his physical life, it saves his spiritual one as witnessed by one of his last lines in the movie where Luke says he has to save him. “You already have, Luke.” (No matter how many times I watch the film, that line never fails to make me tear up.)
In closing, spiritual cinema can be found in many surprising places including some well-known and well-loved movie classics.
While all these movies more than stand up on their own as superb pieces of entertainment, watching them with their spiritual messages in mind can make them appear fresh and even brand-new.
In any case, don’t take my word for it. Watch them yourself or, even better, with friends and see if you can pick up on other deeper meanings that may be present but you never picked up on before.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Wikimedia Commons