Movies That Show Us Ourselves

There’s a type of movie I particularly like. By its construction, such a movie helps bring forward what’s required from you to complete it. You give it its definition; that, to me, is a real viewing experience—to personalize it and make it your own, meanings as various as the numbers of people who create them.

It’s easy to identify such a picture by its reviews, which are always in marvelous disagreement as to what the picture is fundamentally about. These movies differ from the straight story types in the same way teaching styles are dissimilar, the didactic method (you’re told or shown what the point is and you learn it; the fair-minded goodness of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is an artful example) versus the socratic (you’re led to discover the point on your own). The discovery may just happen to be about yourself, because your interpretation of the movie shows something that you may not have been conscious of. I have four of these “socratic” movies in mind as examples, Agnes of God; All Is Lost and Life of Pi; and last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Birdman, all movies that introduced me to myself more fully, the first exposing a core spiritual value system, the next two the strength of a spiritual belief, the last the depth of my perception. The films cover quite a span of years, paralleling stages of personal development I had to go through to be ready for them.

Agnes of God (1985)

This was the first that made me aware of the type of movie I describe. In it, a newborn is found strangled and disposed of in the room of a young nun, Sister Agnes. She’s the mother of the child, though the Mother Superior says Agnes has no memory of the conception or pregnancy. A court-appointed psychiatrist investigates, trying to determine if the nun is mentally capable of standing trial. Uncovering how psychologically troubled Agnes is, the psychiatrist proceeds in building a case for homicide, while the Mother Superior defends her innocence as a girl manifesting a miracle of God, the most convincing result of which are her stigmata. The clash between the two demands that you, the viewer, resolve the conflict, because the movie never confirms guilt or innocence. Your judgment of whether Agnes is touched by God or by madness solves the mystery and at the same time reveals your sense of values, faith or reason.

For me, it’s reason, which turned out to be an important finding for my future spiritual quest. I began to know then that matters of God must make rational sense to me before I can have faith. Faith for me is determined first by the mind, then the heart. If you question your own subterranean bias, watch this movie and I guarantee your natural response to it will provide the answer.

All Is Lost (2013) and Life of Pi (2012)

I was so affected by All Is Lost, I published a blog shortly after I’d seen it, “All Is Not Lost.” I’d been interested initially because Robert Redford was the star—and furthermore the only on-screen character—and I am a fan. But it unfolded to be vastly more than just a Redford vehicle, and, for the sake of the viewers surrounding me in the theater, I had to stifle the sobs that welled up in my chest because of the final scene, a compelling moment which some viewers would see as proof of God’s salvation.

I was astonished by my own reaction, for I’d not realized how powerfully my God-seeking journey had taken hold until I was faced with deciding the movie’s meaning. A secularist would experience the story as an adventure tale of a man lost at sea, all events and circumstances taken literally at the level of reality only; a spiritualist, which my surprise reaction determined me to be, would take it metaphorically as a soul’s journey, the movie’s rich setting full of symbology and hints at a religious thrust.

The other movie, Life of Pi, presents the same form of interpretive choice. At the end of Pi’s story, however, the selection the viewer has to make as to meaning is made explicit. In contrast to Our Man (Redford) in All Is Lost, where a religious theme coexists implicitly with an overtly secular one, the adult Pi tells two versions of his earlier adventure at sea as a boy, mystical and pragmatic, and then finally asks directly, Which do you believe? The voyage of his soul, sailing in surrender to the vast unknown with his only companion, a God-like Bengal tiger whom Pi loved and feared in equal measure? Or the voyage of his raft? I sobbed all the way home from that film, too, moved beyond words by Pi’s spiritual experience, he a novice seeker so like myself at the time.

Birdman (2014)

This movie posed the toughest revelation, my ability to see. The full title of it is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The subtitle (and veiled by parentheses yet!) should have been a tip-off that the movie was going to be enlightening if I could let it be; for, let’s face it, the only unexpected “virtue” of being ignorant is when you’re not anymore. Yet I couldn’t discern the movie’s real point at first, and I left the theater afterward feeling disappointed by a skimpy black comedy about actors’ pretensions. The movie had had a big promotion budget and therefore lots of pre-release buzz about its Oscar quality. But I felt cheated by the predictable story of a washed-up movie actor’s egomaniacal attempt at career redemption. However, Birdman kept pecking at my thinking, patiently dwindling my ignorance. Finally I got it because I saw this clue: the play-within-the-movie was named “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Well, what do we talk about?

That play is the platform that has-been Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson uses to get audiences to adore him again as they did back in his glory days of playing movie superhero Birdman. And there the Birdman still is, in fact, dogging Riggan, reminding him of what used to be, driving him to (at worst) insanity, to (at best) insensitive dismissal of all else but scrambling to the top again. Birdman even whisks him away on fantasy flights high above Broadway, metaphors for Riggan’s obsessive lust for celebrity—that famous stand-in for love—again. By the end, and after a dramatic ironic reversal of Riggan’s rotten comeback luck, Birdman’s left squatting in the bathroom (a darkly humorous symbol for how the past can block and constipate a life) and Riggan is surrounded by the ones who had loved him—really loved him—all along, his daughter, his ex-wife, his longtime agent. Recognizing this at last (not ignorant anymore), Riggan takes off in joyful flight on his own. What we talk about when we talk about love, therefore, is up to us, the genuine, accepting love which is offered right before us, or the fickle, superficial, people-pleasing variety.

Now that’s a meaningful flick. But, with Birdman, it’s up to the viewer to know it, to explore beneath the obvious story line about the conceits and self-involvement of the entertainment industry (movies and the “legitimate”—read “Broadway, New York City”—theater). See it (or see it again), and test your depth perception. Because of my life experience, I found my level of sense; you may find another one, filtering even farther below the story’s surface.

That is the glory of the capital-A Arts. Through the extent of understanding of individual recipients, the significance of works of art is determined. Which, in turn, helps to tell us who we are.