The Common Good

6 Films for a Meaningful Summer

It's been a fabulous few weeks for movies -- at theaters and at home. There are images in the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, recently released on Blu-ray and DVD, that are so beautiful they can evoke an aching longing for transcendent experience. This is entirely the point, for the film is about the search for meaning in a God-breathed universe. A man goes to space to investigate a mystery, discovers himself in the face of his loved ones, and ends in an embrace with the divine -- love itself. It's an astonishing work of art that repays multiple viewings, and serves as nothing less than an icon for worship. This summer's The Tree of Life, the fifth film in 40 years from the Christian humanist artist Terrence Malick, becomes something similar, and in the process makes excellent cinematic use of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as avatars of contemporary masculinity. It's the most moving film I've seen this year.

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Questions of what it means to be human are also explored in Insignificance, Blow Out, and Kes, all three also released on DVD for reappraisal long after they were made. Insignificance is a smart and amusing fantasy that brings Marilyn Monroe, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, and Albert Einstein together for a night of conversation, and Blow Out is a playful thriller about the ruination that violence brings to those individuals or nations who think it's the only option. Kes, English socialist filmmaker Ken Loach's key movie, takes socioeconomic disenfranchisement seriously in its tragic story of a little boy aiming for hope and being crushed by the brokenness that often manifests when men haven't learned to control their own anger. These are magnificent, important films that deserve serious attention.

As does Super 8, a new blockbuster that has something to say about our world. There is childlike wonder, for sure, in this tribute to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but also something deeper at work. Super 8 presents nothing less than the inversion of the myth of redemptive violence and a proposal that the best response to the real-world violence of the past decade might be a gentle recognition that no one has a monopoly on suffering. Blow Out and Kes present the challenge of a brutal world. Insignificance poses the deep philosophical questions that arise in its wake. And The Tree of Life, Solaris, and Super 8 seem to be offering an answer that requires sustained meditation. A universal truth that could serve as a motto for the post-9/11 peace movement, in the words of one of Super 8's characters: "Bad things happen, but you can still live."

Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Carrboro, North Carolina. This article first appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine.

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