The fragility of life. The servanthood of love. The (im)morality of war. The fundamentals of mercy and justice. The power of grace and forgiveness. The oneness of creation. The personal (and spiritual) toll of climate change. The nature of God and faith.
These are some of the spiritual themes explored in the mostly august field of nine contenders for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture — Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.
This week, in the run-up to Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, we're taking a look at each of the Best Picture nominees, the stories they tell, and the spiritual questions (and answers) they offer. Today, we turn our attention to Django Unchained, Les Miserables, and Life of Pi.
READ Oscar Spirit, Pt. 1: Amour, Argo, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, HERE.
**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD**
Directed by Quentin Tarantino; featuring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kerry Washington
Producers: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, and Pilar Savone
German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz buys a slave named Django and promises him his freedom once he has helped Schultz track down the criminals he is seeking. But Django has a wife who was sold off years ago, and his partnership with Schultz may offer him a chance to find her.
Let me begin by saying I am horribly squemish about violence, particularly egregious depictions of bloody attacks in film or television. Had I not been working on this project, I would never have gone to see Quentin Tarantino's latest bloodbath, Django Unchained.
Despite hiding my eyes behind my sweater more than a few times during the lengthy film (it's about 45 minutes too long and most of the "too much" are scenes of shoot-outs with gallons of exploding blood), I am glad I saw it. While Tarantino is quite comfortably immersed in his wheelhouse of graphic violence, the story he tells in Django is compelling and loaded with ethical (if not explicitely spiritual) quandaries worth contemplating.
Set in the Deep South a few years before the start of the Civil War, Django's plot centers around a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx in another masterful performance that rivals his Oscar-winning portrayal of Ray Charles a few years back), who, while being forced by slave traders to march for miles chained to a half-dozen other slaves, encounters a peculiar man, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz, who deserves to take home the gold statuette for Best Supporting Actor on Sunday), a German dentist-turned-mercenary.
Schultz, a wholly original and absolutely memorable character, buys Django from his cruel captors with the aim of setting him free if Django helps him track down a family of slave masters who are wanted for murder.
From the get go, Schultz makes it clear that he finds slavery repellant (morally and otherwise), which is clearly demonstrated by the dispassionate way in which he violently dispatches the pair of slave drivers who had been tormenting Django and then hands the other slaves the keys to their shackles.
Django, whom his new employer insists ride a horse despite the practice being forbidden for black folks, handily helps Schultz find the trio of wanted men and is a "natural" with a gun. Shultz treats Django as an equal, with dignity and respect. They are partners. Django is a free man.
We are meant to understand, I believe, that Schultz is a righteous man, even though, he's the first to admit, he makes a very good living by hunting fugitives, killing them, and exchanging their corpses for cash. He's enacting justice, giving murderers and thieves their due.
Schultz takes a genuine interest in Django, and when he learns that Django is married and that his wife, also a slave, has been sold by their master to a different slave owner (on purpose to separate man and wife), Schultz sets about helping Django find and rescue his bride.
In Tarantino's moral universe (at least as indicated in his film oeuvre) bad guys get what's coming to them. And good guys needn't be perfect. Far from it, in fact. But if they are pursuing justice, their efforts are heroic and they are portrayed as such.
Which is, I suppose, how I found myself cheering for Django as he deftly dispatches dozens of white folks who treat him like something less than human, drenching the pristine walls of the slave master's stately home in the aforementioned gallons of blood.
We are taugh that two wrongs don't make a right, that violence is never a good option. And yet, in the face of unrepentent evil, as is the case with the slave masters and their crews, Django's bloody revenge (which is undertaken not for the sake of revenge, but to save his wife), feels, somehow, right.
That's a terribly uncomfortable moral and ethical ambiguity. And I'm guessing that was Tarantino's point precisely.
Directed by Tom Hooper featuring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfreid, and Eddie Redmayne
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, and Cameron Mackintosh
In early 19th century France, Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned years earlier for stealing a loaf of bread, decides to break his parole following his release and assume a new identity. Although he succeeds in building a new life for himself, the relentless pursuit of Inspector Javert threatens the security of Valjean and his adopted daughter, Cosette.
Victor Hugo described his 1862 novel, Les Miserables, as "a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end."
To that apt description I would add that Hugo's masterpiece is a spiritual epic which pits the law against grace, and where grace, thanks be to God, wins.
When I read Les Miserables (in the original French, if memory serves) and saw its Broadway staging for the first time more than 20 years ago, the depth of its religious themes and power were largely lost on me, as the profundity of sacred art occasionally is on the young. I was not a rabid fan like many of my friends who would listen to the musical's soundtrack on repeat and sing its songs of struggle and redemption as if they were their own.
So when a friend (from those college days, in fact) invited me to a private screening of Tom Hooper's screen adaptation of Les Miserables a few days after Christmas, I nearly declined. But my mother was in town visiting for the holidays and she's a life-long musical theater fan, so at the last minute, we joined the crowd of diehard Hugo devotees, even as I remained certain I would be underwhelmed.
Mon Dieu, was I ever wrong. The sheer magnitude of the spectacle that unfolded before me on the big screen grabbed my spirit and didn't let go for the next 2.5 hours. All of those transcendent themes that had gone over my head nearly a quarter century earlier, came roaring to life, filling my senses and sending my spirit into an ascent that felt much like worship.
For those unfamiliar with the story arc of Les Miserables, there are two main protagonists — Jean Valjean (portrayed magnificently by Hugh Jackman, who, were it not for Daniel Day-Lewis' almost supernatural embodiment of the 16th president of the United States in Lincoln, would be a shoe-in for the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar) and his merciless jailer, Inspector Javert (played by a sadly miscast Russell Crowe, bless his heart) — are both men of faith. And yet, they could not be more different.
Javert's stalwart faith lies squarely in keeping the law (God's and man's), while Valjean, cruelly imprisoned for nearly 20 years in the bleakest of conditions for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister, believes as if his very life depends on it (and it does) in the God of grace.
In one of the most moving and enduring scenes in the film (WATCH A CLIP OF THE SCENE HERE), after being refused employment repeatedly because of his status as an ex-convict, a kindly bishop gives a bitter and desperate Valjean shelter for the night in his church. Valjean steals the church silverware and is caught by police, who drag him back to face the bishop. Rather than delivering Valjean into the hands of the justice he rightly deserves (and condemning him to life in prison as a repeat offender), the bishop tells police that the silverware was a gift to his houseguest.
"Remember this, my brother," the bishop tells Valjean. "See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, God has brought you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God."
In time, Valjean does just that, recreating himself as an honest man with a new identity, the successful businessman "Mayor Madeleine." Time and again, the reborn Valjean makes the choice to be merciful and dole out grace to others, most notably the tragic Fantine (Anne Hathaway) a mother whose despair leads her to sell her body as a prostitute to feed her child, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).
Javert arrests Fantine for slapping a man who had been harassing her on the street, but Valjean intervenes, demanding that Javert, who does not immediately recognize his former captive, release her, which he reluctantly does. When Fantine dies, Valjean rescues Cosette from the expolitive petty criminals with whom she lives, and raises her as his own daughter.
Javert learns Valjean's true identity, and seemingly incapable of believing in conversion — that a person truly can change — sets about to exact his revenge, which to his mind is giving Valjean the "justice" he deserves. Once a thief, always a thief...
It's been said that justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you absolutely don't deserve.
Valjean knows this because he's experienced it for himself — the transforming power of grace. Javert, convinced that by keeping the laws he can save himself. But in the end, he's done in by his own faith in justice. While Valjean is saved, once and forever, by grace.
LIFE OF PI
Directed by Ang Lee; featuring Suraj Sharma and Irfan Khan
Producers: Gil Netter, Ang Lee, and David Womark
Young Pi, the son of zookeepers in Pondicherry, India, finds the world he knows swept away when his family sells the zoo and sets sail for Canada with a few of its remaining animals. A storm capsizes the ship and only Pi escapes, set adrift in a lifeboat that is also the refuge of an enormous Bengal tiger.
All right, I'm going to show my hand: If I were a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (and I am not), Ang Lee's chef d'ouevre Life of Pi would get my nod for Best Picture. Hands down. No question about it.
Visually speaking, I have never seen a film like this. It is truly (and literally) spectacular.
Lee, the two-time Oscar-winning director (for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain), told my former colleague Roger Ebert that, years ago when the idea of adapting Yann Martel's 2001 novel, which the director described as "a philosophical book" to film, first arose he beliebed it would be technically impossible to do so, and even if it were possible, the cost would be prohibitive.
But Lee did the impossible and turned Life of Pi into an unrivaled technical and artistic tour de force, made all the more phenomenal in 3D (which is how I saw it). The film looks and feels ... miraculous. It was not at all difficult to believe that the teenage protagonist from Pondicherry, India, Piscine "Pi" Patel (played by the extraordinary newcomer Suraj Sharma), actually did survive a shipwreck by floating for months in the middle of the Pacific on a life boat in the sole company of a full-grown bengal tiger named Richard Parker. I felt like I was on the boat with him, bobbing in the water beneath a blanket of a million stars. It made the impossible seem entirely possible.
Which is fitting, as Life of Pi is a story that the adult Pi (the simply marvelous Irfan Khan) tells to a writer (Rafe Spall) because the writer has been told the story will make him believe in God.
Pi himself is, he explains, a Hindu Catholic — "Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ," the young Pi says — who, for a time at least, also attended a masjid and prayed the required Muslim prayers five times daily. God is very real and absolutely personal to Pi. God also is bigger than any label affixed by humankind.
"Faith is a house with many rooms," the adult Pi tells the writer.
"But no room for doubt," the writer wonders aloud.
"Oh plenty, on every floor," Pi says. "Doubt is useful, it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested."
In the unbelievable story, told by the filmmaker visually in such a way that "magical realism" feels like a redundant description, surely Pi's faith in God, the universe, and himself are tested. Whether his story is "real" or not is inconsequential in terms of its truth. Sometimes the more beautiful, fantastical story is simply the better story to tell — and to hear.
"As for God," Pi tells the writer, "I can only tell you my story. You will decide for yourself what to believe."
Is that not what each of us, ultimately, is called to do? We tell our stories. The rest is up to others and to God.
COMING FRIDAY: Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty
Cathleen Falsani is a Featured Writer for Sojo.net. A veteran religion journalist who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture, Cathleen is the author of four books, including The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, the memior Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, BELIEBER: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber, and the forthcoming Disquiet Time: A Devotional for Ordinary Skeptics. Read more from Cathleen at www.godgrrl.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter @GodGrrl.
Photo credit: Stills from Django Unchained, Les Miserables, and Life of Pi via Oscar.com; Photo collage by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners
Film synopses via Oscar.com.