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.
2012 was an extraordinary year for film. This year's Best Picture field is perhaps stronger than it's been in recent memory, replete with nuance and substance, each film presenting a uniquely compelling and memorable tale that both informs and reflects our culture, sensibilities, and challenges.
A few of the nominated films employ overtly religious ideas and language (Life of Pi, Les Miserables, Lincoln), while others tackle daunting ethical issues that speak to our deepest identities and values (Argo, Djano Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty), or explore the sacred landscape of friendship, family, and unconditional love (Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook.)
For the next three days, we'll look at each of the Best Picture nominees, the stories they tell, and the spiritual questions (and answers) they offer.
Directed by Michael Haneke; featuring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmannuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert
Producers: Margaret Menegoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, and Michael Katz
(French with English subtitles)
In the final months of her life, a retired music teacher and her husband of 60 years struggle with the debilitating effects of two strokes on both her health and her quality of life. As Georges cares for the increasingly unhappy Anne, the pair finds the nature of their life together irrevocably changed.
For better and for worse. In sickness and in health. Until death …
Amour (“love” in French) is a film about just that: a portrait of the truest kind of love born of a life made and lived together, through joy, suffering, and the often painful transition from this world to the More.
Austrian director Michael Haneke has made a career out of excavating the bleak, disquieting, and, some would say, brutal facets of human existence. This holds true for Amour, and yet the film has an exquisite beauty that renders its story and characters simply unforgettable.
There is a tenderness to this film, conveyed with breathtaking virtuosity by veteran French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmannuelle Riva, who portray the elderly couple, Georges and Anne. The vast majority of the film takes place inside their book-lined, sepia-toned Parisian flat.
The strength of Amour (and dare I say of love itself?) lies in the quotidian. Boiling an egg for breakfast. Reading aloud from the newspaper. Hanging up her coat. Soothing him when he startles awake from a nightmare.
It is in one of those eminently ordinary moments – as husband and wife sit at the kitchen table in their pajamas – that cataclysm arrives in the form of a blocked carotid artery in Anne’s neck. Routine surgery follows, but Anne, a noble beauty even in her dotage, soon learns she is among the unlucky 5 percent for whom the operation fails.
As Anne’s body and mind slowly decline, Hanecke (who shares a stepfather with the Best Supporting Actor nominee Christoph Waltz from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), does not allow the audience to avert its eyes. We are cheek-by-jowl with the couple – in bed, the toilette, the shadowy stillness of a lonely afternoon – as they navigate the pain and indignity of her physical descent, no less than the staggering graces that accompany it.
Amour was particularly poignant for me (I wept through fully half of the film) as I recently lost my father after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Like Georges, my mother cared for my father at home – a task that tried her body and soul.
In the smallest of gestures – the way Georges patiently sat with Anne while she struggled to eat, gently pushed her wheelchair into the parlor so she could sit beside him as they read, stroked her hand when she was lost in the terrors that dementia can bring, or lost his patience with her and nearly gave up, believing, if for a moment, that it was too much for him to bear – I saw my own parents and the final, precious days of their 50-year marriage.
Amour gives neither easy answers nor the comfort of a Hollywood ending. Instead we are privileged to witness a imperfect yet sacred love that abides, even in death.
Directed by Ben Affleck; featuring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman
Producers: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, and George Clooney
When six Americans take refuge in the Canadian embassy in Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis, CIA agent Tony Mendez turns to Hollywood for help. Working with a producer and a makeup artist, he devises a rescue mission that centers on the creation of a fake (Canadian) film production company scouting locations in Iran.
"It's gonna take a miracle to get them out."
So says one of the Washington bureaucrats at the beginning of Argo – a would-be political thriller based on a (now declassified) true story. While there are no obvious signs of divine intervention in the story of how a plot hatched by the CIA, in cooperation with both the U.S. and Canadian governments, rescued six diplomatic corps workers from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, the argument could be made that a man-made miracle is to thank.
It's an interesting story – made all the better, I suppose, because it is, at least in some substantial part, true (in that it happened) – but, depsite what hordes of critics and award-givers have said, I believe it is the weakest entry in the Best Picture category. Ben Affleck (star, director, producer) is fine. Yoemanly is the word that comes to mind. Visually, the film has some interesting moments, and John Goodman (who plays the Hollywood make-up artist cum espionage consultant) steals the show.
Here's the thing: Argo could have been more. I won't say better, just more ... nuanced. This would have been more forgivable if the film had been made in the early 1980s, before we learned a bit more about what transpired politically and otherwise in Iran, Afghanistan, and environs. Religion is a part of the scenery in Argo, with the rise of the Ayatollah and fundamentalist Islam in Iran, but it's not explored beyond a two-dimensional presence.
Argo depicts Iranians as a monolith comprised of the fanatical and the frightened. And the other characters don't fair much better. I found myself wanting to know more about them, and I suppose that is the spiritual lesson here: Even when war, violence, or terror makes it seem as though the line between "us" and "them" is both clear and straight, it isn't.
People, politics, and sometimes, yes, even miracles, are far more complicated.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Directed by Benh Zeitlin; featuring Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry
Producers: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, and Michael Gottwald
In an isolated Louisiana swampland known as the Bathtub, young Hushpuppy and her father are part of a community that lives outside of the structure of modern society. When rising flood waters threaten the area, the young girl's resourcefulness and lively imagination are called into play as the region's residents face the approaching disaster.
There is so much meat in this remarkable film, it's difficult to decide where to begin. It's a story you haven't heard before set in a part of the world you've likely never seen before, told by a child actor with a preternatural virtuosity I'm fairly certain none of us has experienced before. Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, a native of Houma, La., who was just five when she auditioned for the role of the protagonist Hushpuppy, is the youngest actor ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
With ample parts adventure and magical realism, and shot with an almost guerilla-documentary jimp-jumpy camera, Beasts is a riotous, if not altogether delicious, feast for the senses. Hushpuppy's story is a tragedy – orphaned (or perhaps abandoned) by her mother, she lives alone in a slapdash trailer connected to her ailing (likely alcoholic) father's own shanty by a clothes line that has a dinner bell but no clothes. She surrounds herself with animals, real and imagined, and revels in the mystery, beauty, and horrors of the natural world, which she understands through a lens of childlike and profound faith.
"The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right," Hushpuppy says. "If one piece busts – even the smallest piece – the entire universe will get busted."
Hushpuppy's universe is "The Bathtub," a community of outcasts (some by choice, others not) living in the swamps of Louisiana whose home, livelihood, and very existence is threatened by rising waters hemmed in by a man-made levee. Hushpuppy has learned about the melting polar icecap and global warming in her ersatz school, where her teacher, Miss Bathsheba, tells the children that they're made of meat, just like every other animal. Just like the prehistoric aurochs that rampage through the young girl's dreams as the manifestation of her fears.
Her mother is gone. Her father is dying. Her universe is on the verge of collapse. Is Hushpuppy, like the aurochs, the last of her kind?
Beasts is a wholly unique narrative filled with whimsy and heartbreak, monsters (imagined and all-too real), and tough questions about our collective responsibility for each other and our world.
And yet ... there is hope of a brighter future after the storms subside and the waters depart, the sort of hope described in Isaiah 11: The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.
Coming Wednesday: Django Unchained, Les Miserables, and Life of Pi.
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 Amour, Argo, and Beasts of the Southern Wild via Oscar.com; Photo collage by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners
Film synopses via Oscar.com.