Spiritual themes at the Oscars?


The Academy Awards are upon us, and the two top contenders for major awards—The King’s Speech and True Grit—are both excellent films with significant moral and/or spiritual overtones. In fact, Lisa Respers France at CNN.com’s Religion Blog suggests that many of this year’s Oscar nominees have “deeply spiritual overtones.”

The King's Speech

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech

As an aside, last year’s most profoundly and transcendently religious film—conspicuously not nominated by the Academy, though it’s won lots of other awards, including the jury prize at Cannes—makes its American debut this weekend in New York and Los Angeles: Of Gods and Men. If you live anywhere in the New York or Los Angeles area, go see it. This weekend. I’m not kidding. I’ll write more about it soon (and I’ll be talking about it this afternoon on Kresta around 5:40 EST), but for now the best mainstream take on it I’ve seen is Kenneth Turan’s (LATimes.com).

Citing a number of writers and teachers whose work links faith and film, France argues that the current crop of Oscar nominees “explore themes that many contain elements of spirituality”:

There’s the power of transformation for a ballerina seeking the role of a lifetime in “Black Swan,” the battle of good versus evil in “True Grit,” and humility and the bonds of humanity in “The King’s Speech,” the story of King George VI, his stutter and his friendship with his speech therapist.

Three nominees - “The Kids Are All Right,” which focuses on a gay couple and their children, “The Social Network” based on the founding of Facebook, and “Toy Story 3” – explore issues of love, friendship and fellowship.

Perception versus reality is a theme in “Inception,” in which a thief steals information via people’s dreams.  The faith needed to overcome difficult circumstances figures into the trapped-in-the mountains thriller “127 Hours.” And there are echoes of that faith in “The Fighter” and “Winter’s Bone,” in which a young girl struggles to keep her poverty-stricken family together.

Um. I dunno. To start with, I have no idea what might be meant by “the power of transformation” as a “spiritual” theme in Black Swan. France quotes a professor of Judaic studies who says that “transformation” is “part of great drama” and is “really at the heart of many of the world’s religions, certainly the western religious tradition.” Maybe that was taken out of context, but the “Western religious tradition” (which I take it here means Abrahamic monotheism) isn’t deeply concerned with “transformation” in the abstract, but with what Ezekiel calls “a new heart and a new spirit” and Saint Paul “a new creation”—something Natalie Portman’s sick, disturbing progression in Black Swan has nothing to do with.

Likewise, one can talk about the moral and spiritual questions raised by a movie like The Kids Are All Right, including a child’s need for a father and a mother, but the film’s same-sex marriage agitprop sucks most of the air out of the discussion.

Ironically, The King’s Speech is one of the most pro-marriage Hollywood films in recent years, not only because of the loving, supportive marriages of the two protagonists, Prince Albert and Lionel Logue, but also because of the crisis occasioned by Prince Edward’s immature, narcissistic indifference to social norms regarding marriage and divorce. It’s a terrific film about duty and social responsibility, with both positive and negative examples in Albert and Edward. In short, it’s about a lot more than “humility and the bonds of humanity.” (Apologies that I still don’t have a review! Very soon, I hope.)

The King’s Speech isn’t the only film whose spiritual themes are undersold here. Half the Westerns ever made are about “the battle of good versus evil,” but True Grit is about justice and grace, the cost of revenge, sin and redemption, and the hand of Providence. Inception is about reality and illusion, but also about the leap of faith that takes us beyond solipsism into relationship with the other.

127 Hours is not just about faith but about the need for faith, specifically the need to acknowledge our dependence, our neediness—to ask for help, to express gratitude. Toy Story 3 is about friendship and community, but also the obligations of conscience over community pressure; ultimately it touches on solidarity in the face of mortality.

Academy Awards, Hollywood