Spiritual Awakenings in the Movies
by Phil Boatwright
Occasionally, a motion picture comes along that conveys a profound concept significant for Christians. Allow me to suggest a few films – young and old – that aided in my spiritual growth. A prayer of mine for this coming year is that you will find movies that not only entertain, but contribute to your spiritual well-being.

In my recent column “The Best Films of 2006,” I featured both TSOTSI and FACING THE GIANTS, so I won’t repeat my descriptions of those two powerful films. Suffice it to say, both reminded me that any life can be transformed by God’s love and that we have been placed on this planet not to garner temporal treasures, but to develop that which lives throughout eternity.

In 1939’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and decades later in Disney’s animated version, Esmeralda, a lowly gypsy girl, enters a cathedral to pray for her suffering people. She is surrounded by finely dressed, haughty aristocracy, each praying for their individual desires. That motif has always stuck with me. From time to time that image pops into my mind, reminding me that if I put more attention on the needs of others, God won’t forsake my own.

When it comes to the biblical teaching concerning the pardoning of others, SCHINDLER’S LIST and PLACES IN THE HEART spring to mind. In PLACES IN THE HEART, a repentant adulterer is finally forgiven when his wife, moved by the pastor's sermon, takes her husband's hand, signifying the restoring of a relationship through Christ's love. In SCHINDLER’S LIST, the adulterous Schindler vows his unfaithfulness will end, whereupon he is absolved. Both these touching moments take place in a church, further symbolizing a spiritual recovery.

Now, the following film may cause a lifted eyebrow or two, but I actually learned something about the power of Christ in – ready? – DRACULA. The 1931 Bela Lugosi fright flick was actually a good vs. evil morality play. Amid other subtle biblical directives, several scenes feature the demonic vampire helpless before the sign of the cross. As he’s about to take a bite out of some poor soul’s pulsating neck, suddenly the crucifix is dangled in front of the victim-to-be and the Count has to turn away. The look on Dracula’s face is one of sheer agony. Of course, this is a fictional character, but that visual helped defeat my fears of the bogeyman. I was old enough to understand that nothing is more powerful than the will of God.

In THE APOSTLE, Robert Duvall plays a Pentecostal minister who runs from the law after hitting his wife's lover with a baseball bat. Upon rededicating his life to the Lord, he sets up a much-needed church in a small southern town, while waiting for the authorities to catch up with him. This perceptive, astonishingly respectful drama never condescends, nor is it antagonistic toward people of faith while telling its gentle story of the redemption of a good but imperfect man.

I'm not suggesting our hero is without flaws. He begins his ministry on a lie, and is hampered by imperfections none of us hope to find in our pastor. Furthermore, we could debate denominational dogma, or whether the lead should have immediately turned himself in, but when I saw this man crying out to God and other characters giving without seeking acknowledgment, I was uplifted. Not only is religion not ridiculed, but it contains testimonies, conversions, charity, and forgiveness. There's even an alter call!

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is the first film about Jesus where we literally see God’s pain. The end of Christ’s journey at Golgotha is seen from above, the camera pulling back, revealing the momentary bleakness of earth, when suddenly the scene is blurred as if viewed through water. Indeed, it is a tear drop falling from Heaven. It is the most moving moment I remember in a film.

The New Testament makes it clear that Christ came to die for the entire world, and that all men placed Him on that cross. He, who was without sin, made the ultimate sacrifice by taking on the sins of all people. Mel’s film, while showing the physical horrors Christ endured, is not really about what mankind did to Him, but about what He did for us.

The question arises; does the lackluster box office of the recent THE NATIVITY STORY foreshadow the demise ofHollywood’s new-founded interest in Christian themes? Not just yet. Several studios, including 20th Century Fox, have heavily invested in upcoming faith-based productions. I fear, however, that if these ventures fail to draw the spiritually inclined, as did THE NATIVITY STORY, then these branches of major studios will quickly shrivel up. And you won’t be able to blame Hollywood anymore.

There are some positive promisings on the horizon. FoxFaith will soon release THE LAST SIN EATER. Its story: a ritual carried over from their homeland has Welsh immigrants believing in a shrouded figure who shows up at funerals and takes the sins of the departed upon himself. Learning of this mythology, a young girl, guilt-ridden over the cause of her sister’s death, seeks out the Sin Eater in order to rid her burden.

I wouldn’t call THE LAST SIN EATER a great movie, but Michael Landon, Jr. proves he’s got the same stuff as his old man. He’s a storyteller, one bent on enlightening while entertaining. What’s more, he’s a Hollywood filmmaker with the guts to not only incorporate spiritual themes, but to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the one and only “sin eater.”

JESUS, MARY AND JOEY, from Panorama Films, will also find its way to some movie theaters in January. This is a light-hearted romantic comedy about an aimless twenty-something Italian-American who falls for a cancer survivor. Joey, from a Catholic family, is so moved by his girlfriend’s spiritual devotion that he also becomes born again.

Though some may not like seeing Christians smoking cigarettes or going into a nightclub, the film never undermines the true Christian experience. The girl is an honest Christian who loves God and puts her faith into action. The boy ultimately finds this real experience. While it contains some objectionable content, this could be a very good film to show non-Christian acquaintances. JESUS, MARY AND JOEY may begin a dialogue that leads to a newness of life.

Even the Weinstein Company has formed a faith-based branch, with soon-to-be released projects that include THE PENNY, from a book by TV host Joyce Meyer and Deborah Bedford, and THE CHRISTMAS CANDLE, a story by Max Lucado centering on a 19th century candle maker who receives a visit from an angel. This from the Weinsteins? Truly, the Lord works in mysterious ways.