Those who want more than traditional religious film fare might find the following films inspiring viewing during the week that Christians call Holy Week. Each was chosen because its theme or a scene relate to the events and teachings of Christ during his last week on earth.
Jesus' dramatic entrance into Jerusalem has been regarded by some as a freedom march, in which He challenged the ruling powers. In John Boorman's film, a Christ-like figure leads another demonstration, challenging the Burmese military dictatorship, ruthless as those prevailing in Jesus' day. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese pro-democracy movement, sets into motion events that will lead to an American visitor's psychic healing and enable her to regain her vocation of helping others. Laura, an American doctor, has arrived in Burma with her sister on a cruise she's taken after the murder of her husband and child. When Laura witnesses Aung San Suu Kyi calmly face down the soldiers called out to stop her, Laura is overcome with admiration, and her dormant sense of mission is reawakened.
ALTERNATE: "Freedom Song" is the story of an African American father and son during the turbulent days of the civil rights movement in
Based on the real-life friendship between Canadian Dr. Maurice Buck and American poet Walt Whitman, "Beautiful Dreamers" tells the story of a young, idealistic physician just hired to oversee the insane asylum in Ontario. We immediately see his revulsion at the cruel treatment of the mentally ill. Maurice orders patients' fetters to be loosened and the cage-like boxes for "unmanageable" inmates to be put away. While encouraging respect for his patients, however, Maurice keeps his wife and young daughter at a distance in the Victorian conventional manner, rarely sharing his thoughts and feelings. When he meets Whitman in Philadelphia, he is so drawn to the poet that he invites him to Canada to assist in his reforms at the asylum. Although excoriated by most clergymen as an infidel, Whitman comes across as more Christ-like than them, an iconoclast who invites all to come and drink deeply of the fountain of life. Whitman is also a Christ-figure for Maurice and his wife, freeing them from the spirit-stifling bondage of convention.
ALTERNATE: "Jesus of Montreal," which has scenes similar to Jesus' temptation and his cleansing of the Temple. It is the story of an actor who finds himself living out the role of Jesus beyond the Passion play he is directing and starring in.
In Woody Allen's "Christ-figure film," perhaps his least darkly textured mature movie, a loser becomes a winner. Talent agent Danny Rose appears to one and all as a loser. His clients are balloon folders, a blind xylophone player, a wooden-legged tap dancer, and other hard-sells. Whenever he shepherds an act to fame, they inevitably leave him for more prestigious representation. Danny obtains for his Italian crooner, Lou, a spot on a Milton Berle TV special. Lou's mistress, Tina, talks Lou into dumping Danny for a better connected agent. On Lou's big day, he sends Danny to escort Tina to the show. Instantly disliking each other, Danny and Tina end up on a madcap round of adventures, during which they argue over their values. Tina declares that life is short, so you have to grab everything you can. Danny counters by declaring that we must live life guided by "Acceptance, forgiveness, and love." Tina and Lou's betrayal of Danny leads to an unexpected testing of his beliefs and the questioning of the possibility of redemption in a dog-eat-dog world.
ALTERNATE: "Bagdad Cafe." A hefty German hausfrau, stranded in the Mojave
desert by her boorish husband, transforms the lives of the denizens of a
run-down cafe and motel.
In John Sayles' story of people caught up in the great West Virginia coal-mine wars of the 1920s, we see two ways of dealing with injustice. Union organizer Joe Kenehan is sent to help the miners in their uphill struggle. For Kenehan, who preaches nonviolent resistance, the union is like a church, in which all races and nationalities are welcome. He strives to overcome the prejudices of the white mountaineers and the Italian and black replacement workers brought in to replace the locals. Joe has his work cut out for him: The mine owners import goons to provoke the miners to retaliate with violence themselves, thus giving the state governor cause to send in troops. There is a Good Friday and a type of Easter at the climax of the film.
ALTERNATE: "Spitfire Grill." A woman just out of prison finds work in a small-town cafe and, though deeply wounded herself, brings a new sense of
worth and love to those whom she meets.
Robert Benton draws on the experience of his grandmother in this Depression-era story about a group of people with little in common coming together as a family--the ideal of Jesus' teaching: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." And at its heart is a supper that heals and brings together. After her husband is killed in an accidental shooting, Edna Spalding holds on to her heavily mortgaged farm only with the help of Moze, a black itinerant farm worker, who shows her how to raise cotton. Even then, her banker forces her to provide room and board for Mr. Will, an embittered blind man. Edna, her two young children, and the two men become, in effect, a family bound together by their success in overcoming a veritable catalog of hardships. At the Communion service that closes the film, Benton shows us the dead husband and his killer sitting with Edna, affirming in a visual way the concept of the communion of saints. The film is filled with Good Friday-like moments, but it is Easter that prevails.
ALTERNATE: "Babette's Feast." A refugee from the civil wars of 19th-century France finds refuge in the home of two spinster sisters on the
stark coast of Jutland, where her artistry in the kitchen leads to a
climactic feast that transforms a quarrelsome group of church people.
Just as the Good Shepherd laid down his life, so Oscar Romero slowly came to regard himself as shepherd of his oppressed people. We watch Romero, a bookish, socially conservative Salvadoran priest transformed by his elevation to Archbishop of El Salvador, gradually leave the side of his wealthy friends to take up the cause of social justice. After a massacre of the faithful attending a Mass, the archbishop confronts the president and uses his weekly radio broadcast to instill hope and resistance in his flock. He affirms that they are Christ's body, suffering the same abuse from the rich and powerful that their Savior did. The final broadcast, in which the archbishop appeals to the soldiers to lay down their guns, is the last straw for the opposition. He is murdered by the government, his "crucifixion" coming by automatic rifle as he celebrates Mass. Romero's physical voice is silenced, but through his example and his passionate writings, he emerges in a more powerful way to stir his people to fight for justice.
ALTERNATE: "The Pawnbroker." A Jewish pawnbroker in Harlem, who has
walled himself off from all human contact because he cannot get over the
murder of his wife and child in a Nazi camp, is painfully brought to his
human feelings by the sacrifice of his Puerto Rican assistant--named
Horton Foote's simple film shows how faith responds to death. It chronicles the transformation of washed-up country-western singer Mack Sledge thanks to the tender mercies of human and divine love. The underplayed love story between Mack and motel proprietor Rosa Lee is paralleled by Mack's growing awareness of God and the revival of his musical career. But his new faith is tested by the untimely death of his grown daughter and the bitterness of his ex-wife. Unable to understand the tragedy that has plagued him, Mack clings to his faith and to his new life.
ALTERNATE: "The Sweet Hereafter." Pain and melancholy suffuse this story of the aftermath of a school bus accident, when a lawyer comes to the small town and signs up parents of the dead children to mount a law suit.
Steven Spielberg's film version of Alice Walker's novel is the story of a resurrection in the most unlikely of circumstances. Celia's life has been one long Good Friday ever since her father sold her into virtual slavery to the abusive man she knows only as "Mister." Cut off from her sister, Celia meets Shug, a glamorous juke-joint singer and Mister's mistress, who befriends Celia and leads her to an awareness of her self-worth. Sofia enters Celia's life after she marries Mister's son. Big and bossy, Sofia is a revelation, demonstrating to Celia that women can stand up to a man.
Both women aid Celia in her journey from darkness to light. But even Sofia is broken by the Southern racist system when she insults a white woman and the woman's husband forces her to work as a domestic slave in his house. Years later, the broken Sofia has rejoined Mister's family for dinner, at which both she and Celia stand up against the men. Seeing the beaten woman return to her old fiery self, one of the men exclaims that she has come back from the dead. And so she has. And so has Celia, the two of them finally entering into an Easter phase of their lives in which they take charge of their own destinies. Mister slinks off, his power over Celia broken forever, even as Christ's resurrection banished sin and death for humankind.
ALTERNATE: "Cool Hand Luke." Lucas Jackson's life in a Southern
prison camp run by a brutal warden and guards has been one long Good
Friday for him, yet his impact on his fellow prisoners has been so great
that the retelling of his life and death at the end of the film amounts
to an Easter tale.