9 Movies for Spiritual Formation

9 Movies for Spiritual Formation

At various times in my life, I’ve hosted “Faith & Film” discussion groups. I love movies because I love stories, and it’s in these stories that intersections between my story and God’s story become clearer to me.

When asked what a director does, filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski responded, “I help.” Indeed, I’ve found that movies help me sort out my life, including my spiritual life.

One thing I’ve learned around conversations like this is how deeply personal and subjective experiences with any kind of art can be. Some hear God in the profane; some in explicitly Christian art. Your mileage may vary in taking any of these as recommendations that you’ll “like” them.

These are just a few of the films where I’ve encountered God and felt invited deeper into faith:

Magnolia

“Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again.” That’s a line from the song “Deathly” by Aimee Mann. Her album Bachelor No. 2 provided the inspiration to writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson and so this line also shows up in a pivotal scene in the film.

Magnolia is a series of stories about people in dire need of reconciliation with one another. There’s Stanley Specter, a child prodigy and quiz show champion, and his overbearing father. There’s dying Earl Partridge, a television producer, his trophy wife Linda, who’s not coping well, his estranged son motivational speaker T.J. Mackey, and the male nurse trying to mediate between them. There’s officer Jim Kurring, a cop and man of faith, who happens to fall in love with the wrong girl. And in the end a half dozen or so short stories converge with a reference to Exodus 8.

At one point, a character cries through a bloodied mouth, “I have so much love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.” Magnolia displays a cavalcade of characters who need grace in the midst of their broken lives.

Dogville

Dogville isn’t for everyone. If you’ve ever seen a stage production of “Our Town,” Dogville is its cinematic equivalent. All of the action takes place on a blank stage with the actors pantomiming the sets. It requires some good imagination.

It’s the story of Grace, a stranger in a Colorado mining town at the beginning of the 20th century. At first, the locals hospitably welcome the young woman, but over time, suspicions enflame into outright hostility, rejection, and finally abuse against her. Among the right crowd, there’s lots here to take in and talk about regarding the town’s response to “Grace” and the consequences.

Wreck-It Ralph

Yes, this movies pushes all the nostalgia buttons if, like me, you grew up playing 80s video games. Wreck-It Ralph is the story of Ralph, the bad guy in a Donkey Kong-style vintage arcade game. He’s sick and tired all the rejection and alienation of being the bad guy and longs to be a hero. This leads him on a quest where he finds himself in a Mario Kart-style candy racing game where meets Penelope “the glitch.”

But underneath all this is the story of a good world corrupted by a virus that threatens to destroy the whole world and an antagonist who has “re-programmed” one of the central characters so that she can’t remember her true identity. There’s a lot to unpack here about the nature of sin, identity, the “false self” that we talk about in spiritual formation, and new creation.

Calvary

Calvary gutted me the first time I saw it. And the second time I saw it. The first time, I saw it in an arthouse theater in the suburbs of Chicago with a cohort of pastors as we were in the midst of a class all about pastoral theology. We all sat in silence as the credits rolled before someone finally asked, “Are you okay?”

The story begins in a small Irish town, the confession booth of the Catholic parish, camera on Father James, as an unseen confessor says that because he suffered abuses as a child at the hands of a priest, he’s going to murder Father James in seven days. As the film unfolds we meet the inhabitants of the village. (There happen to be twelve of them.) And we wonder, which one?

And we see how Father James interacts with each of these very selfish characters, all but one of whom are oblivious to what both Father James and we the audience know. This film is for anyone considering a vocation in pastoral ministry.

Babette’s Feast

With refugee crises happening in multiple parts of the world, Babette’s Feast continues to be an important movie. Like Dogville, it’s the story of a stranger in small community. In this case, the story takes place in 19th century Denmark. Babette is a refugee taken in by a deeply pious, but deeply repressive community. Two elderly sisters, daughters of the town’s pastor who has died, take her in as a servant.

Years go by, and Babette wins the lottery. With her winnings she decides to cook a gourmet French meal for the village. There is abundance and extravagance and rich luxury that the town has never encountered before. It’s a perfect illustration for sacraments, communion, and the banquet in the kingdom of God.

The Mission

The Mission is the story in 18th century South America of a Jesuit priest Father Gabriel and his new recruit Mendoza, who’s attempting to atone for the sins of his past. They’re working to bring the work of the Gospel to a remote village tribe amidst the political squabbles between Spain and Portugal.

It’s a story for considering cross cultural ministry, overcoming one’s personal baggage, drawing boundaries between church and politics, and working through violence and pacifism on behalf of the marginalized.

The Seventh Seal

This makes for great watching and discussing for Good Friday and Easter. The title itself is a reference to the book of Revelation. If you’ve ever seen references to the Grim Reaper playing chess, it comes from this Swedish film from the 50s. A knight of the crusades returns home with his squire to find the land ravaged by the plague and what they perceive to be the end of the world.

Death himself comes to the knight, demanding his life, and the chess match begins. Throughout the film we encounter various people of the village. The final image of The Seventh Seal, Death leading away everyone we’ve encountered, makes for a great reminder of the stakes of Easter.

Silence

Silence is what you get if you cross The Mission with Apocalypse Now. Two Jesuit priests in 17th century go on a quest to find their mentor who has gone missing amidst the severe persecution in Japan.

The two priests find an underground church, that when exposed, is threatened to deny the faith or be killed. It sucks us in to ask the question of what we as the audience might do in such a scenario to either face martyrdom or witness it. Father Rodrigo is presented as a pious hero, but also deeply flawed to the point that we’re led to ask: At what point does our idealized “relationship with Jesus” itself become an idol?

Arrival

Arrival is a thinking person’s sci-fi movie. It’s a about a linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, as she’s recruited by the government to figure out why twelve mysterious pods have landed in various locations around the globe. She’s partnered with a theoretical physicist to make first contact with the aliens on their ship.

It’s a movie about the meaning of time, language, and encountering “the other”—whether that “other” is different people or even God. I’ve written more elsewhere about the themes in Arrival for spiritual formation.

When it comes to movies and faith, that’s far from a comprehensive list. What about you? What are some films that have deepened your experience of faith and grace?

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One thought to “9 Movies for Spiritual Formation”

  1. Oh my goodness, ‘The Seventh Seal’ – it’s such a masterpiece. I was hoping I’d see it on this list! I love your other choices, too. We haven’t seen ‘Silence’ yet, but I was very intrigued by a preview for it.

    For me, a few movies of impactful spiritual formation in my life have been ‘The Lion King’ (such a beautiful homecoming tale – Simba’s journey, both interior and exterior, has always resonated with me since I first fell in love with this film as a kid); ‘Gladiator’ (such a beautifully woven story of the impact our lives have); and ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (a post-WWII film about soldiers returning from war and readjusting to civilian life – it’s a heart-wrenching and gorgeous portrayal of valor and struggle).

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