(RNS) — The most blatantly spiritual title of 2020, Pixar’s “Soul” turned out to be a bait and switch. With inventive, almost casually brilliant animation, Pixar invented a “before life” realm where souls have to earn their ticket to Earth. The cosmological setup and the nature of the soul are prime subject matter for religious themes, yet there’s nary a nod to religion, just Disney-Pixar’s patented brand of self-realization.
Movies that have the most to say about spirituality almost always end up taking place close to the ground, even, like Oscar contender “Minari,” among those covered in sweat and dirt, struggling for a better future — tomorrow, hopefully, not just in the hereafter.
With this premise in mind, the RNS staff offers its list of 10 movies from last year — spiritually minded or not, Oscar-nominated or not — that caught hold of some truth about faith or glimpsed the spiritual in the stories they told.
Black Is King
Beyoncé’s visual album on Disney+, which brings to life the music of her 2019 album, “The Lion King: The Gift,” draws imagery from both Christianity and traditional African religions. It opens with a scene of a basket tumbling down a river, then Beyoncé along the shore, holding a baby, evoking the biblical story of Moses. She also sings about, speaks about and embodies the orishas, intermediaries between humans and the divine in Yoruba spirituality, throughout the film. It ends with Beyoncé, who was born and raised United Methodist, surrounded by what appears to be a church choir. Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow described “Black Is King” as “steeped in honor and reverence of the indigenous religious/spiritual practices of our ancestors” and permission for Black women to “explore and understand” all parts of their spirituality. (Emily McFarlan Miller)
The Oscar-nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky took an in-depth look at Francis’ pontificate in “Francesco,” a documentary addressing the pope’s foreign trips, his reform of the Vatican and his commitment to immigrants and the environment.
The film, which premiered in 2020 but was distributed nationwide on March 26, offers a flattering introduction to the globetrotting pontiff while only briefly addressing the Vatican scandals and intrigue. Francis’ star power is evident in the documentary, gathering crowds of faithful thanks to his humble and laid-back persona.
But the impact of the film reached beyond the screen and into the debates shaking the Catholic Church today. When its trailer was first released in October 2020, Pope Francis’ remarks in it about same-sex couples appealing for their “right to a family” and proposing civil unions for gay couples sparked a global debate around the Catholic Church’s contested position on LGBTQ rights. The debate continued until March of this year, when the Vatican’s department tasked with determining doctrine shut down the possibility of blessing same-sex couples.
The documentary “Francesco” emerges as a polaroid of a developing Catholicism under Francis — at times triumphant and at others defeated — that will likely serve as a useful tool in exploring the legacy of this pontificate in the future. (Claire Giangravè)
The Last Blockbuster
The main character at the heart of “The Last Blockbuster” is store manager and staff mom Sandi Harding, who keeps the nation’s last Blockbuster video store alive with grit, charm and a remarkable love for her customers and staff members — plus some hard work and faith.
Harding runs the Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon, where she has worked since 2004. Back then, there were about 9,000 blue-and-yellow Blockbuster stores, with about 60,000 employees. Now there’s just her store, which is featured in the documentary “The Last Blockbuster.”
When the film starts, there are still a handful of Blockbusters open. By the end, there’s just one, and its future is tenuous. Dish Network, which owns the rights to the Blockbuster franchise, has the store on a year-to-year agreement. The knowledge that their store’s right to stay open could be yanked out at any minute adds drama to the film. And their faith to keep going even when things are bleak makes the movie inspiring. You want this store to survive.
There are no outwardly religious themes in the movie, but the signs of religion are everywhere — the sense of wonder on the faces of pilgrims who have traveled across the country to recapture a bit of magic from their past; the determination on Harding’s face as she salvages parts from an old computer to keep the store’s registers running; the sense of welcome regular customers feel as they walk in the door.
And the willingness of people to spend their lives working for something they believe in, no matter if the world has passed them by. (By Bob Smietana)
Mauritanian national Mohamedou Ould Salahi spent 14 years as a prisoner of the United States — much of that time at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His ordeal and the efforts of U.S. lawyers to free him is the focus of “The Mauritanian.” Despite the subject matter, this is a film that offers a hopeful portrait of a man who relies on his Islamic faith to find the strength to persevere but also to forgive. The script and director aren’t shy about showing elements of Salahi’s faith, and he is often filmed in prayer or with his Quran.
A handful of scenes were filmed in Mauritania and have a certain ethnographic quality, especially since the country is rarely featured in Hollywood films. Though the legal drama elements of the story are well-acted and compelling at times, they do seem focused on scoring political points. This can distract from Ould Salahi’s personal triumph of one man and his faith.
Ould Salahi is played by Tahar Rahim, who received a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the film. The young French-Algerian star who is himself a practicing Muslim has long vowed never to play a terrorist on screen. Rahim’s nomination was part of a historic year for Muslim actors at the Golden Globes, with three Muslims receiving Golden Globe nominations. Jodie Foster, who plays the lead role of the attorney defending Salahi, won a Golden Globe for her strong performance. The film also received five nominations at the British Academy Film Awards. (Joseph Hammond)
Oscar nominee “Minari” is a film about faith from beginning to end, from exploring where the characters place their faith to alluding to the Yi family’s Arkansas farm as Eden. The patriarch of the family, Jacob, wrestles with God, much like his biblical namesake. Other characters are overtly Christian, like his wife, Monica, who asks their son David to pray he might see heaven so his heart problem would be healed, or farmworker Paul, who exorcises the Yi’s trailer home and carries a large wooden cross down the road as his own personal church on Sunday. The church also has a supporting role in the film as a place where the Yis both do and do not find connection with their neighbors. (Emily McFarlan Miller)
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado
Midway into Netflix’s “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado,” the documentary features an old interview with talk show host Cristina Saralegui where she asks the glamorous television astrologer why he mixes so many different religions — Santeria, Christianity and Catholicism — in his sign-by-sign horoscopes that aired across the world.
“No one has a monopoly on God. It’s ridiculous to think so,” Mercado responded. “I got the best from Buddhism, the best from Hinduism, the best from Christianity.”
The film encompasses Mercado’s childhood — in which he recalls praying for and healing a dying bird — and documents Mercado’s rise to fame. It also explores his disappearance from the public eye after 2006. He made his first public appearance during a museum exhibit honoring his life, not long before he died in 2019.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Mercado embodied an alluring persona that made him a star across the United States and Latin America. He wore makeup, colorful and bedazzled capes and big gemstone rings. His androgynous image also made him a beloved icon among LGBTQ people in Latino communities. Mercado relayed a message of hope and love in his horoscopes.
The film features interviews with celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who worshipped Mercado as a “great moral authority.” It highlights conversations between Mercado and TV personalities like journalist Jorge Ramos, who acknowledged he’s agnostic and asked Mercado: “When we die, what happens?” To which Mercado said, “You are reincarnated,” adding that “you begin from earth, to return to earth.”
Toward the end of the film, as Mercado reflects on his personal and career achievements, he said he felt as if he was in heaven.
“I don’t expect another heaven. Heaven is today and heaven is now,” Mercado said. (Alejandra Molina)
If there’s a god in Nomadland, it’s the great outdoors.
The movie follows the character of Fern (played by Frances McDormand), a feisty middle-aged widow from a small mining town in Nevada who takes to the road in a rundown van she has fixed up, traveling through the Western U.S. as a modern-day nomad.
On her travels, whether it’s through the rock formations of South Dakota’s Badlands or California’s romantic coastline, nature is the balm — the way of peace and transcendence.
Sure, there’s community along the road. Fern camps with a group of like-minded nomad van dwellers in Arizona. There’s a compassionate fellow seeker named Bob Wells who serves as grief counselor cum preacher.
But it’s the wide-open skies, the orange and purple sunsets and the encounters with animals — such as fellow nomad Swankie’s tale of a swarming flock of swallows — where true reverence for something bigger and holier can be found.
This movie has other moral themes — capitalism’s exploitation of the working class, the rejection of a consumerist way of life. Director Chloé Zhao’s gorgeous celebration of America’s Western landscapes suggests that ultimately the road to healing and transformation courses through nature. (Yonat Shimron)
One Night in Miami
“One Night in Miami” is striking for its subtle portrayal of religion, specifically the Nation of Islam, in a matter-of-fact way. As Muhammad Ali readies to become a member of the Black separatist group that embraces a nontraditional form of Islam, leader Malcolm X gently corrects his protégé by helping him place his arms in a particular position as they begin a time of prayer. Outside the hotel room, where much of the action takes place, stand the ever-present members of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam’s security force.
“One Night in Miami,” timed to the hours after Ali won a heavyweight championship in the Florida city, is a fictional depiction of a real-life, all-night gathering of Ali, Malcolm X, R&B singer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown.
It displays the tension that could be viewed as universal for religious figures who are held up as examples of proper behavior and devotion to their faith. Malcolm X takes to using his camera to photograph his colleagues in a bar while the others imbibe. But he’s also considering moving away from the Nation of Islam and is headed to Mecca soon after the all-night conversation depicted in the movie.
The film also explores the way four Black men’s lives intersect — and don’t — with differing levels of adherence to and respect for faith but a bond of friendship that often helps them overcome those differences. (By Adelle M. Banks)
“Save Yourselves!” is not, strictly speaking, a film about religion. The title is meant to be taken (mostly) literally, and it’d be a stretch to suggest the movie contains any hint of overt spirituality in the traditional sense. It’s really what the trailer suggests it is: a hilarious tale about two Brooklyn hipster millennials desperately trying to find meaning in a world they feel has denied it to them — and being attacked by fluffy, unexpectedly deadly aliens instead.
But it’s precisely because “Save Yourselves!” largely avoids the topic of traditional faith that it doubles as an incisive window into the world of millennials, who often identify as “religiously unaffiliated” — a broad and rapidly expanding subset of Americans. The entire film is built on the existential angst of its two seemingly prototypically modern protagonists, a couple who find themselves beset by triune concerns about social media overload, languishing professional aspirations and a yearning to be, well, better.
If they claim fully formed religious worldviews that could help them address such issues, they don’t get much mention. Instead, their solution is to toss their phones aside (literally) and pilgrimage to a remote cabin in upstate New York, where they plan to cook, chop wood and quasi-meditate their way into something resembling enlightenment. Things don’t go entirely as planned (e.g., aliens invade!), but their journey of meaning-making is one that will likely feel familiar to a growing number of younger Americans eager to unearth a deeper connection — to themselves, to others and to something greater — outside the walls of institutional religion. (Jack Jenkins)
The Social Dilemma
“The Social Dilemma” may not be about religion, but it is a portrayal of the ways social media empires have begun to play god, and we the consumers are bowing down. While many people are aware of the potential pitfalls of social media, those risks haven’t dissuaded most users.
Jeff Orlowski’s docu-drama goes beyond some peripheral dangers associated with social media sites and delves into ethical and moral questions surrounding capitalism, artificial intelligence, human psychology and privacy. The film lays bare the vast and intentional overreach of big tech companies for the purposes of data mining and behavior manipulation.
The experts warning of this technical intrusion are the very people who built these empires: former executives and designers from Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, Pinterest and more.
“Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people,” says Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google.
While in many ways intended for good, the experts say the platforms have been highjacked for monetization. This has led to extremist ideologies gaining traction, the proliferation of disinformation and youth depression.
So turn “The Social Dilemma” on and turn your social media notifications off. (Kit Doyle)