I don’t see many movies these days. I’m not into vampires, and the techno-thrillers produced of late hold little appeal.
I've noticed, however, that there was something different about this year’s holiday releases. Three of the season’s offerings — “Les Miserables,” “The Life of Pi” and “Lincoln” — reflect a deep spirituality. Lacking apocalyptic scenarios, fleeting love affairs and pyrotechnics, they are, nonetheless, moving and instructive.
“Les Mis” is a story about transformation and fidelity. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, is shown mercy, shows mercy in return, and is redeemed over time. In contrast, his dogged pursuer, Inspector Javert, is unable to overcome the straitjacket of his worldview and succumbs to despair. The message is clear: Agape (i.e., love for our fellow human beings as sons and daughters of God) is superior to ideology, a most unusual theme for a contemporary movie.
“The Life of Pi” is an allegory framed within an unlikely story line. Unlike his father, the young Pi is drawn to religion and philosophy. This orientation enables him to survive — physically, mentally, and spiritually — the trauma of a tragic adventure on the high seas. Faith in anything tends to be suspect in our postmodern world. Nevertheless, an imagination enriched by faith proved the key to Pi’s survival.
Pi would never be confused with Abraham Lincoln. Historians classify the 16th president as a religious skeptic. He is better understood, however, as a spiritual fellow traveler or — to paraphrase 20th century theologian Karl Rahner — an “anonymous” believer. Indeed, Lincoln once remarked that he had “been driven many times upon [his] knees by the overwhelming conviction that [he] had nowhere else to go.” He was spiritual if not conventionally religious.
The movie “Lincoln” focuses on a narrow slice of the president’s life: Congress’ deliberations over the 13th Amendment. The plot might seem political, but it’s really about the virtue of prudence. A quaint term, “prudence” refers to the ability to balance competing interests in a principled manner. Lincoln certainly embraced a broad understanding of human dignity. At the same time, he was keenly aware of what was politically possible and what wasn't He was both principled and a master politician.
In the end, Lincoln’s core beliefs and his keen sense of the moment enabled him to maneuver the 13th Amendment to passage. In pursuing this end, he bent the truth without breaking it and employed others in ways they didn't fully comprehend without using them. Indeed, he accomplished his objective without losing his soul. Lincoln exercised prudence, an old fashioned virtue that many in today’s Washington would do well to emulate.
Mercy, love, faith, and prudence … Given Hollywood’s recent track record, it’s hard to understand how “Les Miserables,” “The Life of Pi” and “Lincoln” made it to the screen. Yet all three are hits, suggesting many of us might be hungry for something more in our movies, in our politics and in our lives.