Years ago, I made reference in a literature class to Clint Eastwood’s boxing picture, Million Dollar Baby (2004). A student volunteered, with some passion, that she had seen the film and hated it.
Why, I asked, more than a bit curious about her reasons? She could not, it seems, get it out of her head. After all, the story was very sad, perplexing, and, worse still, downright haunting. You mean, I said, “It’s a great film.” And, I should have added, “you’re a wonderful viewer of movies.” After all, you got it, or it has you—head, heart, and soul.
A good part of the problem Christians have in viewing movies (and in life in general) lies in just what they expect from movies. What are movies (or the arts generally) really there for anyway? Often, like it or not, they give us exactly what we need.
After all, who would not like a couple of pleasant hours in an imaginary world that is far from the troubles of a harsh and wearying real world: diversion, thrills, laughs, suspense, inspiration, fear, awe, hope, nicely manageable tears–and all quickly forgettable, a grown-up’s live-action version of Saturday morning cartoons. And this is just fine, though mostly schlock, as light and meaningless as the popcorn, exactly what we normally want and need. However, the unfortunate truth is that un-boring escapism and nothing more is what most moviegoers want, like all the time. In large part, what we get from movies, particularly mainstream Hollywood, depends on what we expect, and that is usually very little.
What good movies (and the arts generally) do best, be they religious or not, is educate the soul, that instrument of feeling and thought with which Christians attempt to apprehend, understand, and care about God’s world, themselves included. That does not, by any measure, mean films that are stuffy, “serious,” or boring. To the contrary, good films tell stories that show what it is like to be alive, what good and bad life holds, and even, on rare occasion, how God shows up. Some sadden, and others elate and inspire. Mostly, though, they school audiences in that thing Christians claim to be their special talent, caring about the world, as in “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). And the means thereto so we all might all come, in Shakespeare from King Lear, to “feel what wretches feel.” After all, universally, we all are those very same wretches, alone and lost and searching for shelter and destination of some kind or another.
Calvinists especially should know that life is tragic, which is just another way of talking about Original Sin and the whole shebang. Ultimately, good movies, and good art of any kind, melt “the sea frozen inside us” (Franz Kafka) so we might see and care, in pity and in joy, the world as God sees and cares for the world.
One overlooked film that shows that aplenty is a recent unstuffy French film, Seraphine (2008; subtitled, but not much chit-chat), the true story of a peasant “maid,” Séraphine Louis (1864-1942, wonderfully played by Yolande Moreau), who without ever so much as ever seeing or knowing anything about Impressionism or any its paintings becomes a famous and distinctive impressionist painter.
The brilliance of the film is that viewers see her, trudging her way through a very hard life, and remarkably, come to see what and how she sees, and then witness, like revelation, her image of the world transfigured, seeing perhaps as God sees. She paints and paints, improvising her own remarkable materials, vivid palette, and curious luminescence (even now, a century later, her paintings retain their haunting chromatic intensity). She begins with small wooden panels but moves to six-foot canvases of profusely effulgent flowers and trees, stunning in their abstract immediacy. She says the angel Gabriel told her to paint.
In Seraphine’s vision the world is “beheld” in lush, dazzling brilliance. Along the way, we thirst to see as Serphine saw, even though she spent her last years in an “asylum.” Nonetheless, she did see, just as Annie Dillard once stumbled upon her own “tree with lights in it,” as recounted in Pilgrim At Tinker Creek (1974). Such blazes of in-sight and display remind us, to be sure, as Marilynne Robinson’s fiction dramatizes and her essays explain, that “the gift of life is lavish far beyond our usual understanding of it.” It is perhaps the particular gift of film, though such instances do not happen often, to see (and love) the world as God sees and loves the world. Not bad for a movie.
*A fuller treatment of this film and many others can be found on Calvin Theological Seminary’s website, https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/movies-for-preaching/