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Intersection of Life and Faith

Best Picture Nominees -- from a Faith Perspective

  • 2001 2 Feb
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Best Picture Nominees -- from a Faith Perspective
By Phil Boatwright, The Movie Reporter

Here's a look at this year's Academy Award best-picture nominees, from a Christian perspective.

Chocolat. Miramax. Romantic comedy/fable. Directed by Lasse Halstrom.

As the north wind blows through the seemingly tranquil traditional French village of Lansquenet, it carries with it a mysterious traveler, Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), and her daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol). Vianne opens a chocolaterie filled with irresistible confections that awaken the townspeople's hidden appetites. But the mayor of Lansquenet, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), is convinced that Vianne's sumptuous chocolate will wreak havoc with the town and undermine their strict religious code of morality.

Chocolat brilliantly reminds us of how easy it is to become so sanctimonious that we neglect to love one another. And it does so with exceptional performances and a storyline complete with enough twists and turns to keep you glued to the screen. However, while the filmmakers make a valid point about religious doctrines often replacing Christian charity within Christian gatherings, unfortunately, they do so in a rather bitter way. The film and its director seem bent on challenging not just the foibles of Christians, but Christianity itself. True, there is a brief final moment where the local priest begins to bring the gospel back to his sermons, but it is too little too late. It is the heroine, a non-conformist who never attends church, who becomes the community's savior. While the town leaders are stuck in church dogma much like the Pharisees, it is the film's humanist who is both wise and righteous. And no, she is not a Christ figure. While Christ was concerned with renewing our relationship with the Creator, the film's heroine travels from town to town, bent on releasing pent-up desires through pop women's empowerment. For her, there seems to be no need to bridle some temptations. She is not apologetic for her lifestyle, which has included several sexual affairs and produced a child out of wedlock. While I would hesitate to judge her, it does weaken a society's standard of morality to accept those practices as alternate lifestyles. And like it or not, a society must have standards.

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules - a movie that also portrays Christians as unfeeling hypocrites) and produced by filmmakers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who, while they have made some remarkable films (Mansfield Park, Enchanted April), have managed to prejudicially influence society against Christianity wherever possible (Shakespeare In Love, The Cider House Rules). The Weinsteins' bigotry against believers and misconception of what it means to be a follower of Christ is not only arrogant, but also myopic. Certainly there are people in the Catholic church with little understanding of what it means to be a Christian (just as in any Protestant denomination), but would you characterize Mother Teresa as faithless? Or Father Damion? Of course not. They are examples of millions of Catholics who place Christ first in their lives. But the Weinstein brothers prefer to mock and attack hypocrites rather than acknowledge those who practice their faith.

Rated PG-13: (Two profanities; one obscenity, five expletives; two implied sexual encounters outside marriage; some scenes take place in a bar, with an abusive alcoholic getting drunk; implied spousal abuse; a fire is set, where we first believe people may have perished).

Video Alternative: Babette's Feast. A woman, once a famous chef, travels to a far land and becomes the housekeeper of two devout sisters. When she wins a lottery, the woman shares her good fortune by preparing a feast for the sisters and their pious religious group. During the meal, members of the gathering begin drawing closer to one another. It is a gentle, yet sumptuous story about self-discovery, one that nourishes the spirit.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Sony Pictures Classics. Martial Arts/Romance. Directed by Ang Lee.

Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a weary martial arts warrior anxious to hang up his 400-year-old sword, must first dissuade a young woman from seeking a life of adventure by following his old nemesis.

Bruce Lee made physicality the central element to the success of Chinese action films. Jackie Chan added humor and precision to the genre. Now, director Ang Lee brings astonishing visual effects to martial arts. He adds magic to the mystique of Asian kicksuey. His warriors don't merely jump higher than physically possible, they literally fly. Indeed, much of the film has its heroes chasing their adversaries over rooftops and, in one instance, through forests, stopping to swordfight atop towering trees. The film is action-packed, equally splitting time between romance and confounding fight sequences. It is, to say the least, a very visual film.

Although it has a woman praying to a shrine, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not about promoting Eastern religious beliefs. Nor does the exuberant choreography suggest legitimate sorcery. Nothing in it, except for the themes of love and honor, is to be taken seriously. It is fantasy. The fly in the dim sum, however, is the film's one sexual encounter between an unwed couple. But it is a short scene with no nudity, and it is clear that they truly love each other. The violence, while continuous, is artful and nearly bloodless. While we suggest caution concerning the brief sexuality, the film's positive message is that good will conquer evil if we continue to battle it.

Rated PG-13: (It contains one sexual situation between an unmarried couple, but it is not graphic, nor does it exhibit nudity. It receives its rating for the many fight scenes).

Erin Brockovich. Universal. Drama. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

A research assistant, not taken seriously because she is an attractive woman, helps an attorney with a lawsuit against a large utility company blamed for causing an outbreak of fatal illnesses in a small community. Julia Roberts stars as the twice-divorced mother of three who discovers a cover-up involving contaminated water.

This is the role Roberts has been searching for. She is tough, independent, a survivor. The performances are terrific and the good guys win, but the abundance of profanity and obscenity ruin an otherwise promising movie experience.

Rated R: (Profanity and obscenity throughout; fornication implied; it is suggested that the couple are sleeping together every night; a very realistic car crash, but no one is seriously injured).

Video Alternative: The Dollmaker. An intelligent script and a dynamic performance from Jane Fonda as a strong-willed woman who must provide for her family when her husband can't find work.

Gladiator. Univeral/DreamWorks. Action/drama. Directed by Ridley Scott.

Upon the murder of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), his trusted and successful general Maximus Meridas (Russell Crowe) becomes unlawfully imprisoned and condemned to the gladiator games by Marcus' twisted son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). However, Maximus gains fame as a gladiator and uses his power to cause further damage to Commodus' tenuous hold on the susceptible Roman people, hoping to inspire them to rediscover their lost values and overcome corruption.

This sword-and-sandal epic is gruesome, graphic and gory. Elements of El Cid, Ben Hur, Spartacus and Braveheart can easily be identified in Gladiator, along with the dramatic treachery and tragedy found in most of Shakespeare's works. What the picture lacks is a well-defined evolution of the main character. Throughout, his only motivation is that of a man bent on seeking revenge for the murder of his wife, son and beloved emperor Marcus Aurelius (whom we watch being smothered by his son). While the dream of a government by and for the people was the dying wish of Aurelius, the film focuses more on the action and brutality of coliseum life.

The movie is epic-sized, with a seasoned cast (including a last performance by Oliver Reed), but I am unable to recommend it for family viewing due to the grisly violence. This was a tough call for me, as the film displays men of courage fighting for freedom and justice. I would go so far as to call it a good vs. evil parable. But the more accepting we become of viewing blood-splattered beheadings and sword-piercing deaths, the more readily we will accept additional repulsive sights. As it is, there is becoming little difference between Roman gatherings at the coliseum and today's Saturday matinees at the local bijou.

Rated R: (Implied incestuous desires from the villain toward his sister; many graphic and blood-spurting battle scenes, including a severed head, a female warrior cut in two, and tons of blood.)

Video Alternative: El Cid. Charlton Heston as the legendary hero who drove the Moors from Spain. Great spectacle (without being too gruesome), with a literate script, lovely score and beautiful Sophia Loren.

Traffic. Gramercy Pictures/USA Films. Action/drama. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

A contemporary thriller set in the world of drug trafficking, Traffic is told through a series of interrelated stories, some of which are highly personal, some of which are filled with intrigue and danger.

An engrossing film from start to finish, Traffic is exceptional filmmaking with something important to say. As it shows the frustration of battling the corrosiveness of drugs on society, it makes it clear that while there are those who wish to put illegal substances into their bodies no matter how many examples they've seen of its destructiveness, there will always be those willing to grow, sell and distribute the junk for them to do it. By giving us this potent message, it reminds us that rebellion to biblical teaching also leads to destructiveness. That may not have been the intended message of the filmmakers, but that's what it's saying.

I believe any subject matter can be filmed without assaulting the audience. That's my only problem with this production. (Sixty-three uses of the F-word! Come on.) While there are many associated with the drug world who use that kind of language, this film depicts every single character with a propensity for that word.

To be fair, other than the excessive use of obscene language, I didn't find anything exploitive about the content. The film makes powerful statements about family responsibility and the need to care about our fellow man. And while its theme and plotlines tend to unnerve, director Steven Soderbergh entertains, teaches and touches the soul.

Rated R: (Four profanities and nearly 100 obscenities; a couple of crude sexual comments; implied sex between drug-induced teens; one sex scene as teen sells herself for drugs; a man is tortured while nude; a man is seen from behind, sans clothing; a sexual conversation; teens and adults are seen smoking; teens and adults are seen drinking; we see teens using drugs, including free-basing; 2 explosions; a man is killed by a car bomb; several murders; a man is poisoned to death).

Video Alternative: McQ. John Wayne stars as a determined cop bent on stopping drug trafficking in Seattle.

The Christian Filmgoer's Dilemma

The entertainment industry finds it difficult to present the art of storytelling without today's cinema stables - offensive language, exploitive sex, crude humor or brutal violence. For example, in nearly every film represented by Oscar's nod, God's name is misused. If it were the exception to the rule, I might be a little more lenient, but when this irreverence toward God seeps into nearly every prestigious film, I think we must take a stand.

Christ commands us to follow a certain standard, not out of piety, but as a reflection of what we believe. As society slips further and further away from the fundamentals of biblical teaching, we who live by God's Word will seem even more peculiar to the world around us. "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - His good, pleasing and perfect will" Romans 12:2.

I hope we all remember that the Bible doesn't apply to parts of our lives, but to the sum total -- including how we entertain ourselves. If we govern what we support at the box office, it is honoring to God, nurturing to loved ones and a guidepost to those who scrutinize our walk.

For more reviews of movies, TV-made films, videos, and video games, go to www.dove.org. Check out Phil Boatwright's Web site at www.moviereporter.com.