December 2012

A few good films for the mind and spirit

In our last edition for 2012, The Good Oil invited some of our regular writers and readers to nominate a film they particularly enjoyed and would recommend to others for viewing during those lazy summer days when you’ve had enough of tennis and cricket.

BY The Good Oil’s readers and writers

Each was asked to choose a recently released film or a classic that they would recommend to others, the main criterion being that it stimulated the mind or nourished the spirit. Perhaps you would like to add your recommendation to our small list of good films in the comments section below?

Beasts of the Southern Wild – recommended by Evan Ellis

This film generated a minor controversy in the US for allegedly glorifying poverty. It tells the story of six-year-old Hush Puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) as she grows up in the Bathtub, a swampy fringe community in the American Deep South. Her performance has to be seen to be believed.

Far from a poverty manifesto, the film is a unique insight into a proud and defiant community that, despite all adversity, thrives outside the margins of acceptable society. When a levee breaks and the outside world comes crashing in, it is our world that now seems antiseptic, strange and threatening. This shift in perspective allows the film to achieve what G.K. Chesterton wrote about travel: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land”.

Of Gods and Men – recommended by Patty Fawkner SGS

Of Gods and Men is one of the few films that, from my perspective, “get” religious life. Based on true events it tells the story of a community of eight Trappist monks living in an Algerian village where they offer warm hospitality and practical assistance to their impoverished Muslim neighbours. Life changes dramatically when the monks are threatened by a group of Islamic fundamentalists. The film traces the monks’ human and spiritual struggle as individuals and as a community. Should they stay or should they flee to safety?

This film is no Hollywood blockbuster. The dialogue is often sparse and the action slow. Yet, as the tension mounts inextricably, it is gripping and real. Two marvellous scenes stay with me: elderly Brother Luc and a young woman discussing love; and a communal meal – a last supper – which is profoundly moving and beautiful. This movie nourishes heart, mind and spirit.

The Constant Gardener – recommended by Graham West

Let me begin with a warning: this film adaptation of John le Carré’s book of the same name is not the film to see before your Christmas party. If you need a shot of romantic Christmas spirit grab Love Actually instead!

The Constant Gardener is a beautiful love story set amidst great tragedy (as love stories are!). It is three intertwined love stories: firstly, between Justin (Ralph Fiennes) and Tessa (Rachel Weisz); secondly, one with the African landscape, which is at times breathtaking, such as the scenes of Lake Turkana (most of the film is set and filmed in Kenya); and most importantly, it is a love story with the people of Africa especially the most marginalised. Some of the most beautiful scenes are set in the slum town of Kibera where the dignity of the residents shines.

The plot plays out against the backdrop of exploitation of the most marginalised by a fictional pharmaceutical company and British interests. As the motives and connections become murkier, the love story intensifies, shifting from a shocked lovers reassessment of their relationship to a shared passion for each other and the people of Africa.

This film, while full of tragedy, is also intertwined with a great hope in the people of Africa and the importance of our shared humanity.

The Intouchables – recommended by Moira Byrne Garton

Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, The Intouchables is based on a true story. Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a wealthy Parisian with quadriplegia following an accident. Driss (Omar Sy) is a young Frenchman of African descent at the other end of society. Driss attends an interview to become Philipppe’s carer for the sole purpose of a signature on a form to continue his eligibility to receive welfare payments. Against the advice of his household and friends, Philippe decides to employ Driss. “He’s strong with arms and legs; his brain works; he’s healthy…,” says Philippe; more importantly, Driss does not view Philippe with pity.

Sensitive viewers should be aware that there are in turn some suggestive and provocative moments, but the film is also laced with laugh-out-loud humour. This complements a quite touching portrayal of the growth that emerges from a deep friendship between two unlikely companions.

Call the Midwife – recommended by Bernardina Sontrop SGS

If you are a BBC drama buff, enjoy reminiscing about life in times past, or simply love immersing yourself in stories of human life and friendship, then the DVD series Call the Midwife is for you. Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the story is set in post World War II East London. The period drama portrays the life and work of Jenny, a community midwife, her interaction with the women and families struggling to make ends meet and a deeply caring and compassionate community of the sisters of Nonnatus House, dedicated to serve as midwives in the impoverished community.

Jenny and her friends, especially the endearing Chummy and Sister Monica, are shown in a series of humorous, heart-rending and challenging birth, life and death encounters. Jenny’s eyes are opened and she grows to understand and appreciate deeply the women for whom she cares. It is a story of life, love, camaraderie and friendship, interspersed with cockney humour, and I look forward to next eight episodes promised in 2013.

The Way – recommended by Frank Pitt

The Way is a powerful and inspirational story about the joys, challenges and heartbreak that are part of family life. The film traces the journey of Tom Avery, an American doctor who comes to France to deal with the tragic loss of his son who had begun the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St James. Rather than returning home, Tom decides to honour his son by completing the journey. The profound impact that this walk has on Tom allows him to discover the difference between the life we live and the life we choose to live.

This is a delightful film that touches all of our emotions from profound sadness to great joy as we walk with Tom on his journey of self-discovery. The characters are engaging, the scenery is beautiful and most importantly the healing power of pilgrimage is exemplified. I was so inspired by the film that I am exploring the possibilities of undertaking the pilgrimage myself.

Cinema Paradiso – recommended by Beth Riolo

The Italian film, Cinema Paradiso, was first released in 1988 and is the story of a famous Italian filmmaker, Salvatore (affectionately known as Toto), who reminisces about his childhood, when he first fell in love with the movies at his village’s local theatre.

The movie offers a nostalgic look at films and the effect they have on Toto, and indeed the whole village, as the local cinema provides a welcome escape from the grim realities of post-war Italy. It portrays the deep friendship the young Toto had with the theatre’s projectionist, Alfredo and the experiences of his childhood and adolescence that leave an indelible mark on the adult Salvatore. The movie is enhanced by the wonderful score provided by Ennio Morricone and the final scene in which Salvatore views the ‘gift’ bequeathed to him from Alfredo is an absolute joy and sends the spirit soaring.

A word of caution… Try to source a copy of the film that is not the Director’s Cut version. The original 1988 cinema release, in my opinion, is far superior to the lengthy Director’s Cut and is proof that good film editors earn their keep.

Talking Heads – recommended by Margaret Malone SGS

The DVD collection Talking Heads by British author Alan Bennett is well worth watching. It is a series of monologues spoken and acted by various well known actresses and actors such as Maggie Smith, Patricia Routledge, Thora Hird, Stephanie Cole. That in itself is a recommendation. This series is a BBC production not to be confused with a past ABC program of the same name and it is obtainable from Some of the series appear on YouTube.

Alan Bennett is a prolific playwright, actor and author and you will know some of his works such as The Madness of King George and The History Boys. Each of the monologues is about 45 minutes long and all are poignant, compassionate and at times very funny. There is a real humanity in the portrayals though often the themes are sad. I found these monologues both enjoyable and profoundly moving and they expressed a great deal about the human condition.

The Sessions – recommended by Garry Everett

The Gospel parables are stories that ask us questions on many levels of our conscience and lives. In an analogous way, the film The Sessions, is a modern parable. Here we find a story about an unlikely mix: sex and the disabled (cf Jews and Samaritans in the famous parable). The Sessions asks us questions which should take us on a similar journey. What do we really believe about differently-abled people? (The film is based on a true story). How do we understand the significance of human intimacy in our development as human? beings? How should the Church respond to the request (to the priest) portrayed in the film? What is the nature of regret, and how do we handle regret in our own life?

Sincerity, empathy, humour, belief in God, and a zest for living life to the full, are all portrayed in this remarkable film, in ways that help us to be better people. May there be more “Sessions”!

The Sessions – also recommended by Alice Priest

Hollywood nudity, sex and adult themes typically mean, ironically, that there’s not much to see. The Sessions is an exception. It’s an autobiographical story (based on polio-ravaged Mark O’Brien) of the desire to experience sex which taps into the questions, longings and bodily existence of us all.

The viewer is privy to the ‘sessions’ Mark attends with Cheryl, a ‘sex surrogate’ (who knew!?), a number of conversations he has with his Catholic priest, parked on his gurney at the end of the aisle, and with his carers, upon whom his life depends. The sessions, while depicted in a real and explicit way, are neither prurient nor glamourised. What emerges is a moving portrait of two human persons who, through each other, both learn to love a little better. The coupling of such physical disability with overt physicality reveals just how much a mixture of brokenness and wholeness lies within us all.

Take your tissues – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when I saw it.

Monsieur Lazhar – recommended by Kevin Treston

A must-see film, especially for teachers, is Monsieur Lazhar. The film is one of the most moving and insightful films I have seen. Monsieur Bashir Lazhar is an Algerian immigrant in Montreal who applies for a teaching position in an elementary school in Montreal. He is replacing a teacher who hung herself one night in her classroom and was discovered by one of her pupils.

Bashir gradually wins the hearts and minds of the children with his love and gentleness. He slowly empowers the students, especially one of them, to deal with their perceived guilt in driving the teacher to suicide. A parent finds out Lazhar’s background as a refugee who fled Algeria after his wife’s murder and Bashir is dismissed, but not before he has his students compose a fable. There are many layers of meaning in this French-Canadian film which won an award for the best foreign film of the year. Don’t miss it!

Where Do We Go Now? – recommended by Moya Weissenfeld SGS

This film is set in a war-torn Middle East country, probably Lebanon. The villagers, Christian and Moslem, work and mix together in friendship and acceptance of each other. The gift of a television introduces the villagers to the wonders and temptations of modern living, as well as to the awareness of how the rest of their country is involved in religious wars.

As the film develops, it is laugh-out-loud funny, heartbreakingly sad, and a wonderful illustration of the determination of the priest, the imam, and most of all, the women of the village, to work together to maintain peace in spite of the frequently warlike responses of their men.

This film certainly both stimulated my mind and nourished my spirit. I would recommend it unreservedly.

As It Is In Heaven – recommended by Judith Scully

It’s rare for me to watch a film more than once, but I’ve enjoyed As It Is In Heaven several times, subtitles and all. The setting is simple: a small village in the far north of Sweden, the church choir, their minister, and an internationally famous conductor living in the old schoolhouse who reluctantly agrees to be the choirmaster. It could be a variation of the Cinderella story, but that’s not all there is. Like any group, each person has a story, hidden yearnings, unexplored possibilities and deep shame. As the choir develops, both choirmaster and choristers begin to face change and find healing. The whole film culminates in a mind-blowing, free-wheeling kaleidoscope of the human voice. And who can ever forget Gabriella’s Song!

If you’ve already seen it, give yourself a treat and watch it again.

The Good Oil

‘The Good Oil’, the free, monthly e-journal of the Good Samaritan Sisters, publishes news, feature and opinion articles and reflective content which aims to nourish the spirit, stimulate thinking and encourage reflection and dialogue about contemporary issues from a Good Samaritan perspective.

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