Although Christian critics tend to focus on popular films to stay relevant to a mass audience, many call attention to significant international films when possible. Often, because these foreign movies don't make the same assumptions as typical Hollywood fare, they are able to shed light on topics not usually discussed at the cineplex. In this edition of Film Forum, we look beyond the blockbusters and spotlight ten movies from around the world that have Christians talking.
The Color of Paradise
This Iranian tragedy, about a blind boy who shares a tender relationship with his grandmother but is despised by his widowed father, earned strong praise from Movieguide. The reviewer particularly praised "the joy and compassion that the son and his godly grandmother bring to the story." The family is Muslim, not Christian, and Movieguide says that "Christian and Jewish families can comfortably watch this very clean movie without being insulted or disturbed." God's presence plays a strong role in the film, particularly when tragedy strikes and the father decides to take his son away to learn a trade. "The movie includes … a nice visual representation of God's glory mercifully shining down on people," Movieguide's reviewer (presumably Ted Baehr, though the Web site doesn't name him explicitly)writes, "[and] makes clear … that it is the light of God which alone brings hope, peace and life."
The Closer You Get
In this comedy from Ireland, a group of bachelors in the remote village of Donegal try to lure American women to their annual village dance by advertising in a Miami Beach newspaper. John Evans of Preview criticized the film because "the bachelors definitely have sex on their minds, and their conversations are sometimes crude and often sexually explicit." But The Movie Reporter finds that it makes a "strong statement about the sanctity of marriage" because one of the men, a virgin who "visits a madam in order to, well, get experience," decides to wait for wedlock. "Realizing he would not be in love with the prostitute, he found it wrong to be there." The Movie Reporter also praised the film's "reverence for God [evident in] a respectful portrait of the local priest." Movieguide disagreed with this assessment, calling the priest "a rather difficult character [who] mixes some bad advice with some good Christian advice." But overall, Movieguide appreciated the movie's assertion that "we sometimes overlook love for lust."
This drama from France, an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, centers on a Russian doctor and his French wife whose marriage withers under the oppression of Stalinist Russia. The film earned high praise from Movieguide, especially for its restrained use of violence. "The grim reality of life under Stalin is communicated with the minimum of violence—just enough for the gravity of the [couple's] situation to hit home." Movieguide also liked the hopeful spirit of the film, which "pays deep respect to the power of love and hope in overcoming oppression." Mainstream critics, however, felt its intentions were better than its execution—Oscar nomination notwithstanding. Canada's National Post dismisses it as "a pretty dreary political tract," and Film.com says the story is "so hammy and so ultra-melodramatic that you quickly find yourself tuning out."
Not One Less
Noted Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou experiments in realism with this small-scale film, using nonprofessional actors and abandoning his artful cinematography for a straightforward composition. Doug Cummings of Movies and Ministry says the experiment works well, "seem[ing] like a 'slice of life' that unexpectedly delivers a strong narrative of compassion." In a poor village school, a young girl becomes an interim teacher and is promised a bonus if every student remains when the permanent teacher returns. When she travels to the city in search of a student who quit to find a paying job, "the story serves as a contemporary version of Jesus' parable" of the lost sheep, says Cummings. He also draws attention to the film's emphasis on community and a "love of the shared life," evident in the schoolchildren's willingness to help their teacher find the missing student. "The movie expresses the innate value other cultures, particularly Asian ones, place on community and the ability of a group of people to accomplish difficult tasks more efficiently than the lone individuals of Western society."
Community also plays a strong role in this comedy, directed and written by a Tibetan monk, about a teenage monk who tries to convince the monastery to rent a TV and satellite dish to watch World Cup soccer. Surprisingly, the abbot allows the boy to pursue the possibility, hoping he'll come to recognize the harm of his selfish behavior on the community. Preview's John Evans called it a "real delight," and said Christians will identify with the theme of "maintaining traditional religious values and practices while dealing with intrusions from modern society." Movieguide, however, says it's not acceptable viewing because of "the false religion from which it springs," noting the "Buddhist chants, scenes of monks worshipping Buddha, [and] a fortune-telling." The Movie Reporter counters this assertion, saying "it does not attempt to proselytize the viewer," and joins Evans in calling it a "gentle comedy" containing "nothing objectionable."
This thriller from India unveils the life of a young female terrorist who begins to have second thoughts while on a suicide mission to assassinate a political target. Movieguide called it "excellent," both for its clean content and its antiviolence message: "It seems to oppose both the brutality of the terrorists and that of the soldiers they are fighting." The terrorist begins to change her mind through ordinary human encounters, including "a wounded young man impressed by her beauty and an elderly, philosophical farmer who cherishes the joy of life and the importance of having dreams for the future." Mainstream critics are also enthusiastic about The Terrorist and its examination of forceful ideas. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, like Movieguide, was impressed with the farmer, who "argues for life, not in words so much as in how he conducts his own existence. … He always sets an extra place at dinner, for his wife, who is in a coma and has not stirred for seven years."
Still in theaters an amazing 10 months after its debut, this Japanese quasi-documentary gives a supposed glimpse into the afterlife, where people must live forever with one memory. Movieguide found the premise depressing, saying it "reduces eternal life to the endless and deadening repetition of the past." But Matthew Prins of The Film Forum says it's worth pondering the question of what memory you would choose, despite the false premise of the film. "There is no heaven and no hell in After Life's afterlife, and there doesn't seem to be any omnipotent creature overlooking the proceedings, but the existential questions raised are certainly important for Christians to think about." The New York Times' Stephen Holden elaborates on some of these questions: "Invited to relive an especially happy memory, how many of us would be able to go beyond recalling how we felt, and describe the setting and circumstances of that moment in precise detail? And even when we conjure vivid mental pictures of past events, how accurate are they really?"
Waking the Dead
This American film also plays with life after death, as congressional candidate Fielding Pierce begins to see visions of his former girlfriend, Sarah, who died eight years earlier in a car accident. John Adair of Preview says it's a "compelling mystery [that] should keep audiences riveted." He praises the main characters for their high ideals, Fielding for "his desire to be an honest politician serving the people well," and Sarah for her "lifelong dream to serve others through the church mission to the poor and needy." Movieguide called it "noble but flawed"; flawed because the Catholic Sarah "fornicates without remorse," but noble because the "intricacies of political and moral ambition are fully explored, especially how they interrelate with keeping an honest romance going." The Movie Reporter, however, found little to be pleased with—criticizing Fielding for being "obsessed with thoughts of a dead woman, but lack[ing] any truly expressed feelings for others," and Sarah for "leftist political views that include rooting for the Viet Cong."
Ismail Merchant, the producer behind Remains of the Day and A Room With a View, takes a stab at directing with this British drama about an Anglo-Indian nurse who goes to destructive extremes trying to become a recognized part of English society. Movieguide took issue with the film's portrayal of Cotton Mary as a practicing Christian. "This devotion probably has more to do with Mary's desire to be white than anything else, but it is but another example of the preposterous and widely held belief that Christianity is the 'White Man's Religion.'" Mainstream critics were equally non-plussed. Film Journal laments that the unlikeable characters make it "impossible to become emotionally involved in the film," which isn't helped by a script "with all the delicacy of a wrecking ball."
In this Danish drama, a young man named Kresten, who's left behind his farming family for a life in the city with his rich wife, must reconnect with his past and his mentally handicapped brother after their father dies. Movieguide warns against the foul language and sexual content, but says Mifune "is made well, with interesting characters, fine acting and a few moral elements (The review divulges the movie's ending in order to point them out). Mainstream critic Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle reveals these elements in more general terms: "Fact is, the new import is a vital, sexy and touching movie that goes to the heart of what human caring is all about. … Mifune builds beautifully on the heartfelt conflicts weighing on Kresten as he looks at success in the city while the tug of family and roots seeps back into his heart."
Steve Lansingh is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
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