Christians may often feel that there are fewer films with faith content or themes than they would like to see. Highlights from this year's Toronto International Film Festival, however, show world cinema continues to explore religion and spirituality in enlightening, challenging, and refreshing ways.
The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are two of the most honored and respected directors in the world. The Kid with a Bike is their fourth film nominated for The Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and they are one of six directors to have won the award twice. Their latest film tells the story of a hairdresser, Samantha, who agrees to act as a foster parent for a troubled boy who has been abandoned by his father and who teeters on the brink of juvenile delinquency. While the allegorical connections between the mother's love and God's love are understated, they are clearly there. The brothers told the audience at Toronto that Samantha's motivation for loving the boy unconditionally was left unstated so that, hopefully, viewers would think for themselves what causes such love rather than blindly accept a prefabricated explanation.
Italian director Ermanno Olmi, also a recipient of the Palme d'Or, came out of retirement to helm The Cardboard Village. It's a beautiful and painful story of a priest who cannot bear to leave his church which has been shut down, and so he transforms it into a shelter for North African refugees. Olmi, who turned 80 earlier this year, is inexplicably underappreciated by (in fact, largely unknown to) American audiences. As America wrestles with its own questions about immigration, The Cardboard Village may hit too close to home, but its setting may be just far removed enough to let its parable-like qualities be heard by those with ears to hear.
Two Iranian films show how people trying to live in increasingly fundamentalist societies can struggle to balance personal integrity with survival in a legalistic society. Asghar Farhadi's A Separationcame to Toronto having already scored the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. What begins looking like it will be a divorce drama—she wants to take their daughter out of the country, he wants to stay and care for his elderly father—quickly spirals into something else. It ends up as a meditation about surviving in a culture so consumed by fear of being labeled anti-religious that a woman must call a religious hotline to get clerical advice over whether it's a sin to change the pants of a man who has wet himself. Less an indictment of any particular religion as it is an examination of the consequences of rigorous fundamentalism, A Separation gives audiences a taste of what it is like to live in near constant fear of not being able to live up to society's expectations where the cost of such failures is steep indeed.
Less political (and less religious than its predecessor, Persepolis) Marjane Satrapi's Chicken with Plums is a whimsical, bittersweet allegory about the pain of exile. Combining live action with animation, it tells how one of the world's great violinists lost his passion for music and, eventually, life.
Love taming the hardest of men is a tale as old as Hollywood, but it gets a twist in Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur. Joseph (Peter Mullan), an alcoholic hitting rock bottom, manages to forge a connection with Hannah (Olivia Colman), a strong Christian who runs a thrift store. After initially mocking Hannah's faith, Joseph comes to see that she is struggling with problems of her own, her violently abusive husband being the greatest. Tyrannosaur earns every bit of its R rating, with some scenes being downright painful to watch. Hannah's faith is never cheapened, however, and Colman gives a stalwart performance as a woman struggling to keep her faith in God.
Also getting strong festival buzz, Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene features a breakout performance from Elizabeth Olsen as the titular character, a woman whose identity has been so badly fractured by her experience in a cult that even the love and patience of her sister (Sarah Paulsen) and brother-in-law may not be enough to allow her to even verbalize what has happened to her. (Look for CT's review of this film on October 7.)
Still more challenging, yet in its own way devout, Alexander Sokurov's Faust gives us a rendering of Goethe's tale where the titular character (Johannes Zeiler) begins quite literally elbows deep in blood and guts and searches for some hint of the divine that he has been told exists in the world, but for which he has found no evidence.
Matias Meyer's The Last Christeros shows a small but determined band of men standing up to their government when its president outlaws their faith and makes ringing a church bell an offense punishable by one to three years in jail. A chapter in Mexican history mostly known to American readers through Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (prettied up for a Hollywood treatment with Henry Fonda as a Mexican priest!) finally gets a telling from a Mexican point of view, where peasants of faith are more than merely obsequious pawns. Though not as successful as last year's Of Gods and Men, it is still a promising first effort from a new director.
If The Last Christeros is devout in its depiction of Roman Catholicism,Habemus Papam most assuredly is not. A sometimes farce about a Cardinal who verges on a nervous breakdown when his colleagues suddenly and unexpectedly elect him Pope, the film treads carefully—perhaps too carefully—around the questions it raises. Most of the satire in Habemus Papam centers on the Vatican secretary trying to keep the pope's struggles a secret, but the film becomes more serious when it focuses on the man in the papal chair himself.
In Joaquim Sapinho's This Side of Resurrection, a young woman is told by her parents that her brother had left the country, but she learns that he has actually been living in a monastery. Confused by his devotion and her parents' response to it, she resolved to affirm his right to make his own choices and, in the process of interacting with him, begins to question her own.
Two films, while not overtly religious in theme, warrant special notice. Hirokazu Kore-eda continues to explore how modernity pulls families apart in I Wish, a heartbreakingly sweet and sincere tale of children who cling to the faith that if they can make a wish as two bullet trains pass one another, it will come true. They set out on a quest to try to make the impossible happen the only way they know how. And Emmanuelle Millet's Twiggy tells the tale of a woman who is shocked to find herself pregnant. Unable to have an abortion because of the stage of her pregnancy, she resolves to give the child up for adoption, only to wonder about her—and her culture's—attitude toward pregnancy as she falls into a subculture of expectant mothers who hold very different hopes and expectations about what motherhood will mean.
Kenneth R. Morefield, a CT film critic, is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Volumes I & II) and the founder of 1More Film Blog.