Movies that foster reflection, spiritual growth for Lent's journey

Reese Witherspoon in “Wild” (Anne Marie Fox)

On Ash Wednesday, Feb. 18, Pope Francis outlined a program for Lent in his homily, using for his inspiration the readings of the day from Book of Joel, Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, and the Gospel of Matthew. Some of the themes correlate well with films that tell stories that foster reflection, conversation and spiritual growth.

Lent is a journey that calls for prayer, fasting and confessing of sin. Emilio Estevez's 2010 film "The Way" tells about Tom (Martin Sheen), who walks the ancient Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain with his son's ashes. Tom meets three other pilgrims along the way. At the end, you have to ask yourself if the others were really "real" or aspects of Tom's fragmented inner world that he came to know so as to be made whole again. I have used this film many times with groups for retreats and have now seen it 22 times. I always see something new.

"Return to me with all your heart" (Joel 2:12). In this year's "Wild," based on a true story, Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl, a woman whose life is in tatters. To regain the values her mother (Laura Dern) taught her, she walks the Pacific Crest Trail. Though not so specifically religious as "The Way," Cheryl is nonetheless on a journey to become a better human being, to regain herself. It is a journey of purification so that she can begin anew. For Cheryl, this is an inner journey of the heart.

Prayers accompanied by tears. In Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's 2011 film "Where Do We Go Now?", the Catholic Maronite and Muslim women of a rural Lebanese village grow weary of burying their men, and join together to stop their men from killing each other whenever a provocation occurs. This is one of those subtle comedies that surprises and runs deep.

Lent is not only about the individual, but a call to sanctify the congregation, the community. I can think of no better film than Lasse Hallström's 2000 excursion into magical realism, "Chocolat." Strangers, a woman and her daughter, open a chocolate shop in a small French village at the beginning of Lent in the 1950s. This challenges the religiosity of many of the citizens, especially the mayor. In the end, it is the hypocrisy of the villagers that is challenged, and the Easter sermon reveals all. Hallström's latest film, "The Hundred Foot-Journey," has similar themes and globalizes them by serving up cultural understanding and respect for dinner.

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Almsgiving, prayer, fasting. "Into Great Silence" is German filmmaker Philip Gröning's almost yearlong sojourn with the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. It is a long film that challenges us to be silent and to contemplate the life of these monks who choose to live these qualities of Lent for 364 days a year. While some thought the film had no meaning, for those willing to take the time to stay awhile and watch, the film leaves a lasting impression on how to go into the woods, or the desert, and to live deliberately -- alone, yet for others.

"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them" (Matthew 6:1). Films about the quiet heroes and heroines who saved so many Jewish people in secret during World War II come to mind here: "Schindler's List" about Oskar Schindler; "The Hiding Place" about Corrie ten Boom and her family; "Nicky's Family" about Nicholas Winton, an Englishman who saved 669 Czech and Slovak children and no one knew for decades; and "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler," a Polish nurse who wrote down the name of every Jewish child she saved and the people she placed them with, placed the papers in a jar and buried it so after the war the children could be reunited with their families. These stories inspire prayer when Jews are once again being persecuted, and ask us what we would do, in nonviolent ways, to save our brothers and sisters, to relieve suffering, no matter who they are, in a world where war and conflict never stop.

In him we can become righteous, in him we can change, if we accept the grace of God and do not let the "acceptable time" (2 Corinthians 6:2) pass in vain. So often, we speak of reconciliation but seldom do we hear about anyone making restitution. But at a certain point, an acceptable time comes in Roger Michell's 2002 drama "Changing Lanes." A spoiled young man, played by Ben Affleck, and a father struggling to hold his chaotic life together, played by Samuel L. Jackson, collide in New York City on Good Friday. Reconciliation between strangers is hard won, but who would expect restitution?

Trusting and joyful are two words that may seem strange to apply to this year's "Still Alice" about a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. Her own words, "I am not suffering; I am struggling" better describe her journey into an abyss of inner loss. But still, she does trust and has moments of joy in the darkness that becomes harder for her family to accept and live than her own reality. After watching this film, with my own neurological issues from multiple sclerosis, I went on my own reflective journey about the fight to hold on to life, seeking peace and joy.

Cinema is an exceedingly spiritual medium, and in some cases, television is proving just as good. For an authentic spiritual journey that is permeated with Lenten themes, watch both seasons of the dramatic series "Rectify," the Sundance Channel's first scripted show (now on Netflix or Amazon Prime). It tells of a young man, Daniel, sentenced to death in Georgia at the age of 17 for raping and killing his girlfriend. He confesses. Years later, DNA testing proves it was not him, and he is released to begin living again. The third season is in production.

[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]

This story appeared in the March 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: Movies that map Lent's journey .

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