The Top 5 Oscar Movies with Spiritual Themes

by Richard Leonard, SJ

With the Oscars around the corner, we turned to movie maven Rev. Dr. Richard Leonard, SJ, to mine the top spiritual themes from this year’s Best Picture contenders.

Leonard, director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting and author of the book, Movies That Matter, found striking spiritual themes emerged from five of the nine films—with the exceptions of Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska, which have not yet hit Australian theatres, and The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, which Leonard said only showed “the wages of sin is death, in all its forms” as themes.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!
[Be forewarned, spoilers ahead]

1. Gravity

As she struggles for survival in outer space, medical engineer Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) explores a mystical world. This world takes on deeper meaning as Stone fights to stay alive; it becomes an outer space meditation on the choice between life and death placed before us in Deuteronomy 30:19.

The commander, Matt Kowalski, says to Stone, “I’m going to make you say it—say it! Choose life,” a line similar to the Deuteronomy verse. Kowalski’s own death is a modern parable to another great Biblical theme, this time from New Testament: There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

After Kowalski’s death, Stone is left alone to do a solitary human task: to find meaning in the quest to survive. On that inner journey she has to find healing from past memories, confront dysfunctional earth-bound relationships, and learn how to pray. At one stage she says to another Russian cosmonaut, “No one will mourn me for me. No one will pray for my soul … I’ve never prayed … Nobody has taught me how.”

Furthering these spiritual moments, Kowalski reappears as an angel of life to urge Stone on when she’s unconscious. Soon after, Stone finds an icon of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers and surviving storms. And later, to add balance to the ying, a Buddha is found in the Chinese spacepod, a symbol of the human balance that is being restored within her. The task done, she is ready for re-entry to Earth and life. In the end, Gravity is truly a film about creation and recreation, spiritual themes we see again and again.

2. Captain Phillips

When Captain Richard Phillips offers himself as a hostage to Somali pirates and their terrorist warlords so his crew can be saved, his action exemplifies the anchor of this movie: self-sacrifice and servant leadership. The brilliance of this story lies in our admiration of the Captain’s dignity and courage, while at the same time beginning to understand the Somalis’ desperate poverty that gives birth to piracy and violence.

Spiritually speaking, context never forgives evil behavior, but it does provide the moral world with a reason why terrible choices are made and justified. The bad guys here are certainly bad, but they are desperate too. Evil arises and thrives for a reason.

3. Philomena

This searing true story of Philomena Lee’s 50-year-long search for her son, who was sold to American parents by Irish nuns who ran a home for unmarried mothers, is about the truth that sets us free.

While pursuing Lee’s story, the journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan) rails against belief, God, and the Church as he unravels this story of a boy who was shipped away without his mother’s consent. Curiously, his anger and inquiry is never focused on Philomena’s family or the connivance of the Irish government.

That said, as we in the Catholic Church confront our criminal and tragic past, one can see how these crimes confirm the way some reject faith in Christ because of his followers (like Sixsmith), while others hold on to faith as a source of comfort and hope, (like Philomena), and perhaps even finding a level of forgiveness for a broken Church.

4. 12 Years a Slave

Many western countries have shameful chapters on how they treated minorities within their borders, and the United States is no exception to the stain of slavery.

12 Years a Slave reminds a new audience of the dehumanizing nature of racism, of the way evil corrupts everything and everyone, and how religion can be used to justify unjust structures. Within this world emerges Solomon Northup, a free African American from New York who is kidnapped by slave-traders. Northup needs to survive so he can defeat sin by entering into it, so he can be born again.

This film is not just about 1853. It’s also about the multiple contemporary slaveries in which we are all both master and slave.

5. Her

Her follows the story of Teddy (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man who falls in love with his operating system. The film journeys with Teddy and his growing friendships, intimacies, and sexual awareness.

An original film written and directed by Spike Jonze, Her is a prophetic film in regard to artificial intelligence and how the technologies of the 21st century could be potentially destructive to who we are or what we become. Her confronts a world of the future in which humans never stop communicating, but are never satisfied by the need to know and be known. The characters are so busy commenting on their experiences that they don’t have them, creating a split between their selves and their experience.

Spirituality is about finding God in all encounters and how we process, understand, and learn from them. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves—offline and online.

 Richard Leonard, SJ

Richard Leonard, SJ

Richard Leonard, SJ, is a writer and film critic who has written and spoken about cinema, culture, and faith on four continents.

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