There are opportunities for spiritual practice in 2004's unusually large crop of screen biographies.
2004 is the year of the biopicture. In the opening of the 1982 film Gandhi, we read: "No man's life can be encompassed in one telling . . . What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try to find one's way into the heart of the man." In that Academy Award-winning film, director Richard Attenborough succeeded in his goal, and we found our lives enriched as we learned more about the man whose nonviolence, simple lifestyle, spiritual practice, and unswerving idealism had such an impact on India and others around the world. We admit to looking forward to similar edifying experiences when we went to see all the biopictures in release this year.
While many film critics and cultural commentators have evaluated screen biodramas for their historical accuracy and artistic creativity (two worthy standards), we are more interested in another approach. The question is whether we as viewers can bring ourselves to the place where we can see connections between what happens on the screen and what is happening in our own lives. The goal of spiritually literate filmgoers is to see the story as our story. Or as James E. Venninga puts it:
"We learn more than a life history. We glimpse inside a person to see a life unfold. We see the influence of environment on personality and of personality on environment. We discover anew the nature and meaning of the seasons of life. We see the fragility of the human psyche as it braces against the strong winds that would blow it asunder. We see the joy of success and the tribulation of failure. We see the magic of love and the power of hate."
James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, said of his approach: "In every picture there should be shade as well as light."
Here are a few of the benefits that can accrue from examining the lives of others through biopictures:
• They help us become more cognizant of human differences and similarities.
• They provide emotional nourishment and exercise for our feelings.
• They increase our appreciation of the irrational elements of our behavior and give us glimpses of our shadow sides.
• They identify the patterns and turning points that give value to life.
• They give us a context in which to see how other individuals deal with change, love and loss, success and failure, suffering and death.
• They enable us to recognize the elements in ourselves that govern our choices.
• They enhance our awareness of the ambiguity and sacredness of human relationships.
• They teach us that life is not a problem to be solved but a spiritual adventure to be experienced in the fullest.
Let's see how we can find our story in 2004's biopictures.
One of the best films of the year is The Motorcycle Diaries, a story about the young man who would eventually be known as Che Guevara. It takes place during 1952 when 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his best friend, Alberto Grandado (Rodrigo de la Serna), go on a 5000-mile journey to see the continent, beginning in Buenos Aires and traveling across the Andes to Chile, through the Atacama Desert to Peru, and then to Venezuela. This incredible biopicture directed by Walter Salles delves into the spiritual transformation of a sensitive upper-middle-class man as he is exposed to a world of suffering and deep poverty.
During his travels, Ernesto witnesses evidence of the injustices and separations that he will later fight against. We see him begin to align himself with the poor, the downtrodden, and the outcast. In one of the most poignant scenes of compassion we've ever seen, he risks a nighttime swim across the Amazon to say goodbye to some lepers segregated in a camp apart from the hospital where he has been working. As you watch this film, think about the situations that have drawn out your compassion and fueled your yearning to serve others.
Johnny Depp stars in Finding Neverland as J. M. Barrie, the English playwright man who wrote Peter Pan. This enchanting biopicture will transport you to a realm where playfulness is revered as a counterpoint to all the tragedy, pain, suffering, and disaster in the world. For Barrie, the key to enduring setbacks is to transform them by the magical powers of the imagination. While watching this film, figure out where and what your Neverland is and how it serves as an oasis or sanctuary in your life. Turn to your imagination and see what treasures it holds out to you as you struggle with daily setbacks.
Alfred Kinsey was a Harvard-educated zoologist who switched his field of study to sexual behavior of human beings. Writer and director Bill Condon skillfully deals with the controversial lifestyle and career of this sexologist by lightening up the subject with welcome comic moments. Kinsey could not be more timely since America seems to be in the same mood now as it was in the 1950s regarding tolerance for the diversity of sexual orientations. The decision to focus on the love relationship between the intense and obsessive Alfred (Liam Neeson) and his wife, the more down-to-earth Clara (Laura Linney), grounds this biodrama and gives it many genuine moments of emotional vibrancy. As you watch this film, tap into the ways in which the most intimate relationship in your life has grounded you. Consider the role of sex in your life. And also think about how you can demonstrate your respect for diversity in the universe.
Oliver Stone's Alexander has been roundly lambasted by film critics. We were cheered by the screenplay's portrait of this great military leader and monarch as a One World dreamer in a time when such views were held in disdain. This ambitious film covers his familial strife, his string of astonishing victories over enemies in Asia, his marriage to a foreigner, and his bisexuality. The twofold problem with Alexander is that it is far too long (three hours), and star Colin Farrell, who has run up an impressive string of performances in small, independent films, does not burn brightly enough in the lead role of a charismatic figure who changed the world with his presence. Still, you may find ways to step into this story, especially the theme of yearning to see new places and travel beyond the limits of your known world.
Hollywood usually loves stories about musical movers and shapers but this year three stories in this genre had trouble getting made. Most critics hated De-Lovely but we found it to be quite enchanting, thanks to Kevin Kline's stellar performance as Cole Porter. Even better is the smorgasbord of songs by this composer delineating the many different shades of love. As you hum along to the songs by Cole Porter, ask yourself which ones speak to you and why.
Ray, dealing with the life and career of Ray Charles has been hailed by many critics for Jamie Foxx's performance in the lead role. We were not impressed by this biodrama directed by Taylor Hackford which glosses over the African-American's heroin addiction and charts the protagonist's struggles with fame, fortune, and power in melodramatic fashion. The most moving sequence occurs early in the film when Ray as a boy has gone blind due to glaucoma. His mother tries to help him adjust by refusing to coddle him. One day she watches from one side of the room while he is stumbling around their shack. Suddenly, he stops and begins to really listen to the birds outside, to the steam escaping from a kettle. As he orients himself through his sense of hearing, she realizes he will be able to make it in the world. Use this scene as a moment to be grateful to the continuous gifts the come to you through your senses.
Jamie Foxx's impersonation of Ray Charles and his perfect lip-syncing of his songs is not quiet the same kind of achievement as Kevin Spacey's in Beyond the Sea where the actor, who also directed, sings Bobby Darin's songs himself and dances as well. This energetic look at the life and legend of the cocky and irrepressible pop singer from the 1950s depicts the gigantic ego of a man driven to succeed. When Darin tries his hand at acting in movies and is nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Captain Newman M.D., he is ecstatic. But losing, he explodes in a volcanic rage. As you watch Darin grapple with his true identity and search for meaning, ask yourself how you have dealt with great disappointments and weathered the storms of depression.
The Sea Inside is directed by Alejandro Amenabar and has been chosen as Spain's entry in the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Javier Bardem gives a bravura performance in the true story of quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro who put up a valiant campaign trying to convince the Spanish government of his right to die.
This biopicture depicts Ramon's discomfort and feelings of despair surrounding his paralyzed condition. Yet even in the midst of anger, shame and humiliation, he dispenses wisdom, humor, and love to those who touch his life most closely, including his brother's wife, his nephew, a right-to-die organizer, a lawyer, and a single mother with two children. The closing scenes in this Spanish film make a good case for the kind of love that goes the distance. Watching The Sea Inside will help you to appreciate the wonder of a full-bodied existence and the dignity that is the right of all human beings.
One of the big contenders for year-end and Academy Awards is The Aviator, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes over a twenty-year period early in the life of this rich tycoon, maverick movie-maker, accomplished pilot, shrewd entrepreneur, womanizer, and eccentric. Everything except the long length of this film works in its favor. Scorsese seems right at home dealing with this perfectionist as a movie-maker determined to leave his mark on Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio digs deep to convey the many sides of this power-hungry young man who inherited wealth, loved flying airplanes fast, and was addicted to a profusion of beautiful women including film stars Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale).
The Aviator is a oddly contemporary film. People today are fascinated with celebrities, with those with both money and power, and and as result, the rich and famous feel entitled to do whatever they want just because they are successful. It's no surprise that he fascinated the public in his day and will likely capture a wide audience for this biopicture. An interesting theme in the movie is Hughes' perfectionism, a need to get everything right which cost him financially and personally. He also has to deal with a fear of germs, planted by his mother in childhood, which will immobilize him and turn him into a recluse in his later years. While watching him struggle with his compulsions, try to determine how you cope with the ideal of perfection, what spiritual practices you have in your repertoire to serve as an antidote to the lust for power and money, and what you can do to quell the fears that immobilize and sometimes imprison you.
The best biopicture of the year is Hotel Rwanda which tells the true story of a heroic and compassionate African who gave sanctuary to many neighbors and strangers during the genocide in his country in 1994. Don Cheadle stars as Paul Ruseabagina, the meticulous and proud manager of the four star Hotel Des Milles in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. When the Hutu militias start murdering Tutis, Paul is determined to protect his own family. But as the violence spreads, he expands his compassion to include many others who have been targeted for murder. As a Hutu, he has friends on both sides of the conflict and calls upon them for favors. Ruseabagina saved the lives of 1,268 Africans.
In The Future of Peace, Scott A. Hunt wrotes: "Even in the darkest times in our history, people of extraordinary character have lived among us, showing us a way out of the deplorable cycle of hatred and aggression. They exist this very day." We need more biopictures about individuals who have set aside personal interests in order to serve the needs of others. As you watch this film, consider the many ways in which you can put others before yourself in the name of compassion.