The most spiritual scene in a 2004 movie comes toward the end of the foreign language film The Motorcycle Diaries. Ernesto, a young man who will become world famous as Che Guevara, is working as a doctor with lepers in South America. The hospital, laboratory, and living quarters of the staff are on one side of the Amazon river; the leper colony is on the other bank. On the last day of his service, Ernesto toasts the doctors and nurses who have been so kind to him. Then he swims across the Amazon river to say farewell to the lepers. This spontaneous act of solidarity with his outcast friends marks the transformation of Ernesto's heart.
Crossing over to the other side to stand with the poor and the downtrodden, the outcasts of society, the despised and the reprehensible, is a major spiritual challenge — and practice — of this century. The gap between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the diseased, the haves and the have nots, the fortunate and the unfortunate grows wider every day. And so it is truly a moment of grace when a movie shows us how to bridge the separations.
This year's most spiritually literate movies have other such moments. Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of a heroic African who finds a safe place for his family when the genocide begins in his country in 1994. Then at the urging of his wife, he expands his circle of compassion and saves his neighbors and even complete strangers. He shows us what it means to cross over in a time when our world is experiencing staggering violence and divisions.
Other films on our lists provide us with good empathy practice, encouraging us to put ourselves in the place of those we would not normally identify with. In The Woodsman, we are drawn into the struggle of a paroled child molester to reclaim his life. In Vera Drake, we follow a sincere and kindly English housewife who has for years been performing abortions; the law says she is a criminal but she thinks she is doing the right thing by responding to women in need. In The Sea Inside, we are asked to understand the anguish of a quadriplegic who wants to end his life; since Spain does not allow euthanasia, he must to turn to others for help. In Two Brothers, we find ourselves empathizing with two wild tigers; the civilized world looks quite different when seen through their eyes!
One definition of spirituality is the "art of making connections." Crossing over and empathy are two ways to practice. Another is creating and recognizing new ways of being a community. Several films this year show people improvising a new kind of family. In Finding Neverland, J. M. Barrie, the English playwright, is married but yearns for a larger family. He becomes friends with a widow and her four sons who then become the inspiration for the playful story we now know as Peter Pan. In Million Dollar Baby, a lonely woman boxer and her crusty old trainer become a family, helping each other fulfill their dreams and being there for each other no matter what.
In A Love Song for Bobby Long, a young woman inherits a house from her mother and discovers it comes complete with two alcoholic men; these three have an enormous impact on each other and become a family. In A Home at the End of the World, a bisexual young man creates a family with his male and female lovers. Finally, Sideways and The Motorcycle Diaries, two very different films, have the same theme — the benefits of having buddies along on a journey of transformation.
We encourage you to look for your own spiritual messages in this year's films. See our complete list for "The Most Spirituality Literate Movies of 2004."