May 18, 2012

Recent Movies Explore Women's Spirituality

Three Movies Explore Women's Spirituality

 by John-Brian Paprock

As a modern man in 21st Century, like most modern men, I like to believe I am quite liberated. In my youth, I stood and watched my mother burn her bra and held an "ERA now" sign at our high school rally in the mid-1970s.  Many women could vouch for my progressive non-chauvinistic views, even if they do not understand how my religious and spiritual life in Eastern Christianity allows me to have them. Yet it is from my own deep spirituality and spiritual development that appreciation for differences balanced with the overwhelming amount in common we share regardless of gender.

Nevertheless, there is a mystique of women's spirituality that I often feel is beyond my experience as a man.  In these three recent independent films (all available on DVD and Blue Ray), I find three women in the depths of spiritual dilemma, struggles and even despair. And in that dramatized struggle, these films have helped me begin to understand some of the unique characteristics of women's spirituality.

In each of these stories, the main character, a woman, pushes beyond the boundaries of her life and reaches an epiphany of sorts, though not as romantic as it may sound. In fact, even though these three films examine women relationships with men, I would not classify them as romantic movies. The life problems and resolutions may not be as neat and tidy (or even complete!) as in more conventional male-dominated stories. Spirituality and humanity are entangled in these stories - as are cultural,  religious, and social dynamics. Yet, each of these movies brings to light the power of women's spirituality, despite the central character of religion and culture that have certainly been male-dominated.

Although some may not understand my choices of these movies as demonstrative of feminine spirituality.  There may be better movies that have been made or will be made on the topic. However, I believe that these three films will give, at the least, some clarity to women's spiritual struggles as different from men's struggles, yet, in relation to men. In addition, each of these films can give insight into an evolving spiritual ideal for women that may still be a mystery to many men, as well as to many women.

1. Shi (Poetry)
(2010) Unrated - 139 minutes - Kino International - Korean with English subtitles

Writer and director Chang-dong Lee put together an exceptional movie about a sixty-something Korean woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime as she fights the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Yoon Jeong-hee stars in the leading role, which was her first role in a film since 1994. She is deserving of all the awards and accolades for her stunning performance that maintains all the nuance and humility of centuries-old cultural traditions and yet expressive of a modern life.

When she reaches out to find strength and purpose for the last portion of her life, she enrolls in a poetry class. And throughout the movie, her search for poetry in her life and surroundings alludes to a deep spiritual awakening. 

An awakening hoped for by all in the Buddhist and Confusionist culture of Korea.  I have had the honor of talking openly and honestly with some elders of Korea. They told me their fondest hope and desire would be to divest themselves of all their possessions and wander the hills and mountains and villages of their homeland, trusting in the compassion of others as they reach for a state of complete detachment in preparation for the next life. They were concerned that their adult children would only think they were being foolish.  One gentleman confided that his own father had taken that journey when he turned 60 years. He talked of it with pride.

Throughout this movie, I thought of that spiritual need to disentangle and be unecumbered at the end of life.  In Buddhism and other Eastern spirituality, the ideal is to have lived one's entire life with such detachment.  But detachment alone will not bring one to a better next life, rather it is the mixture of detachment and compassion that show one's advancement.  Although the elder seems to leave everything behind and ventures forward alone, they cannot go until they have taken care of their moral and family obligations. It is a moral, social, cultural and spiritual charge that brings one to that enlightened status.

In this beautifully crafted film, instead of the old male dominated stories of heroic detachment that are among some of the most ancient stories of humankind, we are given the real dilemmas of an urban woman called to her higher ideals.  The beauty of this film is in walking with her through her process of disentanglement and detachment, even as we share in her new found appreciation for the beauty always around her that she did not notice.

2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
(2011) Rate R - 102 minutes - Fox Seachlight
Billed as an American psychological thriller, this film is about one woman's journey back from an abusive cult in the rural Catskill Mountains.  It is in her struggles with the delusions and fears (paranoia is not too strong a word in this movie) that haunt her as she tries to return to a normal life with the help of her estranged sister and her brother-in-law.

It was written and directed by Sean Durkin, who won the Dramatic Directing Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival for his efforts. Together with star, Elizabeth Olsen (who in this, her debut screen peformance, was nominated for 30 acting awards and won 10 of them), they present a suspenseful and accurate portrayal of the psychological and spiritual damage from dangerous groups that espouse universal love and freedom but then take complete control of their members. 

Like in so many of these groups, the central character is given a "new" name and told that she is "a teacher and a leader," but, until she is no longer the newest member, does she find out the real meaning of such an esteemed title. The charismatic and creepy leader is expertly played by John Hawkes.

In her escape and subsequent attempts at returning to the non-cult world, she is confronted with the core of her beliefs in society, in family, in her self and, existentially, her relationship to everything. It is impossible not to be moved and intrigued by watching her internal conflicts played out in the film. They bring to bear the spiritual difficulties of a young woman's idealism and beliefs when they are played against her own best interests. Although there is violence in this movie (along with some sex and nudity), the real violence is in the growing understanding through this movie that a woman's inner gauge, her gut, her intuition, or whatever other name you would give the divine compass that guides her morals and ethics, has been nearly ripped out of her soul and yet she feels guilty for getting away, for seeking some healing and nurturance.

It is unfortunately true that most cults (and other destructive groups) are lead by charismatic men, not women. Although, as the film points out, women can play key roles in the maintenance and growth of such perverse and pathological groups. In this case, the movie does a very good job of not focusing on peculiar theologies and bizarre cosmologies that seem to pervade cults.  By not getting into the details of the leader's beliefs (which are presented as rather simplistic, not typical of even the smallest of cults), the movie is free to examine more of his characteristics, mannerisms and demands as well as the dynamics between cult members  The question is always asked about cults: how do intelligent and caring people end up part of a cult?  This movie also gives an insider view of how one can be hooked and initiated. 

This cult group is rather loose and rurally based, but it could have easily been a small bible church in the Appalachians or a small meditation group in a large city or a hundred other religious and psuedo-religious groups.  The dynamics are the same. Unfortunately, the escape, the exiting, is just as problematic and difficult as portrayed in this movie.

The film shows the power of a woman's devotion and how men of mischief and spiritual disease seek and desire that power.  Once taken, the film also shows the painful process a woman must endure to be healed of that soul killing spiritual violence.  Indeed, the film raises the question if anyone can fully recover from such destructive energies.

3. Higher Ground
(2011) Rated R - 109 minutes - Sony Classics

Even the title suggests a film about spirituality, but the title is more about a yearning rather than a destination. In Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, she has given us a powerful movie about a woman's lifelong struggle with faith in God. 

This movie could be considered a Christian movie by some. Perhaps, an anti-Christian film by others. It is, in Farmiga's own words, "a woman's search for safer footing, higher ground."

Higher Ground screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs based the screenplay on her published memoir, This Dark World, which is about her own struggles with belief, love, hope and trust - in human relationships as well as in God.  In struggling with an evangelical Christian faith, she was confronted with disenchantment, conflict and confusion.

Throughout the film, we seem to be asked the questions of faith that can entangle any of us. But, when asked  and dealt with by an honest woman, there are some surprising insights and unique difficulties that are explored in this movie.

Toward the beginning of the movie, a young Corinne Walker was walking on stilts and we are given the sense that she had always wanted to be higher, to be closer to God.  And yet throughout the movie, Corinne seemed instead to lean on everyone else's faith, looking to their reactions to faith to gauge her own.  At one point she demands, "Draw near to me God."  Then, immediately asks in a desparate tone, "Where are you?" 

The film follows Corinne, her intimate and familial relations from her youth to her adulthood, including a pregnancy-urged marriage and a troubling yet devout best friend, Annika (played with authenicity by Dagmara Dominczyk), whose faith seemed greater than her own. Corinne's love and envy of her friend leads to some of the most dramatic moments in the movie. (Another performance of note is John Hawkes as Corinne's father. It is amazing that this is the same actor mentioned in the review above!) 

The film ultimately doesn't answer questions of faith. Even though a Protestant Evangelical church and house church ministry is presented in the movie, Farminga avoids preachiness, or presenting squeaky-clean faith, or even attempting parody, as so many other faith based movies have done.

In the "making of" special feature of the DVD, Farmiga said about making this movie: "I have had a life long struggle with faith. I've struggled to define it; to make it clear; to make it real; to understand it."

Being such a well known and successful actress, Farminga was interviewed many times about her film choice for her directorial debut. Many times she was directly questioned about her own faith (she was raised Eastern - Ukrainian - Catholic) and what she was trying to accomplish by choosing a film about Christianity.  In many ways, she reveals that her involvement in this film was personal and purposeful.

In one of the interviews, with Mother Jones magazine, she eloquently explained her faith and her motivation in making this movie:

"My parents instilled in me the importance of defining God for yourself. Just because I'm telling a story about a woman losing faith is not my rebellion against what I grew up in. If anything, it really affected the way I approached the story, and in fact, approach everything. I don't judge my characters—or this community, which I came at without dukes up...

"Do I pray? Yes. Prayer is very important to me. You don't necessarily have to be religious to pray. I'm incredibly spiritual. There are like tens of thousands of denominations; I don't fit in any one of those denominations comfortably. But I have a very personal relationship with God. It's hard to talk about because it is so personal. I also have a lot of frustration with religion—organized religion—because it's man-made, because it's man-regulated. And it has nothing to do with my relationship with God....

"The depth of exploration of the male psyche and the female psyche [in film] is uneven. I see further, deeper renderings of what it means to be a man. And I think it's—well look, most of the central characters are male. And that's part of it....

"But my only job as an actress—as a storyteller—is to provoke discussion. Those are the best sermons. Not the ones that instill dogma."
from Mother Jones magazine - August 2011

Farmiga later admitted in the "making of" special feature of the DVD that the movie became a homage to the faith of her own father and, as she put it, "to keep affection for my heavenly Father."

In Higher Ground, Farminga has given us an honest look at the struggles of women's spirituality in a Christian setting. She has, in this film, also given a great sermon by provoking in depth discussion about the real issues of faith, hope and redemption that are both temporal and eternal.

1 comment:

  1. these look like GREAT movies. i will be sure to check them out :)