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7 Flicks that Subvert

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 16, 2008

The other day, someone asked me if I knew of any movies that demonstrate the radical nature of the Gospel. In other words, they wanted to know of any flicks that they could show their parents that would help their parents understand the radical stuff that they’ve gotten into.

When Jesus started preaching, he didn’t jump into philosophical arguments or a list of propositions. Usually, he raised cognitive dissonance by challenging his listeners’ perceptions (the Sermon on the Mount does this) or he used provocative parables (parables don’t illustrate simple truths so much as they raise ethical dilemmas) or he acted in ways that upset common sensibilities (by eating with the wrong people or healing on the wrong day).

When it comes to challenging perceptions, telling provocative stories, and upsetting common sensibilities, films can sometimes further (and deeper) than cleverly written works of non-fiction or thoughtful arguments.

And so, I offer my list of seven flicks that subvert conventional wisdom and help bridge towards a kingdom vision:

  1. To End All Wars: Allied prisoners-of-war in a WWII Japanese prison camp attempt to love their enemies.
  2. The Mission: A Jesuit missionary in South America struggles against colonialism while a Portuguese convert grapples with his own violent nature. This film raises painful questions about the history of missions and the relationship between church and state.
  3. Children of Men: This film demonstrates the human capacity for marginalizing “the other.” In its bleak portrayal of growing human despair, glimpses of hope are all the more poignant.
  4. Maria Full of Grace: A gritty story of an illegal immigrant’s journey to the United States. The film gives a fairly objective perspective on illegal immigration and the drug trade.
  5. The Woodsman: A sympathetic take on the life of a child molester trying to make a new life after he is released from prison. This film forced me to ask myself, “how do I show love to one of the ‘least of these’ if he is guilty of hurting the ‘least of these’ himself?”
  6. Network: Upon discovering that he is going to be fired after decades as a news anchor, an aging anchorman announces to viewers that he commit suicide during his last broadcast. Seeing that it helps ratings, greedy execs exploit the anchorman’s devolving emotional state in front of millions of viewers. This satire from 1976 holds up fairly well as a critique of the exploitative nature of modern media.
  7. Dogville: A woman on the run is grudgingly accepted by a cautious secluded town. Their fragile acceptance is shattered as hospitality gives way to human nature. This film (which reminds a LOT of the writings of Flannery O’Conner) is an excellent exploration of hospitality and grace in America.

Any films I should add to the list?

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of JesusManifesto.com. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.


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    Pan's Labyrinth: Uses make-believe and apocalyptic imagination to show the reality of the kingdom, especially amid a world of violence.
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    well i see "joe dirt" didnt make the list... oh well.

    i have seen a couple of those. the woodsman and dogville seem very interesting to me.
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    In a way, I think Babel could be on this list.
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    HI Mark:

    This isn't a film, it's an HBO original series, one that was cancelled. It was called "John From Cincinnati". The story line was about a mysterious stranger who wanders into the lives of a group of misfits who live in Imperial Beach California. John brings redemption to their broken lives, but they all have difficulty understanding and accepting. My wife and I theorize that the reason the show failed is because of the bad language and adult situations--the secularists were uninterested in the clear religious undertones of the show, and a lot of Christians couldn't handle the crude sinfulness of the characters. But the show was quite spiritual, almost a Christian alegory. It;s too bad they didn't get to finish it.

    your friend
    keith
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    Hope you don't mind if I add a handful of movies to your list. They're not in any particular order.

    1. "Babette's Feast" won an Academy Award for best foreign film and is one of my favorite movies of all time. Set in 19th Century Denmark, the movie tells the story of two single sisters living in a very strict Protestant community and how God's grace intervenes in their lives in a surprising way. Mercy converges with Truth in this remarkable film, and it's rated G.

    2. "Brother Sun Sister Moon" is director Franco Zeffrelli's beautiful retelling of the story of Francis of Assisi. The music by Scottish folkie Donovan dates the film, and it will certainly remind those over 50 of the Summer of Love, but the essential message of Francis is clear. The scene of Francis walking thru his father's garment-dyeing plant will bring you to tears.

    3. "Sound of Music", OK, I know all of you are thinking, "Sound of Music' subversive?" Think about it. Wealthy, respected, retired naval officer has to sneak himself and his family out of Austria in the dead of nite, leaving his home, friends, position, everything, to avoid being conscripted into the German Navy. Admittedly, the movie/play takes liberties with the true story, but the truth is the Von Trapps had the courage to do what most did not: leave. See this movie again with a different perspective.

    4. "Killing Fields" is a movie I frequently recommend about the collapse of the Cambodian government in the 1970's and the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The film recounts the true story of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. If you wish to get a sense of what it's like to be in a country where war destroys the social fabric of society you need to see this movie.

    5. "Salaam Bombay!" tells the story of impoverished street children living in India and their day to day life among drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps. The kids in this movie are truly the "least of these".
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    "Tender Mercies" with Robert Duval.
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    "Man on Fire" is all about flawed human nature and redemption, and if you watch closely is one long Christ metaphor.
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    Les Miserables (I know it's a musical, but it's a beautiful story of redemption and the struggle between violence and peace both personally and socially)
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    Amazing Grace is a slower movie but a touching picture of the radical nature of a man of God, going against most and coupling with social misfits to abolish the slave trade in Britain.
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    The Take - http://www.thetake.org/index.cfm
    Horizontalism at it's best.

    In suburban Buenos Aires, thirty unemployed auto-parts workers walk into their idle factory, roll out sleeping mats and refuse to leave. All they want is to re-start the silent machines. But this simple act - the take - has the power to turn the globalization debate on its head. Armed only with slingshots and an abiding faith in shop-floor democracy, the workers face off against the bosses, bankers and a whole system that sees their beloved factories as nothing more than scrap metal for sale. With The Take, director Avi Lewis, one of Canada's most outspoken journalists, and writer Naomi Klein, author of the international bestseller No Logo, champion a radical economic manifesto for the 21st century
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    great list Mark - I've only seen one of these movies. I need to check the others out. Unfortunately, I don't have anything to add to the list yet, but you've got me thinking.
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    Definitely missing Romero on that list.
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    Ditto, Romero is a must see.
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    Romero is great...but I think his wit is lost on most people. I added "the Take" to my list of movies to see; it sounds intriguing.
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    "Magnolia" is one of the most powerful cinematic expressions of the kind of forgiveness and redemption that lead to new life that I know of.

    That and "Dude, Where's My Car," of course. Thanks for this great list. It's inspired me to start blogging one of my own!
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    1. Tsotsi
    2. The Lives of Others
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    Kavkazskiy plennik/Prisoner of the Mountains

    2 Russian soldiers are captured by Chechnyans and held in a village while an old man tries to negotiate with the Russians to trade them for his son. It's a brilliant film, and really drives home the stupidity of war and national/ethnic conflict.
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    Terrific list! And I'm so impressed with what you've written about the function of Jesus' parables (and life), and the way good art and good movies work to challenge our perceptions and preconceptions - and, perhaps, thereby to "prepare the way of the Lord." David Fetcho published a ground-breaking article on this in Radix Magazine maybe a decade and a half ago. I'm also reminded of C.H. Dodd's definition of a parable: "A metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life arresting the hearers by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt to its precise application to tease the mind into active thought."

    Between your list and the titles suggested by your readers, you've named all three of my most favourite films; DOGVILLE, TENDER MERCIES and MAGNOLIA. And I'm particularly thrilled with your mention of THE WOODSMAN: viewing it was an experience that shook me, stirred my spirit, so much so that I sought out the play it was based on and am producing it at my theatre later this spring (www.pacifictheatre.org). I wish your church was in Vancouver! I'd join! And I bet you'd be at all our shows.

    When you ask about films that demonstrate the radical nature of the gospel, that subvert our received ways of seeing things in a way that opens us to new truth, I think immediately of two films I've seen in the past year and a half. Sad to say, both are very difficult to find, but happy to say, both are coming available on DVD if you're willing to pay a few bucks. A Scandinavian film, ADAM'S APPLES, and a South African film, SON OF MAN. Truly astonishing, challenging, subversive films that are (at least, the way I read them) all about the radical gospel of Jesus.

    There's more on both those films, as well as a much longer response to your post, at my blog: www.soulfoodmovies.blogspot.com

    Well met!

    Ron Reed,
    Vancouver, BC, Canada
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    Thanks for the feedback Ron. I'll check out your site.

    By the way, I LOVED Adam's Apples. I was able to watch it through Netflix (they allow you to watch unlimited online movies with subscriptions now). I've never heard of Son of Man...what is it about?
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    Great article Ron! Thanks for taking the time to interact with my choices. I wish more people would think artfully about the Kingdom of God. Following Christ takes such a change of perception. It is sad that most Christians assume that "Christian" films should educate or simply push a worldview (I concede that "To End All Wars" is on the brink of doing that. But I agree with that worldview so much that I'm willing to give it a pass).

    I'm convinced that the church needs to spend a LOT more time subverting the imagination while, at the same time, opening up new ways of seeing. I can tell from your website that you're a busy man, but I'd absolutely LOVE it if you would ever share some of your thoughts/writings on Jesus Manifesto. I'm working hard to make this a place where perceptions can change. And based upon the feedback I've gotten, perceptions have changed.
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    I'm so glad you've seen ADAM'S APPLES. What do you think? A celebration of the divine folly of radical, absolute grace, or a demonstration that the Christian faith is just plain foolish?

    SON OF MAN is the life of Christ set in contemporary Africa, townships and death squads and all. A very political - but not merely political - Jesus. I jotted down some observations over at soulfoodmovies, though I've not written it up properly yet. There are links to the film's site, and to the website of the South African theatre company that created the film: http://soulfoodmovies.blogspot.com/2006/10/viff...

    If it turns out I write something that seems especially suited to your site, I'll happily pass it along - I'd love to have it appear here. You're right, though, I've got enough on the go that that may well never happen! (Had we but world enough and time...) But listen, anything you see over at my blogs, you're most welcome to grab and post here. I think your site is superb!

    Ron

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