Movies To Uplift Us

I recently read a newsletter from a lovely Christian writer who reflected that everything she saw was about COVID-19. I was struck by what she said, and the next day, I had to agree with her when I  watched the beginning of Frozen II. Yes, I could apply many of the song lyrics to what we are going through now. Would you agree?

What movies can we watch that will help us not only celebrate Easter, but help us as we go through this time? While movies can provide a healthy break from our problems, film is a powerful medium that often can do more than provide a few hours of relief. Movies can uplift us, offer us food for thought, provide hope and insight into our own experiences of darkness, grief, and anxiety.

I’ve had a few Easters where I couldn’t put my heart into singing “Alleluia.” And what always made a difference to me was love: true, self-sacrificing love. I’ve felt blessed when I’ve received that kind of love, or finally recognized that someone loved me that way. I’ve also felt especially blessed when I have deeply loved someone else, to the point that no matter what suffering or challenges I was facing, it was worth it because of that love in my life.

Listen to my Salt + Light Radio Hour about self-sacrificing love in movies with Deacon Pedro here.

Have you ever noticed that in most of the hugely popular films—I’m talking about big hits like Titanic, Twilight, Avengers films, and others—one of the main characters risks or actually sacrifices himself or herself out of love for another? I think these stories are super popular because we’re all drawn to this kind of radiant goodness. And I think all of us want to be loved like that. And want to be persons who love like that. Even if we’re afraid of the sacrifice.

The truth is, of course, that each of us is loved like that. Jesus died for love of each of us. The whole Triduum is about love: God’s love for us, and God’s desire to save us and be united with us here on earth and for all eternity. The love we experience with our loved ones is just a tiny glimmer of the love God has for each of us!

So during this week, I’d like to challenge you to look for these glimmers or reflections of God’s love in what you watch. Below, I’ll share some of my favorite films with this theme. (And if you share some of your favorite films with self-sacrificing love in the comments, via email, or on Facebook, I’ll keep adding what you share to my list!)

Sr. Marie Paul’s Favorite Films with the Theme of Self-sacrificing Love

So many classics have this timeless theme. As Deacon Pedro Guevara Mann and I talk about in this week’s podcast/TV segment, love is the timeless, universal human value present in all cultures. When we love as Jesus loves—a self-giving, self-sacrificing love—we are most truly ourselves, fulfilling our highest potential.

  • A Tale of Two Cities (1935’s version is my favorite, but there are many screen versions.) A very selfish character is transformed into a truly loving one.
  • Casablanca (1942) is one of my all-time favorite movies and still stands as one of the best films ever made. No spoilers here, but this film is also about an unlikely transformation and self-sacrifice.
  • Ben Hur (1959 version) My favorite Easter film. The main story follows the tragedy and ultimately conversion of Judah Ben Hur, whose life intersects with Christ’s. Ultimately Judah is transformed by witnessing Jesus’ Passion and Death.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is a powerful look at how self-sacrificing love can confront and win over evil—in this case, the evil of racism.
  • Les Miserables (2018 mini-series is by far my favorite, but here is my post comparing screen versions, especially if you want to do a two- or three-hour version) ****
  • The original Star Wars Trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983) Luke’s character, as he transforms from a whiny teenager into a Jedi knight who, in the midst of trying to save the galaxy from the oppression of the Empire, doesn’t turn his back on trying to save the hopeless Darth Vader. The most recent films also highlight this theme of self-sacrifice through several characters. (The Mandalorian has a


Superheroes, Sci-fi, and Fantasy

Perhaps the definition of a hero includes being willing to take risks or sacrifice themselves for others. For most superheroes, this can involve risking/sacrificing one’s life, but even children can be heroic in putting others’ well-being before their own. These genres are full of the themes of self-sacrifice, even those superheroes who initially don’t seem to be very caring. If you have a favorite Superman or Batman film, add it to the list here!

  • Many of the Star Trek films: The early The Wrath of Khan (1982) is impressive in this regard, but my favorite example from the Star Trek universe is from the opening of the Star Trek movie reboot in 2009, in which a new father gives his life to protect 800 others.
  • The Iron Giant (1999) is notable and remains a friend’s all-time favorite.
  • Spirited Away (2001) is a Japanese animated classic that shows the transformation of a sulky youngster into a brave young woman determined to rescue her parents, despite the risks to herself.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2 (2010, 2011) Harry risks his life to save the school, his friends, or humanity—or all three!—in every film, but he deliberately does so in the last two films (which are really one big story).
  • The Avengers films (2008-2020…) One would need a whole website to discuss these films and the many superheroes who seek the good of others at great cost to themselves.
  • A Quiet Place (2018) This amazing thriller is one of the most recent films that powerfully demonstrates what it means to truly love.

Love Stories

Romances are supposed to be about love, but many times onscreen romantic relationships can seem to be more about using another person for one’s own fulfillment. “True love” may be a Disney cliche, but St. Paul gives us the characteristics of true love in 1 Corinthians 13: patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, not insisting on its own way, not irritable or resentful, rejoicing not in wrongdoing but in the truth. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8)

  • Titanic (1997) In the face of tragedy, close-ups of cowardice and heroic rescues.
  • Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 mini-series is my favorite, but take your pick from the many screen versions).
  • Beauty and the Beast (1991 or 2017 are the Disney classics, but Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version is another classic!) This popular love story begins with one selfless act of love and ends with two.
  • Twilight Saga (films series 2008-2012) Bella’s love for others is consistently self-sacrificing, even if the vampires sparkle in the sun.

Religious Films

  • Risen (2016) is the first full-length film about Jesus’ Resurrection. Joseph Fiennes is the Roman centurion ostensibly searching for Jesus’ body after his Crucifixion…but what is he really searching for, and what is he willing to sacrifice to find it?
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), based on C. S. Lewis’ amazing Narnia series, is a wonderful Easter family film for the whole family.
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy is full of characters who risk or give their lives to save others. From the powerful Gandalf to the humblest Sam, to the persevering Frodo. These three films are on my all-time favorites list.
  • The Chosen is the continuing TV series on the life of Jesus. (Note that the actor who plays Jesus is starring in an online version of the live play, The Last Days of Jesus Passion Play, which is currently available via streaming.)
  • Babette’s Feast (1987; with English subtitles) A contemplative look at a strict Christian community who take in a French refugee as a servant, Babette’s Feast is a powerful Eucharistic parable.

Some Recent Films:

  • Harriet (2019), which I just commented on last month, is a powerful film of faith and self-giving love.
  • A Hidden Life (2019) doesn’t just have the theme, but is about self-sacrificing love. (Here’s my earlier commentary.)
  • JoJo Rabbit (2019) The quirky, tragic treatment of the height of World War II in Nazi Germany as seen through the eyes of a young German boy contains some surprising heroism.
  • Even the recent Abominable (2019) contains elements of self-giving love!

Everyday Heroism (Miscellaneous)

I have run out of time to add more categories, but I can’t skip these amazing films.

  • Marvin’s Room (1996) This powerful film about transformation, family, and sisters, doesn’t just give us countless examples of self-sacrificing love, but also show what a gift it is to have loved.
  • Finest Hours (2016) The based-on-a-true story heroics of members of the Coast Guard who try a daring rescue in the midst of a blizzard.

…and so many more.

So during this season, I’d like to challenge you to look for glimmers or reflections of God’s love in the films that inspire you.

I’d love to add to this list… If you’d like to send me suggestions—for now via email, but I’ll also try to check in to my Facebook page—I’ll add them.

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