“Fear is the mother of morality.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
If fear is the mother of morality in religion, and should therefore be left in the history books, then who is there to guide us when we feel lost? Peers can give us the building blocks to make our own informed decisions, but is this enough when life gets so tricky we don’t know which way to turn?
Cinema and story can be argued to be negative distractions from the now and lead us into a life of escapism; an anesthetic to life. But some may argue that ‘story’ serves to aid us in many moral dilemmas, as was their original purpose. When exploring a particular facet of the archetype and how they deal with a sticky situation or attempt to balance their light and darkness at the same time, could we be triggering a degree of healing within ourselves?
In this way, story can serve as catharsis for the soul. Or at least provide jumping off points for how to deal with our shadows and delve deeply into the watery mire of the self. Here are 6 films with (what I think are) likeable protagonists who have to deal with moral dilemmas that would make the toughest of us sweat.
Dancer in the dark
Danish Filmmaker Lars Von Trier and his Dogme 95 manifesto has always been controversial, and attracted a small following in the late 90s. What I feel to be his best film in a process where he was called ‘an emotional pornographer’ by star Bjork was the final part of the Golden Heart Trilogy: Dancer in the Dark.
Using handheld cameras paying homage to documentary styles, Dancer in the Dark tracks Selma – a factory worker in America’s – life as she tries to deal with poverty, looking after her son and realizing her dream of starring in the local production of The Sound of Music as she slowly but surely goes blind.
Deeply loved by those around her because of her ‘golden heart’, she becomes embroiled in a gut-wrenching situation with a neighbour and is gradually sucked into and becomes a victim of the questionable American justice system in a shocking climax. Dancer in the Dark shocks – not in some shock-obsessed orgy of cinematic moments for the sake of being dark – but in a convincing look at how society destroys innocence and takes advantage of the weak.
They Call Her One-Eye
Also known as Thriller – A Cruel Picture – this Swedish rape and revenge film was part of the inspiration for Tarantino’s Kill Bill series. A girl, again a figure of innocence is raped when just a child and later exploited and made to work as a prostitute. After much abuse and the punishment of having her eye poked out when she misbehaves, she finally escapes, trains herself up and then gets revenge on her tormentors.
Gruesome I know, yet with white slavery, sexual exploitation and child abuse very much rife across the globe, this film draws attention to the subject with this likeable heroine who – despite using violence to solve everything – helps us to question – well what would you do?
Fanny and Alexander
An epic film and Christmas favourite by the much revered Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander focuses on the lives of two siblings as their lives get turned upside-down when their father dies. Their emotionally and lovingly rich childhood go dry and sterile when their mother marries a priest and they must move in with him and his demonic family. Their own theatrical family seek to rescue them, but what follows is a test of wills as the positively detestable but entirely believable antagonist of the priest does everything he can to keep them locked up.
The interesting character arc is that of Alexander – the young boy’s whose ripe imagination and belief in ghosts means that he is of particular target to the God-fearing priest who seeks to break his spirit. As Alexander’s father’s ghost tells him when he visits, (following a scene where Alexander openly wishes for the priest’s death and states that he hates him), to be careful with people, echoing the truism that we are all suffering and to let nature (and karma) run its course. Instead, he doesn’t and, through his own perception and superstition if nothing else feels cursed for the rest of his life.
It’s a true masterpiece and, running at 5 hours, is worth the watch. Definitely watch it at Christmas and you will enjoy lavish Christmas scenes, spooky vomiting ghosts hiding in the attic, and even a scene where he meets God, the great puppet-master.
A full-on homage to one character, this Mike Leigh film of realism and grim British cinema really calls us to question our morals. As we can’t help but like the complex but verbose and witty character of Johnny, we also have it in the back of our minds that he is a rapist and throughout the film sexually violent with women. Displaying the complexities of morally right behaviour versus reality, Naked explores themes such as existentialism, intellectual bullying, how the interactions we have as strangers can have just as much impact on us as our relationships can, and how our egos can swallow us up.
In this film knowledge is not necessarily power and our protagonist is very much a scared lion running from his pride and the pain of a world so difficult to change. Our shadow in action, a good watch and if you weren’t a fan already, will lead you on to watch and enjoy many of Leigh’s films.
A Serious Man
OK so we needed a comedy on here, and what better than a Coen brothers comedy?! Very much the symbolic meaning of the film, Larry’s dilemmas pick up speed as he negotiates the confusing messages the universe sends him as everything collapses in his life. More than anything, he leans on his Jewish faith steeped in tradition and questions whether this tradition really amounts to much. In the end though, when he finally does the ‘wrong’ thing, symbolically losing his faith if only for a moment, does God’s wrath suddenly appear.
A black comedy that was clearly quite personal to Jewish filmmakers, this film looks at those of us who have faith, are certain of the existence of divinity, yet recognize that this doesn’t make anything easier or particularly clearer.
Lords of divine timing, the Coen Brothers certainly convey the message that all we can hope to do is laugh at it.
And finally, Bad Education by Spanish filmmaker Almodovar. When Juan, brother of Ignacio visits his brother’s old school friend Enrique and asks him to produce his screenplay about their childhood being abused by Catholic priest, Father Manolo, Enrique is suspicious. But, as the plot thickens (as it always does), and it turns out that Juan is in fact Ignacio’s brother, and that Ignacio – a far cry from the angelic picture of innocence his childhood self inhabited – is now a transsexual heroin addict who blackmailed his old teacher in order to get money out of him to have sex reassignment surgery.
Heart breaking and definitely an exploration of the darker side of human nature, Bad Education is another film that looks at what happens when innocence is corrupted. Working around themes of gender and unrequited love, Bad Education honours what it feels like to want to be anything but ourselves and the lengths to which we’ll go to do that.
So, despite the sometimes questionable place film has in our spiritual lives, it can certainly help us walk a few hours in someone else’s shoes, help us have compassion for those stuck in the more gruesome and thankless lessons this life has to offer us, and maybe even pave the way, inch by inch… towards us waking up.