February 24th, 2011
09:40 AM ET
By Lisa Respers France, CNN
None of the movies nominated for a best film Academy Award this year have been labeled “religious,” but many have deeply spiritual overtones.
Even “Toy Story 3?” Yes, even that wildly popular animated film manages to sneak in a message about faith and friendship.
“It’s kind of an unusual year – almost all of the top films have relatively little explicit religious dimensions to them,” said Brent Plate, a writer who teaches religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. “But these films are asking the same questions that religions ask: Where did we come from, how did we get here, where are we going and who are we?”
The film industry is among the contemporary “secular” institutions that have taken on a religious function, says Christopher Deacy in his book “Faith in Film.” As a result, he argues, “movies do raise vital questions about the spiritual landscape and normative values of society today.”
This season’s crop of Oscar nominees, which will vie for top honors on Sunday, could very well be used to bolster that theory. They explore themes that many contain elements of spirituality.
There’s the power of transformation for a ballerina seeking the role of a lifetime in “Black Swan,” the battle of good versus evil in “True Grit,” and humility and the bonds of humanity in “The King’s Speech, the story of King George VI, his stutter and his friendship with his speech therapist.
Three nominees - “The Kids Are All Right,” which focuses on a gay couple and their children, “The Social Network” based on the founding of Facebook and “Toy Story 3” – explore issues of love, friendship and fellowship.
Perception versus reality is a theme in “Inception,” in which a thief steals information via people’s dreams. The faith needed to overcome difficult circumstances figures into the trapped-in-the mountains thriller “127 Hours.” And there are echoes of that faith in “The Fighter” and “Winter’s Bone,” in which a young girl struggles to keep her poverty-stricken family together.
Plate said he also sees a theme of identity in many of the films.
“Especially our public identity versus our private identity,” he said. “Things like social networking have changed that and even ‘The King’s Speech’ deals with who we are privately versus publicly.”
Just as much literature contains allegories and battles against good and evil, films tend to mine a common spiritual ground.
“Part of great drama is transformation and that’s really at the heart of many of the world’s religions, certainly the western religious tradition,” said Eric Mazur, a professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Wesleyan College. “Coming to grips with some reality or some truth and either overcoming it or succumbing to it.”
Leslie Hand, a Bible teacher and writer, said she started the Movie Glimpse website a decade ago to explore “the deep spiritual insights in regular movies.”
“The power of imagery is profound,” Hand said. “You can see one picture and it speaks volumes. The power of imagery goes beyond the intellect, into the imagination. So there is tremendous power in film. It has the ability to reach people in their hearts.”
Of course, movies are also signs of the times.
Last year, says Plate, there was a forebodingsense in cinema of what could be the end of humanity and interspecies as evidenced by the popularity of films like the Academy Award-nominated “Avatar” and those that revolved around apocalypse and zombies.
This year, things feel a bit more hopeful, he said.
Themes include technology, and “how that changes who we are,” Plate said, and who we are in relation to media. “We see that in 'The Social Network,' 'Inception' and even in 'The King's Speech,' even though in that case it was the radio.”
“There’s almost an optimism, even though the films don’t necessarily all end well,” he added.
Mazur agreed. Audiences are hungry for triumph, he says.
“I don’t think that is unique to this year,” he says, “but I think as a society, especially when things might be a little difficult, we want to see people overcoming things because we want to overcome things.”
And not just people. In “Toy Story 3,” an animated group of playthings are left behind when their owner grows up and goes off to college. The film enchanted children and parents alike and even the Vatican newspaper praised it for the lessons it put forth.
The Catholic News Agency reported last year that a review in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, hailed “Toy Story 3” for showcasing “important themes such as the value of friendship and solidarity, the fear of feeling alone or rejected, the unavoidability of growing up and the strength that comes from feeling like you belong to a family.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.