Spirituality at the Oscars: What the nominations mean
"Toy Story 3" captured the hearts of movie goers and is nominated for a best film Academy Award.
February 24th, 2011
09:40 AM ET

Spirituality at the Oscars: What the nominations mean

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 foreboding sense 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.”

- Lisa Respers France, CNN.com writer

Filed under: Celebrity • Culture & Science • Movies

soundoff (164 Responses)
  1. Racing Simulator

    You can definitely see your enthusiasm within the work you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren't afraid to mention how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

    January 11, 2013 at 3:08 am |
  2. Nescafe Dolce Gusto

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    April 14, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  3. MicheleG

    Why is it noteworthy that cinema will have movies with a "spiritual" "overtone?" Even stating it that way is a weak and craven way to say Christian Values. Most films over the years have had a moral and some kind of message. Why is it news that this year's films have them? Is it because they are just too uncomfortably close to Christian values? And that makes them somehow suspect? Is this a subject for "news" only so that the news media may think itself "cool" for achieving some kind of emotional distance and disengagement?

    February 27, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  4. Hilaire Laurent

    I'm from Haiti,in case,you want to be my friends,here's my e-mail: laurent_hilaire09@yahoo.fr

    February 26, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  5. SoundGuy

    These are the real spiritual overtones:

    February 26, 2011 at 2:23 am |
  6. tracy

    Yes, God works in mysterious ways doesn't He? Many blessings to you Godless.

    February 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  7. William

    Yes, old babyboomer leftists in Hollywood waxing on about the meaning of life now. Thoughtful with a hint of melancholy. They had no use for that opium of the people-religion. Their religion for the past 40 years has been the tripe i had to sit through in Avatar.

    February 25, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  8. Kjcube

    -“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.”

    This power can move us towards ignorance, hatred, and violence as easily as it can wisdom, understanding, and truth. Viewer Beware.

    "This fraud of Sinon, his accomplished lying,won us over; a tall tale and fake tears had captured us, whom neither Diomedes nor Larisaean Achilles overpowered, nor ten long years, nor all their thousand ships."

    -Virgil Aeneid Book II

    February 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  9. Jason

    Speaking as a Christian, this article struck me as odd... Black Swan, The Kids Are Alright, and The Social Network don't come across as movies that had directors who thought, "I'll make this movie and have a subliminal spirituality/religious message in it!" The fact is, all movies have the human element in it, which can be interpreted as spirituality. We all want the good guy to win, the bad guy to lose, and all the drama in-between. For me, the content of Black Swan and The Kids Are Alright is not something I will personally choose to see or pay my money see. My reasons are both moral and entertainment based. There are some things in each movie that I object to morally, but at the same time, those movies simply don't appeal to me as entertaining. If it appeals to others, that's fine – to each his own.

    Simply put, we are all responsible for our own actions and decisions. I can't and won't force, or try to convince, anyone to believe in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, or believe the inerrancy of the Bible, or become a Christian... just like no one can force or convince me not to believe. All I can do is present my perspective to others by speaking the Truth in love, as Christians are commanded in Ephisians 4:15, then leave the decision up to them. Time to bust up this "us vs. them" and "sacred vs. secular" mentality and be more open minded and more open hearted to one another. We're all in this race together, time to stop tripping each other up. Not one person or group of people has all the answers. If they claim they do, RUN!

    – Jason

    February 25, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Amused

      Jason, I applaud your integrity and agree with your interpretation. These movies simply show the struggles of life and ask the common questions that any intelligent person would ask. The entire concept of moral right and wrong is not "owned" by religion nor is it a direct product. The concepts of "good" and "evil" only exist in the hearts and minds of people just as does the concepts of "religion". There is no magic external force of good and evil acting upon us and influencing our lives – there is only our own thoughts and decisions. "Good" and "Evil" are merely personal judgements we make of about our intentions and actions. Spirituality is an entirely separate idea and concept. One does not depend upon the other, except in our own minds. So, there is no reason to force a religious interpretation on an otherwise secular movie. If religion isn't mentioned in the movie, there is no reason to assume that religion is implied by the authors.

      February 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  10. Robert

    Really? You can force spiritual messages into any film, book, comic, commercial, food item, bodily function or mechanical device. Saying that this years crop of movies have "deeply spiritual overtones" is a load of crap! My cat's hairball has spiritual overtones if looked at through spiritually obsessed eyes. Stop making everything about spirituality! Lets just enjoy the damned Oscars!

    February 25, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Collin

      Probably the best reply I've ever seen on here. I found a religous message in my potato chips this morning.

      February 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  11. tracy

    FOrget it "godless" your comments will not change my mind.

    February 25, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  12. Willie12345

    Spirituality in Hollywood. What a terrible joke that is. Talk about a corroding influence on our society !!!

    February 25, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  13. tracy

    Of course, now they choose to post it after I say something.

    February 25, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Godless

      Actually god posted it. He saw that you had a point to make, so he snapped his magic fingers and made it appear. If only he would do that to prove to the rest of the world he was real...

      February 25, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  14. tracy

    Apparently, there was something in my comment to you "Godless" that CNN chose to not post after your comment to my story. So you will never know what I had to say.

    February 25, 2011 at 10:47 am |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.