Updated 19:16 PM PHT Wed, April 12, 2017
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Bible-thumping films can be a little too on the nose. Still, the fragility of faith has always been material for great filmmakers. With these five films that don’t explicitly deal with religion — and only in small, subtle ways — we discover how faith and spirituality can take different forms.
Here are five films that tackle varying degrees of spirituality, from the ends of madness to the triumph of will in the wilderness.
1. Norte: Ang Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (2014)
How do you end a world consumed by its own corruption? In Lav Diaz’s “Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan,” Fabian (Sid Lucero), a law school dropout, sees no point in continuing the morality imposed by societal conventions on a dying civilization. Fabian goes on to ramble about his philosophy to his professors — the coffee shop they’re in being the most innocuous venue for such discussion — how the negation of truth and everything society perceives as “wrong” is also an act of liberation in itself. After minutes of discussion, he then proceeds to borrow rent money from his audience. Fabian postulates his ideations as somewhat that of a radical’s, someone who is drunk on the power of living, enough to put his own theories to their own destructive course.
It is here that Diaz freely plays with Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” — the Russian author being a lifelong obsession in Diaz’s filmography — transposing the Russian psychological warfare into the dust of a third world setting. Fabian is Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky’s extremely handsome dilettante whose loathing towards normalcy and ethics is the spark that sets off an upheaval of another world. High on the sway of his own call to arms, Fabian goes on to murder his pawnbroker (Mae Paner, devilishly devoid of her Juana Change look) and her daughter, launching into ruin not only of his own but of another parallel universe. In “Norte,” the fall is taken by Joaquin (Archie Alemania, far from his comedic comfort zone), a pirated DVD peddler accused of the pawnbroker’s murder, his ties to her include a mountain of debt and a short burst of a tantrum after she refused to return his wife’s ring.
Fabian goes on about his life as if the act of killing is a necessary recourse of existence. He further isolates himself from the rest of the world, even from his closest friends. Joaquin’s family, on the other hand, suffers from the shattered life they are consigned to living. Joaquin’s wife, Eliza (the quietly powerful Angeli Bayani), tries to make ends meet, selling vegetables in a rickety cart around their town while Joaquin desperately lives his saintly disposition inside the prison, never crossing boundaries and keeping his mouth shut if needed. This is a set-up for a dreary exposition into squalor and defeat, but Diaz, never one to indulge in such games, opts instead to steer his four-hour film (which runs like a breeze even for a millennial attention span such as this writer’s) into an astonishing study of madness and its accompanying instruments.
2. Days of Heaven (1976)
Despite the grace of the images Terrence Malick chooses to show in “Days of Heaven,” the auteur always hints at the darker things that lurk underneath. Malick is obsessed with Eden; how man can eventually treat the world as his playground. He distills the cinematic medium with a plaintive mix of images and sound (by Ennio Morricone). The simple story unfolds gracefully; a trio of runaways looking for a better life. The farm that they eventually settle in becomes, for them, the promised land, where they don't have to work or slog through the grime just to earn money.
At the core is a love affair between the beautiful brunette, Abby (Brooke Adams) and the sternly aggressive Bill (Richard Gere) and how he convinces Abby to marry a rich and supposedly dying farmer (Sam Shepard). They revel in the idyll, going on boat rides, running through the wheat fields, skipping on streams and just basking at the beautiful world that they inhabit. But in the end, their happiness comes with a greater price, leaving them transformed in ways they have never even imagined.
3. Meek’s Cutoff (2011)
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness has stood as proof of his incorruptibility. Faced with hunger, powerlessness, and other demonic ministrations, Jesus withstood the Devil’s attempt to break his spirit and hand himself over into worldly desires. Often earmarked as a show of his divinity and high wisdom, the varying accounts of this temptation make for an interesting standpoint between the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible, something that Kelly Reichardt's “Meek’s Cutoff” searingly handles with such grace and subtlety.
As a character reads verses from the Old Testament in various points of the film, "Meek’s Cutoff" can also be interpreted as a lost chapter of the Fall of Man. But this connection is never explicitly dealt. Stepehen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is a figurehead of any religion, a prophet at least, luring believers into the unknown only to watch them crumble as they encounter more tribulations along the way. Reichardt fleshes off Meek as a shady character whose intentions remain questionable until the very end. He is as clueless and tired as anyone else, but his position doesn’t afford him to be crippled like the rest of them.
“Meek’s Cutoff” doesn’t offer any resolutions or clear-cut definitions. Everything seems as elusive as the promised land that they have been pursuing. But it’s this vagueness that propels the film as it goes along in a plot furthered by nothingness. A questionable messiah is better than an absent one. Because after all, it’s this persistence of being that gives meaning to our lives, no matter how pointless it may seem.
4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2013)
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has always been fascinated with the afterlife and reincarnation. “Uncle Boonmee” is his treatise in transcending worldly desires, leaving a faint trace of the lives we have lived and, in this case, Weerasethakul depicts them in lingering presences of human spirits, monkey ghosts, catfish shamans, lonely princesses, and a water buffalo struggling to break free.
The ghosts in “Uncle Boonmee” serve as a visible link to our pasts. Boonmee’s wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), who suddenly materializes one night at the dining table, is both a preservation of her past misgivings and regrets and a glimpse to what awaits Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) when he dies of his illness. The scene then becomes a family reunion when they are joined by Boonmee’s son, Boonsong, who has turned into a monkey ghost, covered in hair, with red eyes flaring like signals from the dead. This increases Boonmee’s curiosity about the afterlife.
“Boonmee”’s afterlife is a temple. The family of the deceased comfort the dead with their offerings and prayers while the spirit roams restlessly, hearing imprints of the living. Spirits are transformed into bestial creatures, carrying the weight of their past lives and the futures that they have been given. These ghosts converse with the living, talking about the minutiae of their daily routines, interacting as though death doesn’t exist at all.
Weerasethakul finds more beauty in the stillness, creating an alternate plane where our imperfections are slowly carved out to the tune of a pop song while we wonder about what awaits us beyond the veil.
5. Wild (2015)
Watching Cheryl Strayed (Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon) brave the Pacific Crest Trail in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild” feels like is discarding your old skin along with her character. Strayed’s ordeal in the film, hiking all of 4,279 kms of the trail is a cathartic reflection of how great it would be to let yourself go through the wilderness, shed your old self and emerge anew — not entirely different but tweaked, recalibrated, and hopefully, improved.
Strayed — dejected and depressed after succumbing through the worst events in her life — takes on the trail, hoping to see some light at the end of it all. It helps that Nick Hornby's screenplay draws out the film's emotional core through Strayed's connections with music (humming Simon and Garfunkel's “El Condor Pasa” as one of the unyielding links between her and the beloved memory of her mother, dispensing quotes from several authors to bookmark chapters of her journey throughout the trail etc.): fragments that drift in and out as Strayed journeys a thousand miles to retribution. “Wild” succeeds at eloquently mapping the physical toil of unraveling and how the weight of our memories can both be a burden and a guide along the lonely road.