One of the best movies of 2018 is about a pastor.
“First Reformed” was written and directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for some of Martin Scorsese’s best-known movies (“Taxi Driver, “Raging Bull,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”) and stars Ethan Hawke as the pastor of a small, 250-year-old church in upstate New York. This movie asks the questions Christ followers have always asked, like “where is God in the midst of suffering?” and “is grace bigger than despair?” as well as the questions we should be asking right now, like “has our theology contributed to climate change?” and “is the church a force for good in the world?” There are hymns, and megachurches, and Thomas Merton quotes. It’s a dark, often disturbing movie, but it is punctuated by moments of profound grace and transcendence. It’s the kind of movie I’ve long hoped for, one that somehow manages to balance Christian themes and quality storytelling without seeming hokey or reductive or preaching to the choir. “First Reformed” is tremendous, challenging, and beautiful. It is, quite honestly, one of the best Christian movies ever made.
It was also not nominated for an Oscar. Shocking, but true. I’ll admit, when I read the Oscars nominees, I was bummed. Not only was “First Reformed” not nominated, neither was “Eighth Grade,” the very BEST movie of 2018 (and if you want to read about why, check out this article I wrote a while ago:
The Oscars are many things, but at their best, they can be a reflection of the things we value as a culture. Here were two films that I thought really tapped into the heart of Jesus, telling stories of brokenness, grace, transformation, and love. But with “First Reformed” and “Eighth Grade” out of the running, I wondered, Is Jesus even gonna show up at the Oscars?
O me of little faith. I shouldn’t have worried. The truth is, Jesus is where He is always is: residing with the “poor in spirit,” “the meek,” and “the pure of heart.”
When I think of the films nominated for the 2019 Oscars, I am reminded of Mother Theresa’s challenge to see Jesus in every person, to be, as she writes, “seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, all the time, and his hand in every happening; This is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world.” As Jesus himself made clear, when we love the misunderstood, the oppressed, and the outcasts, we are loving him, too. That’s what many of the 2019 Oscar nominees do: they help us see the dignity, the imago dei, in others.
Take the year’s most surprisingly awesome film, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” At first blush, this is just another cool comic book rehash of everyone’s favorite web-slinger. But look a little closer at the central theme— “Anyone can wear the mask”—and you’ll see that it’s more than just a fun time. Who is Spider-man? He’s Peter Parker, of course, but in this movie, thanks to some parallel-universe shenanigans, Spider-Man is also Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Puerto-Rican teenager who wears Jordans and does street art, as well as Spider-Gwen and a talking pig name Peter Porker, to name a few. Spider-Man has always been Marvel’s most relatable superhero. He wasn’t a billionaire or a genius or a god. He was just a kid who happened to get bitten by a radioactive spider. But that’s the beauty of it. Anyone can wear the mask. Anyone can be a hero. Anyone can be a force for good in the world.
I think of Simon, James and John dropping their nets and following Jesus to become “fishers of men.” They were just average dudes, your friendly neighborhood fishermen. And God, through them, changed the course of history. Is there anything more encouraging than that? Anyone can wear the mask.
Jesus is also in the Best Picture nominee to beat, “Roma.” Directed by Alfonso Cuarón and already boasting a whole host of awards and accolades, “Roma” tells the story of a maid named Cleo who works and lives in a middle-class home in Mexico City in the early 1970s. The movie is based on Cuarón’s own childhood and his own experiences as “a white, middle-class, Mexican kid living” in the bubble of privilege and childhood, he told Vanity Fair. The film’s protagonist, Cleo, is based on his real-life maid and caretaker, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, an indigenous Miztec woman who moved to the city from the rural village of Tepelmeme. But where young Cuaron took all of this in stride, blissfully unaware of Libo’s life outside of her caretaker role, the director now chooses to tell the story from her side, as a fully-formed human being with desires and hopes and complexities. The result is astonishing. “Roma” does what only the very best art can do: frames a person or experience that we might otherwise not think twice about and compels us to care.
The truth is, Jesus is where He is always is: residing with the “poor in spirit,” “the meek,” and “the pure of heart.”
Jesus did the very same thing, countless times. In a crowd of people, he felt the hand of one woman touch his garment, and asked, “Who touched me?” He refused to let the woman just slip away in the crowd. He needed to see her. When she eventually came forward, Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Jesus did not allow her to disappear. In the kingdom of heaven, everyone is worth seeing. That’s what “Roma” reminds us as well.
The list goes on. In documentaries like “Period. End of Sentence” and “Free Solo” and films like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Black Panther,” we are able to see people in new, challenging, heart-stirring ways. We shouldn’t have to doubt whether Jesus is as the Oscars or in the movies. He’s there, in the face of human being. Perhaps the nominees of the 2019 Oscars (and even a few that aren’t nominated) can help us to see better. After all, as Mother Theresa says, “ this is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world.”