iOS app Android app More

John Farr

John Farr

Posted: April 23, 2008 08:30 AM

In An Accelerated World - Ten Movies to Soothe the Soul


Few would disagree that our society is moving at a faster clip than ever before. Now we can always be reached, and the Blackberry and PC have become not just life enhancements, but crucial determiners of how we live and perform. If something goes down, our lives seem to crumble. If we are confronted with periods of stillness and inactivity, we instinctively wonder: "What am I missing? What am I forgetting to do?", as if confronting an invisible enemy.

Many successful workaholic types have confided to me that with the kid's soccer practices and their volunteer work at the Boys' and Girls' Club, they have no time to go to an art gallery...or watch a movie. And when they do watch a movie, it's usually in bed at day's end, when they're tired and channel-surfing, and they simply stop on the first vaguely diverting entry. They then promptly fall asleep.

There are others though who find ways to get off this ever-accelerating treadmill of existence for a time; those who sense their world is becoming too hectic and out of balance, and explore different approaches to restore a measure of equilibrium. They study the tenets of Buddhism, or practice transcendental meditation, and they rarely miss a yoga class. With Oprah's prodding, they read Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose", which addresses the baggage of personal ego, and how to shed it. And- they simply make the time for films (and other art forms) that enhance the quality of their lives by nourishing their hearts, minds and souls.

Just as an action movie sends messages to our brains to release adrenaline, which in turn excites us, other films transmit signals that promote reflection, relaxation, tranquility and overall well-being. These features most often require a mental adjustment for full appreciation, a willingness to turn off the cell phone and let the rhythm of life slow down considerably. Then, peacefully and patiently, you look, listen, and absorb.

Here then are ten special film picks to soothe your soul, mostly made in the past twenty years (but with a couple of golden oldies thrown in), all culled from current and upcoming recommendations from www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com:

The River (1951) - This sumptuous adaptation of Rumer Godden's story is a gentle coming-of-age tale of three adolescent age girls (two white, one half-Indian) living near the Bengal River in India. Into their lives comes wounded war veteran Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), who has yet to recover from his war experience. How the girls perceive and interact with the handsome but disabled young man in this mystical place juxtaposes the temporal with the eternal. What emerges is both a keenly felt human story and an homage to the raw beauty and spiritual richness of India. Renoir's lyrical, impressionistic ode to India's mystery and wonder belies the spell the country cast on the director from the moment he touched Indian soil. The first Technicolor film shot there, it is impossibly beautiful visually, and also immensely touching, as the turbulence of growing up is set against the eternal flow of the Bengal River. The River is like nothing you've traversed, and without doubt among Renoir's most impressive works.

Wild Strawberries (1957) - Nearing the end of his days, Professor Isak Borg goes on a long car trip to accept an honorary degree. Joining him is his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), with whom he's never clicked. During the trip, familiar sights cause the professor to flash back to events that shaped the course of his life, and this causes an epiphany, helping him come to terms with his past and face his short but precious future with renewed hope and spirit. One of the warmest and most cherished of Bergman's early films, Strawberries is an understated gem that not only brought the director world fame, but changed the way American audiences viewed the art of film altogether. Professor Borg's odyssey into the past is poignant and heartbreaking, joyous and ironic in equal measure, especially as his memory of young sweetheart Sara (Bibi Andersson) is echoed in the present by the appearance of a hitchhiker with the same name, also played by Andersson. Rich with symbolism and dreamlike visuals, Strawberries is an unusually tender film from the Swedish genius.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987) - Based on a true story, this book smart drama tells the gentle tale of two passionate bibliophiles, New York writer Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft) and London antiquarian-bookshop manager Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins), who develop a close friendship over 20 years after she writes his establishment requesting an edition of a relatively obscure tome. Though they never meet, their bond, at first cordial and businesslike, tightens over the years through a vigorous correspondence. A love story about two literate lonely-hearts, Road brings a lot of cheeky, intelligent charm to Hugh Whitemore's stage adaptation of the real-life Hanff's endearing memoir. Bancroft is splendid as the punchy middle-aged Manhattanite who finds an overseas soul- mate in Doel, a staid, vaguely unhappy married man played with quintessential British reserve by Hopkins. By turns plaintive, witty, and poignant, "Road" rises high on the shoulders of its two magnificent leads. And though the epistolary conceit could have been tedious, this particular inkwell never runs dry.

Babette's Feast (1987) - This mesmeric adaptation of Isak Dinesen's story, set in 19th century Denmark, concerns two aging sisters who have devoted their lives to religion, never venturing from their town of birth. When a French woman named Babette (Stephane Audran) comes into their midst, she invites the sisters and a few other townsfolk to share in a feast to celebrate their beloved late pastor, and ends up performing an amazing act of grace and selflessness. Feast is a uniquely subtle and sensitive banquet of a film. Its centerpiece, both visually and thematically, is the magnificent meal that Babette prepares for her austere benefactors after winning a lottery -- the significance of which soon becomes evident. With restrained direction and superb performances all around, Feast earned an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and deserves an honorary spot at any film or food lover's table. (And don't miss the old general's concluding speech.-it's a showstopper.)

Why Has Bodhi Darma Left For The East? (1989) - At a remote mountaintop retreat, an aged, ailing Zen master shares his spiritual wisdom with a young monk and an orphan boy he has taken in out of kindness. The days pass slowly, but bit by bit, through an ascetic regimen that honors the inevitable cycle of life, death, and rebirth, the two acolytes are guided along the path of enlightenment. Bae Yong-Kyun, a painter by trade from South Korea, spent years laboring over this profound film, a kind of tone poem that attempts to express what is ultimately inexpressible: the spiritual sublime. In place of dialogue and narrative action, he gives us some of the richest life lessons-and the most spellbinding images of nature-you are likely to see in a film. Whether you think of it as a Buddhist riddle (termed a "koan"), a mystical allegory, or an inner-world travelogue; if you're in the right frame of mind, you will surely be fascinated by this demanding but intelligent and visually arresting film.

The Straight Story (1999) - Senior citizen Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), living in a small Iowa town with daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), hears that his estranged brother Lyle has suffered a stroke. Alvin's short of money, and his failing eyesight has robbed him of his driver's license, but he still wants to visit Lyle to make amends. He climbs on his old John Deere lawnmower and starts his trip to far-off Wisconsin, over two hundred miles away. Director David Lynch is atypically restrained in rendering this heartwarming story, one you might not believe if it weren't true. Oscar-nominated Farnsworth gets the role of his career, inhabiting the weathered Alvin like a favorite old work-shirt. Alvin's full life is written all over his face; his folksy openness belies a hard-won wisdom. As we see him touch those he meets along his route, we get to know this humble man, and root for him to make it to his brother. An unadorned triumph, celebrating the power of forgiveness and human perseverance, Story is also ideal family viewing.

To Be and To Have (2002) - Shot in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, this moving documentary portrays the magical innocence of children and the loving dedication of one teacher, Georges Lopez. Set to retire after 35 years, Lopez instructs, engages, and inspires several grades of schoolchildren in the course of a school year, touching all their lives. Any and all parents, whether current or prospective, should quickly lay their hands on the sublime To Be, an intimate and heartwarming study of hands-on education in a tiny classroom. What would be a daunting task for most of us is, for Georges Lopez, the application of a natural gift to a highly rewarding purpose. Georges's innate connection with the twelve children under his care is humbling, and the wistful expression on his face at the end of the school term will put tears in your eyes.

Travellers and Magicians (2003) - Dondup, a young, bored government official in South Asia's remote Bhutan, yearns for the excitement of America, and one day, sets out from his village to find it. Unfortunately, he misses the only bus to the city and must walk. On his roadside journey, he is soon joined by a talkative monk, an old apple seller, a father and his lovely daughter. To pass the time, the monk tells an instructive story of another young man's quest that eventually causes Dondup to reassess his own decision. Film-maker Khyentse Norbu (also a revered Buddhist lama) has fashioned a gentle, lyrical film that's also wise and thought-provoking, if you can take your eyes off the lush, dazzling Bhutan scenery. Though Dondup's comical adventure stands on its own (particularly his uneasy interactions with the monk), the movie's astounding visual beauty elevates it to a whole new level. Travellers is perhaps best described as eye-candy for the soul.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (2003) - At a floating monastery on a placid lake, an older monk teaches the Buddhist way of life to a young boy, whose maturation is reflected in the passing of the seasons, and the different life stages which accompany each. Years later, after a sojourn in the outside world clouded by lust and violence, the boy-now a jaded young man-returns seeking shelter from the law, only to find unexpected redemption. A film that evokes a striking visual and spiritual purity, Korean director Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer is ideal for those seeking a profound, contemplative movie experience. Yet the film is by no means heavy-going; in fact, its simplicity and spare beauty create an entrancing effect. On a deeper level, we sense universal forces at work in the tale of the enlightened monk and his wayward acolyte, with the passage of time reflecting a continual cycle of pre-destined occurrences that traverse good and evil, innocence and cruelty. Arresting and unusual, Kim's Spring is a cinematic balm for the soul and senses.

Syndromes and A Century (2006) - Told in two parts, this dreamily abstract Thai film observes the evolving courtship between a female surgeon at a rural clinic near Bangkok and a shy young doctor who seeks her affection. The story then subtly shifts to follow the frank, friendly exchange between a Buddhist monk and his dentist, before alighting on the meanderings of a lovelorn male intern in a cold, clinical city hospital. Part sweet romance, part mesmerizing art film, Syndromes was inspired by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's childhood memories and the love story of his own parents, both country doctors. Nearly unclassifiable, but gentle and unassuming as the verdant Thai countryside and breezy outdoor parks where much of the action is set, the film's true-to-life rhythms will lull you in, rewarding your patience with a few breathtaking moments (a solar eclipse, a rasping air duct) loaded with symbolism. What it all means isn't important. Breathe the air of this film's naturalism and easy humor, and you'll leave with an exhilarating sense of refreshment and spiritual edification.

Follow John Farr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jfarr02