“Perhaps the most important thing a movie can do,” Roger Ebert once wrote, is to “take us outside our personal box of time and space, and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects.”
“I believe,” he added, that “empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.”
Empathy is, indeed, foundational not only to civilization, but to any sort of community or society, to any knowledge of others, and even — according to Saint Edith Stein, whose doctoral dissertation was on empathy — to true knowledge of oneself.
Empathy alone will not make us merciful, but we cannot be merciful without empathy. Without that habit of stepping outside our own personal box of time and space and putting ourselves imaginatively in the place of others, including those whose lives and experiences are very different from our own, we will not respond with mercy to their needs or weakness.
If movies can invite us to empathy, they can also invite us to mercy. Of course some movies do the opposite, just as some movies, far from promoting empathy, reinforce tribalisms and prejudices of all kinds. Among the most enduring Hollywood genres, after all, is the revenge story, which is the antithesis of mercy.
Which brings me to the newly released Arts & Faith Top 25 Films on Mercy.
Each year the diverse community of film lovers and film writers at Arts & Faith — of which I am a longtime participant and voting member — releases a new Top 25 list with a unique theme. Past topics include memory, marriage, comedy, horror, and road films.
The Arts & Faith Top 100 Films offers a broader index of the community’s cinematic sensibilities and interests.
Arts & Faith is billed as “a perpetually unfolding conversation that began in 1999, where anyone can participate for free.” The forum is sponsored by Image journal, which is based at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian university affiliated with the Free Methodist Church.
While Arts & Faith is not a Christian community per se — participants include skeptics and unbelievers as well as Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and others — Christian belief is an important part of its history and culture, and continues to shape the discussions hosted at A&F.
A&F film lists include both religious and nonreligious films, but every list is shaped by a perspective reflecting what may be called a spiritual or religious orientation.
In a post a couple of years ago, I wrote that Arts & Faith is “not a community of believers per se, and we are not only interested in religious films, but we are a God-haunted community, and we produce God-haunted lists.” That’s an observation I think emphatically applies to this year’s list.
Inspired in part by the pope’s Year of Mercy, Arts & Faith chose mercy as this year’s theme (for which, I confess, I lobbied hard.) Hundreds of films were nominated, of which over a hundred were seconded.
In two rounds of voting, the community produced a Top 25 that spans 93 years of cinematic history, with films from East Africa and South Africa, Japan, Hong Kong, Russia, Europe, and the United States.
Some titles are well-known: Chaplin’s “City Lights” (1931); “A Tale of Two Cities” (1935); “Scrooge” (1951), starring Alistair Sim; David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” (1980).
Many others will be new to most casual movie watchers. There’s a silent Swedish horror film (“The Phantom Carriage,” 1921), an animated post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy (“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” 1984), and a poetic drama in which a Russian rock star plays a mystical monk (“The Island,” 2006).
Topping the list is a film that Catholics familiar with the 1995 Vatican film list may recognize, with a protagonist most Catholics will at least have heard of: “Monsieur Vincent” (1947), an Oscar-winning French drama about Saint Vincent de Paul.
Vincent was a 17th-century French priest and social reformer whose work is carried on today in every homeless shelter and soup kitchen; he also worked to better the condition of convicts sentenced to grueling labor as galley slaves.
In second place is “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), a bleak Western starring Henry Fonda that was a flop in its day and neglected for decades, but in recent years has attracted attention for its grim cautionary tale about the dangers of mob mentality — a film about the need for mercy in a world often lacking it.
Third is Robert Bresson’s celebrated “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951), based on the novel by the Catholic writer George Bernanos about a sensitive, frail young priest who faces indifference and rejection in his physically and spiritually impoverished rural parish.
The breakthrough film in the director’s unique style, “Diary” is widely reckoned among the most sublime films ever made. (It’s also one of Arts & Faith’s all-time favorite films, appearing in every version of the A&F Top 100 Films.)
Many film lists heavily oversample recent films and neglect older ones. This list includes only six films from the last 10 years, with two to four from each decade from the 1920s to the 1950s. The most recent title is the appropriately named “Love & Mercy” (2014), Bill Pohlad’s acclaimed biographical film about Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys.
A few filmmakers show up twice, highlighting some of A&F’s preferences: Chaplin (“The Kid,” 1921; “City Lights”); the Dardenne brothers (“The Son,” 2002; “The Kid with a Bike,” 2011); Hayao Miyazaki (“Nausicaä”; “Spirited Away,” 2001.)
Looking over the films on this list, it occurs to me that we do not live in merciful times.
For Americans, the Year of Mercy ironically coexists with what seems to me the nastiest, most acrimonious presidential contest at least in my lifetime. Our nation incarcerates a higher percentage of our population than any other country, a trend that has risen for decades. Globally, violence is rising after decades of decline.
A list of films won’t change any of that. Even Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy haven’t managed to restrain our era’s rising mercilessness in any obvious way.
But the films on this list might change your outlook, if you watch them thoughtfully. For those interested in ways of observing the Year of Mercy, and of being mindful of the importance of mercy in the half-year that remains, these films could be part of that.
Watching these films, we may reflect on the scope of — and the need for — mercy in our own lives. In the face of the latest crushing evidence of man’s inhumanity to man, the Top 25 Films on Mercy remind us that the way it too often is isn’t the whole story, or the way it has to be.
The complete Arts & Faith Top 25 Films on Mercy, with member write-ups for each film (including three by me,) is available at the Image journal website.