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Movies of Moral Import?

Today I distribute the first exam of the semester to my Fundamental Moral Theology students. A few years ago, I started using films for this exam: part of the task is to identify (clearly!) a moral question within the film. The moral question doesn't have to be an earth-shattering dilemma or a painful quandary, (though "Sophie's Choice" is on the list.) I've learned to avoid movies that present themselves as loaded with moral questions: after reading stacks of essays on "Batman. The Dark Knight," I took it off the list. So, I'm looking for recommendations. What are some movies that have sparked good conversation for you, caused you to re-think the morality of a situation, or just presented an interesting ethical issue? The moral question can be central to the film (as in "Dirty Pretty Things,") or it can be incidental to the larger plot.These films need not be classic or particularly high-brow. In fact, I like it if they're popular films (I added "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Friday Night Lights" this year, and last year's new addition was "True Grit.") Documentaries tend to be less appropriate for my purposes. Part of the aim of the exam is to encourage my students to begin to look at everything with the eyes of a moralist.Your ideas will shape my NetFlix queue...

About the Author

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).



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The Hunger Games?

I always liked the movie Go for this reason - lives intertwined with lots of choices at every turn.

When I taught high school, I sometimes used Groundhog Day (a kind of karma/samsara adaptation about despair, self-scrutiny, self-mastery, etc.) and The Truman Show (which works well with Descartes' meditations & Plato's allegory of the cave), and foreshadowed reality TV, having one's whole life online, and other 21st c. moral quandaries.

Lisa, Don't forget to remind your students that the primary purpose ot a movie, as for art in general, is to give pleasure. Otherwise too many of them will want to be bishops.

Lisa, The Battle of Algiers seems relevant to what is happening in our world today and is rich in moral quandaries. You might also consider The Organizer (about the beginnings of the labor movement in Italy), which Marcello Mastroianni said was his favorite role. Wish I could think of something a bit less somber. Maybe later.

Z by Costas-Gavras

Carol Reed's Odd Man Out. Better than The Third Man. All sorts of moral dilemmas.

The Social NetworkThe IncrediblesBad Teacher

To Kill a MockingbirdLord JimApocalpyse NowThe Missionanything written by Bertolt BrechtTender MerciesA Civil ActionRaggedy ManMissingLawless

Breaker MorantA Few Good MenRemember the Titans

Made in Dagenham

A Simple Plan. Trailer: Ebert's review:"You work for the American Dream--you don't steal it." So says a Minnesota family man early in "A Simple Plan," but he is only repeating an untested theory. Confronted with the actual presence of $4 million in cash, he finds his values bending, and eventually he's trapped in a horror story of greed, guilt and murder. . . . "A Simple Plan" is one of the year's best films for a lot of reasons, including its ability to involve the audience almost breathlessly in a story of mounting tragedy. Like the reprehensible "Very Bad Things," it is about friends stumbling into crime and then stumbling into bigger crimes in an attempt to conceal their guilt. One difference between the two films is that "A Simple Plan" faces its moral implications, instead of mocking them. We are not allowed to stand outside the story and feel superior to it; we are drawn along, step by step, as the characters make compromises that lead to unimaginable consequences.The performances can be described only as flawless: I could not see a single error of tone or feeling. Paxton, Thornton, Fonda and Briscoe don't reach, don't strain and don't signal. They simply embody their characters, in performances based on a clear emotional logic that carries us along from the beginning to the end. Like Richard Brooks' "In Cold Blood" (1968), this is a film about ordinary people capable of monstrous deeds.

Hello Lisa (and All),These are well worn suggestions, but they are entertaining and relevant films: Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront", Fred Zinnemann's "A Man for All Seasons" and Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors". A very senior colleague of has the students in one of her advanced moral philosophy courses view "Crimes and Misdemeanors". I suspect that "A Man for All Seasons" is about as near an approximation as a film made for US audiences ever will be to the story of Antigone, and the core of the story is historically accurate. (While in retrospect Thomas More is far better remembered than Bishop Fisher, I've wondered if in the end Fisher was the more attractive and interesting character of the two, but I don't think anyone has made a film based on Fisher's story.)As a side note (and I'm admitting here I have lost the issue!), the most interesting real historical moral quandary I've learned about in years is the story I read not long ago in Commonweal of the Catholic woman in Nazi occupied Europe who agreed to a proposal made by a Nazi officer to have an affair with him in exchange for his leaving a certain group of Jews in peace (rather than arresting them). I can't recall the specifics such as the names because I lost the issue in one of my many recent moves, and I would love to present it to my ethics students. What I'd really love is to view a film version of this story, if one exists or is ever made.

Tango Bar! discussion of the Catholic Church's role in Argentina's Dirty War will be vaulable to Fundamental Moral Theology students.(And they'll learn a little Argentine history and a lot about the tango.)

A couple of suggestions: Swing Kids( About loyalty to friends, peer pressure etc) Dead Poets Society, Silkwood, Flawless - The issue of prejudice and, again, friend loyalty. V for Vendetta if you want to go into politics.

Also, if you want to look at morality in professional sport Eight Men Out

What about "Doubt"? "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"? "Million Dollar Baby"? both of the latter films challenged my views on euthanasia.

It's a TV series, but I found Battlestar Galactica full of moral ambiguity/complexity

Lisa,INSOMNIA might be helpful. Al Pacino as detective Will Dormer can't sleep, which condition thwarts his search for justice/ wreaks ruin on his moral outlook. The Alaskan sunlight plays a role in the narrative, giving film a degree of symbolism. Dormer can't escape the light, especially when his investigation becomes a mix of moral subterfuge and lying. He seeks out darkness so he can rest his conscience as well as his body. Redemption or relief comes only when he can admit his failing and face his inner demons. Film explores going beyond the law, evading it, ignoring it. In focusing on Dormer's moral situation, the narrative hones in on the importance of not lying. Dormer says at one point: "You don't get to pick when you tell the truth." Truth and deception are human "sides" with which people align themselves. There is no simple lie. By the end of the film, honesty is enlarged, as it were, both in the viewer and in Dormer. His anger, opinions, and feelings can't be dishonest. To someone like Dormer, while there is life there is hope, redemption. Anyway, check it out.

JunoI'll second Breaker Morant and recommend another excellent Australian movie: Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. also used to use Glory and Schindlers List with my history classes, and occasionally The Mission.

An interesting topic that is hard to resist.Hotel RwandaSchindler's ListAmazing GraceChariots of FireDead Man WalkingSophie's ChoiceQuiz ShowAnd westerns often portray moral issues ambiguously:UnforgivenThe Ox-Bow IncidentHigh Noon3:10 to YumaTime to beg off and watch some of the suggested films I haven't seen. ;)

Hello William (and All),Thank you, how could I have forgotten "The OxBow Incident and"Chariots of Fire"?Now that we are all a bit more warmed up. . . I'll suggest "The Nun's Story" (again directed by Fred Zinnemann) and the 1939 "The Four Feathers" (directed by Zoltan Korda. I think none of the other filmed versions of this story would be relevant for Lisa's purposes.) Both films are unusual in being both sweeping epic dramas and fascinating character studies."The Nun's Story" is likely to resonate with Roman Catholic viewers for obvious reasons. The film has a simply brilliant cast, it's beautifully filmed and even more beautifully acted, and the characters must make several important and interesting choices. I suspect that in our time the film may be viewed as more controversial than it was in the 1950s because it paints the life in convents and the treatment of nuns in the 1930s and 1940s in such an unflattering light by today's standards. I've viewed the Korda "Four Feathers" many times to study the film. In my opinion this filmed version is the only version that portrays the main character's choice to leave the army as an interesting moral decision, and his choice is explained with considerable subtlety.

I will second Rabbit Proof Fence, which has one of the most thrilling conclusions and is also based on a true story, and add The Informer.

Adam's ApplesHeavenly Creatures (with the added benefit of Peter Jackson's fantasy...)

Here are some that made me think ...All the President's Men Black Hawk DownBlade Runner The Dead ZoneExtreme Measures Gattaca Heat HidalgoThe InsiderInsomnia The Island The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc The New World The Next Three DaysNotoriousOpen Range The Seige

My suggestions:The Official Story with Norma Aleandro (about the dirty war in Argentina)Eugene and DominickThe Killing FieldsThe Deer HunterSophie Scholl, the Final DaysThree and OutThe Shop on Main StreetAu Revoir, Les EnfantsEuropa, Europa

MatewanSaving Private RyanOf Gods and Men

Sorry, my 91 year old mother suggests "Counterfeit Traitor" with William Holden and Lilli Palmer - very good picture (she says) about what is right and what is wrong.

The Runaway JuryMissisippi BurningA Time to KillPresumed Innocentand two terrific films about the role/integrity of a priestSleepersTrue Confessions

Sophie Scholl: The Final DaysA Man for All SeasonsBecketBeyond the Gates a/k/a Shooting DogsBilly BuddCount of Monte CristoConspiracy (about the Wannsee conference)Death and the MaidenEast of EdenFat Man and Little BoyJudgment at NuremburgRopeThe Hiding PlaceThe Ninth DayThe Scarlet and the BlackOf Gods and MenPaths of GloryOthello (1995) - Iago being perhaps the greatest villain everRichard III - unless the crookback is a greater villainHigh Noonof course, the entire morality play that is The Godfather I and Part II (and to a lesser extent III), chronicling the good son Michael's descent into evil, the moral turning point, the point of no return when, after Vito is shot, he says to him, "I'm with you now." Almost any Western or Film Noir

I have shown "Twelve Angry Men" to high school students studying Sociology. I bet I have seen the movie a dozen times myself and each time I pick up a new insight.And, of course, I don't think that there is another movie with so many fine actors.

Thought of a few more :)Agora, about Hypatia and Cyril of AlexandriaEnemy at the Gates, about the battle for Stalingrad The Conspirator, about the only woman (a Catholic) in the group that plotted to kill LincolnOceans, a really amazing movie about the state of the world's oceans and the creatures that live in it

The Dark Knight is unbeatable for this topic but...Extreme Measures: Trolley problemMillion Dollar Baby: EuthanasiaDead Man Walking: Capital PunishmentA Time to Kill: Revenge, mercyHunger Games: Collective punishment, capital punishment, self-defense, trolley problem, suicide

I second the motion for Of God and Men, The Mission, and Schindler's List. I would also suggestLimitless -- what would you do with almost unlimited mental powers??

Thanks for Patrick McG for noting "Au Revoir, Les Enfants," a very powerful film, also based on real events.And can't forget the 2006 winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Fim, "The Lives of Others" and its brilliant performance by the late Ulrich Muhe. It also has one of the most satisfying endings I've ever seen in a film.

Clockers (issues in addition to the obvious -- i.e.. violence, poverty, crime, drugs --- include loyalty, family, "mentors" good and bad, our responsibility -- or not -- for choices others make due to our influence)Godfather Parts 1 and 2 (part 2 can even stand alone, imho, in its portrayal of Michael's moral decline)JunoThe VerdictMatewan (labor strife)And I heartily second some titles already mentioned: A Few Good Men, Crimes and Misdemeanors

Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonWall Street

I like many on this list. Doubt, Insomnia and A Simple Plan are all good.I would add The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish version).

The Grapes of Wrath

Changing Lanes with Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson

Films on love in action: Spitfire Grill and Babette's Feast. Thanks above for reminding me of the wonderful Tender Mercies.

The Butterfly Effect (Director's Cut).Would you give up your life in the womb if you knew you would only bring misery to those you would have loved? Would it be the sin of despair, or would you be laying down your life for your friends?

Jean deFloretteManon of the SpringRabbit Proof FenceBabette's Feast

So many good suggestions. I'd second The Lives Of Others and suggest The Bridge on the River Kwai

Million Dollar Baby with Clint Eastwood!

Wow! This is great! Thanks, everybody! Looks like lots of excellent movie-nights in my future...

Good Night, and Good Luck.The Lives of Others.Ratatouille.The Painted Veil.Gran Torino.DoubtOf Gods and Men.

The "little" Japanese movie Shall We Dance? About a bored, married company man who falls in love with a beautiful ballroom dancing teacher. (I think it's mainly about men's longing for transcendent beauty and the trouble this can lead to in ordinary lives, though the "moral" of the story is a bit different.)

Try "Whale Rider" for the dilemma involved in following a call that one's society refuses to recognize. Besides, it's an awesome film and visually beautiful.

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