Oscar nominations won’t be announced until Thursday, and awards fanatics have the privilege to look forward to the Golden Globe Awards shortly after that, this Sunday at 5pm. While there are precious few Jewish themes among the films nominated, religion – in some form or another – plays a surprisingly strong part in a majority of them.
Christianity is all over Les Misérables, and it can be seen most in Jean Valjean’s transformation from convict to honest man. Touched by the generosity and forgiveness of a bishop, Valjean dedicates his life to God and becomes a positive contributor to society. The title character in Life of Pi follows multiple religions at once in an effort to love God, and even mentions that he lectures in Kabbalah, securing his thin connection to Judaism. Two Brits work closely with a Yemeni sheikh to transplant fly fishing to the Yemen in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a relationship that profoundly affects all parties. Even Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, chronicles of American conflicts with extremist Islam, portray a less evil and destructive vision of non-extremists, in the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper in the former and a practicing Muslim CIA official in the latter. The Sessions, which actually has some actionable Jewish content, is worthy of its own separate post after Oscar nominations are announced and its Jewish character is likely nominated.
Not all portraits of religion in Globe-nominated films are optimistic, however. Lincoln and Django Unchained are extraordinarily different films, yet their similar timelines (albeit fictional in the case of the latter) frame them within the contexts of white supremacist notions and Christian values of the era about God-given rights. The Master demonstrates the danger of a cult, following its shifty protagonist as he falls prey to one man pulling the strings and amassing a frightening number of followers to his cause.
A more creative interpretation of religion can be found in several other contenders. Silver Linings Playbook emphasizes positivity as a guiding force. Moonrise Kingdom sings about true love at a young age, which guides its pre-pubescent protagonists to each other against all odds. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel values serenity and relaxation, an appropriate reward for a long life spent working. Flight showcases Alcoholics Anonymous, focused on the presence of a higher power. The Impossible demonstrates the tremendous strength of family and hope in the most devastating of situations.
It’s rare to find such strong instances of religion present in every one of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s citations for Best Motion Picture and in a few of its other choices. Yet this year represents an instance where, Django Unchained aside, most of the films are more serious than usual. The comedies - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and Silver Linings Playbook - are not laugh-out-loud pictures; instead, more contemplative, light-hearted dramas. All but Quentin Tarantino’s excessive opus of violence in the drama category - Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty - along as nominated musical Les Misérables, represent formidable, long-term battles to achieve a monumental result. Compared with last year’s top category winners, The Artist and The Descendants, both strong films, of course, this year seems considerably more intense and thought-provoking.
It’s likely that Les Misérables will eclipse Silver Linings Playbook for the Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical trophy, following in the footsteps of Hollywood musical adaptations like Sweeney Todd, Dreamgirls, and Chicago this past decade. On the drama front, it’s a highly competitive race between Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty. The films that will be crowned the best of 2012 on Sunday are indicative of a dramatic year in cinema, one that is sure to leave an impression and keep moviegoers thinking about its themes long after they have left the theater.
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