The following films are not only entertaining and artistic — they explore the spiritual and ethical dimensions of life. They’re made by those who are determined to explore the dreams and struggles of men and women seeking integrity and often working for justice against forces that would destroy them. 

One of the films this year is “religious” — how could Son of God not be? — but by no means are all of them. 

Each of these films can be considered a visual parable, challenging and inspiring us to see beneath the surface of our world and to live a better life in tune with the spiritual values of our faith. 

1. Selma

Rated PG-13. Amos 5:21-24. 

None of the other films about Martin Luther King Jr. have shown as well the humanity of the man whom most young Americans know only as the icon who gave that “I Have a Dream” speech. 

The film reveals King’s flaws as well as his courage and elegance. He has a tense moment with his wife, Coretta, as they listen to the tape recorded surreptitiously by the FBI; we see him joking with his staff and playing with his children. Two scenes show King’s doubts being lifted by Coretta and civil rights worker John Lewis.

Although it has been 50 years since the brutal police beat the marchers from Selma to Montgomery, the film is very relevant, helping us understand why so many black people in Ferguson, New York City and Cleveland are suspicious of the police. Every American should see this film, and every preacher should explore it in sermon and class. 

2.  Calvary

Rated R. Romans 12:14-19. 

This Irish film stars Brendan Gleeson as a priest who is called to atone for the shameful sin of child abuse committed by the priests of the Irish Catholic Church. 

The fact that Fr. James is innocent and faithful to his calling makes his story even closer to that of the blameless One crucified on that hill outside Jerusalem. Told with many touches of dark humor, Fr. James’ story offers lots of discussion possibilities of theological themes for people of faith. Beware of the street language earning the film its R rating. 

3. Ida (Polish with English subtitles)

Rated PG-13. John 10:10b; Psalm 27:10 

This deeply spiritual masterpiece by the English/Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski takes place in Communist-ruled Poland around 1960. The orphaned Anna is about to join the order of the nuns who have raised her when the Mother Superior orders her to first go and visit her only relative, an aunt who has never contacted her. The first words of Aunt Wanda, a Communist minor judge, are, “So, a Jewish nun.” After this shocker, the film becomes a road story with the atheist and the believer traveling to the farm once owned by the family to try to find someone who will admit knowing how Ida’s parents were killed. Both make some interesting discoveries and are faced with a decision that will change each of their lives forever. 

4. Cesar Chavez

Rated PG-13. Malachi 3:5.

This film biography of the great Hispanic grape boycott leader will remind us that the battle for decent wages and working conditions was as hard fought by Hispanics and as stoutly resisted by the entrenched powers as was the civil rights struggle for African Americans. 

Preachers and teachers will find many good illustrations of love and nonviolence in this powerful film. There is even a touch of feminism in the way that the normally docile Helen Chavez defies her husband’s edict not to join a picket line and undergo arrest. Like Gandhi, Chavez embarked on a fast to the death to brig his unruly followers to accept nonviolence, a fast which drew Sen. Robert Kennedy to his side. Although the great leader died in the 1990s, the film is as relevant as ever during this time of debate over the future of undocumented Hispanic immigrants, the minimum wage and the growing income gap. 

5. The Good Lie

Rated PG-13.Leviticus 19:34; Philippians 2:3-4. 

All those who consider themselves peacemakers should embrace this social justice parable.

The story begins in southern Sudan when militia from the north massacre Christian villagers. Only a few children survive. Several of them die during their 700-mile trek toward Ethiopia, and when they meet a column of refugees turned back from that border, they head with them to Kenya where a UN refugee camp takes them in. Years later several of them win a lottery and are allowed to immigrate to America, where the young men are sent to Kansas City and a sister to Boston. How an American helps bring about their reunion makes for an inspirational story. For once the filmmakers concentrate on the people of color rather than the whites who come to their aid.

The film ends on a note of loving sacrifice that serves as an example of what the apostle Paul meant in his letter to the Philippians.

6. The Theory of Everything

Rated PG-13. Job 7:1-4; I Corinthians 13:7.

This biographical film ought to inspire you to take stock of your own life and fill you with a sense of your personal good fortune, at least when compared to so many afflicted by diseases.

Based on Jane Hawking’s Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, the film expertly tells the story of the life of cosmologist Stephen Hawkings from the days when he courted Jane at Cambridge through the years in which he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease while developing his brilliant theories about time and space. Hawking is a non-believer, but Jane is a devout Anglican who endures incredible hardships to give him the support that prolongs his life and allows his brilliant mind to work. Others also lend support, showing what can happen when all lay aside their own needs to help another with greater problems.

7. The Railway Man

Rated R. Romans 12:7-18.

Told in flashbacks, this is a true WWII POW story of Allied soldiers forced by the Japanese to build the Burma to India railroad. When the captured Eric Lomax makes and hides a radio to receive news, the guards discover it and mercilessly torture him, damaging his psyche so much that the effects threaten his new marriage more 30 years later. His return to Burma to confront the Japanese guard who participated in the torture is at first harrowing but changes into something quite different than he had intended.

8. St. Vincent

Rated PG-13. Romans 4:17a.

Bill Murray is perfect as the nasty neighbor who, by watching the neighbor’s boy while the overworked mother is away, is transformed into something like a saint in the boy’s eyes.

Both funny and serious, the film can lead toward reflection on what sainthood is.

9. Unbroken

Rated PG-13. Psalm 144:7-8, Mark 11:25.

Based on the life of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, this is the story of his ordeal as a Japanese POW when his bomber went down in the Pacific and he and his surviving companion were picked up by a Japanese ship. A head guard took delight in tormenting him but could not break him. It is unfortunate that the filmmakers elected to downplay Zamperini’s faith and did not dramatize his returning to Japan and forgiving his captors, but the film is still a powerful testament to the human spirit and the power of the gospel to lift us above hatred.

10. Son of God

Rated PG-13. Revelation 22:12-13.

This newest life of Jesus film is from producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who brought us History Channel’s The Bible. At least 90 percent of the film is taken from the miniseries.

It has much to recommend it, this Jesus being a warm, compassionate man reaching out to the excluded. Like in several other Jesus films of the past couple of decades, Mary Magdalene’s role is expanded, the film showing her accompanying Jesus and the disciples. The apostle John narrates the movie, and so it is strange that the foot-washing episode in the Upper Room is left out, though various snippets of Jesus’ words from that Gospel are scattered through the story. This is a good film for a group discussion.

Dr. Edward McNulty is a Presbyterian minister, author of three film books published by WJK and editor/reviewer of Visual Parables.