Now that the season of Advent is drawing to a close and Christmas looms around the corner, ‘tis the season to be jolly—and to watch the same old holiday movies once again. Not that there is anything wrong with that. There is something irresistibly satisfying about revisiting Christmas movies with family and friends every year. My family’s Christmas would not be complete without some combination of A Christmas Carol (the George C. Scott version, of course), A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf, and Holiday Inn—all movies I consider to be top-notch, regardless of season. But say you’ve also grown a bit jaded at the prospect of yet another 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story. Perhaps you’ve realized that, as good (or bad) as Christmas movies can be, most of them are pretty much the same. Perhaps you’re looking for a fresh perspective on the holiday season.
The five movies listed below have nothing to do with Christmas, so they might seem an odd place to start. However, I think they all capture something of the spirit of Advent, that time of expectant waiting and patient preparation for the joyful celebration that is Christmas.
There is still a week left of this important season, time enough to ponder its significance for the church’s life as a whole and for our individual lives. It is tempting to let this time of reflection get lost in the tinsel and din of holiday busyness. But before we succumb to that temptation, before we switch on the holiday favorites, we would do well to remember Advent’s often overlooked themes, because the Christmas celebration doesn’t make sense without the expectant preparation that precedes it. A sense of anticipation, hope, mystical darkness, childhood innocence, and longing—these are the feelings that build the expectant mood of the days leading up to December 25th. These movies evoke this mood, each in their own way.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
“It’s a hard world for little things.” These words are uttered resignedly by Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), the hymn-singing, shotgun-toting, no-nonsense-taking “guardian angel” who rises to meet evil in Charles Laughton’s masterful thriller The Night of the Hunter. It’s a movie that has influenced everyone from David Lynch to the Coen brothers, and it is nearly perfect, enhanced by stark black and white cinematography and an expressionistic mise en scène. Robert Mitchum gives a brilliant and harrowing performance as the golden-tongued Reverend Harry Powell, who, when not explaining to some gullible townsfolk the meaning of the “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos across his knuckles, is sweet-talking his way into marrying and murdering a widow for her late husband’s hidden fortune.
The widow’s two children, John and Pearl, are at first wary of the duplicitous Powell, and they soon learn the truth. Unlike the rest of the small town the reverend has seduced, the children are able to see through appearances, and they realize that their new father only needs them to discover the location of the fortune. When they finally try to escape downriver, the predatory reverend follows; in a memorable montage, shots of the children being doggedly pursued are intercut with shots of small riverside animals. It’s a hard world for little things.
And then the children stumble upon the residence of Rachel Cooper, who has built up a kind of family with other unwanted children she has taken in. Miss Cooper is the radiant light of good set against Powell’s black corruption, and the final showdown is just about as thrilling as you can imagine.
This movie could be misinterpreted as a defense of the nostalgic innocence of childhood, an attempt to shield childhood naivete from the corrupting influence of the outside world. But I think the message is more profound. “Lord, save little children,” says Miss Cooper near the end of the movie (which end does, in fact, take place at Christmas). “The wind blows and the rain’s a-cold. Yet they abide… They abide and they endure.” The Night of the Hunter takes childhood and children seriously. It doesn’t relegate childhood to some wistful and sentimental era of the past, trivializing its experience and emotions in the process. Rather, it invokes the memory of childhood as a vital force, capable of transforming us in our present life. It reconnects us with the experiences we’ve had, rendering us capable of seeing the world again in a way that we once did—with perseverance, hope, faith, and a yearning for virtue. This link with the transformative forces of memory and childhood is especially important during Advent, when we prepare ourselves again to regard the Nativity through the eyes of a child.
If there was one thing I thought Martin Scorsese could not (and should not) do, it was adapt a popular children’s novel, layering it with a sheen of overdone 3D special effects. Good thing I was wrong. Hugo is one of my favorite “family movies” from the past few years, partly because of its visuals—which are actually breathtaking—but mostly because of its story, which has a lot to offer both children and adults (and, to my ecstatic surprise, film history buffs).
At its most basic, Hugo is about wonder and the joy of invention. But it is also about the trials of finding one’s place in the world and the deep yearning we feel to fix what is broken. It touches on family, memory, dreams, and the relationship between youth and old age in profound and hopeful ways.
I could say a lot about this movie, but I want to focus on this last idea. Early in the story, the orphaned Hugo (Asa Butterfield) clashes with an embittered, elderly toy shop owner in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris. As Hugo investigates the mystery behind an automaton his father was fixing before his death, it is revealed that the old man is none other than Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the famous illusionist-turned-filmmaker who pioneered early cinematic special effects. Méliès’s life took a tragic turn when all of his films were believed to be destroyed, and, rather than face the pain of loss and neglect directly, he shuts himself up, opting to live in rejection of the past, disillusioned with life. It takes Hugo’s perseverance for truth to rouse Méliès from his embittered slumber and to remind him that he has not been forgotten. Méliès rediscovers the hope that he belongs somewhere, that he was made for something. His brokenness gets fixed.
This movie’s strength is that it portrays youth and old age not as antagonistic opposites but as mutually-sustaining components of one experience. The wonder that defines Hugo’s childhood world is given again to Méliès, and the sense of purpose and belonging that Méliès rediscovers is given to Hugo. Like The Night of the Hunter, Hugo establishes that there is a continuous link between these two phases of life and that hope is still possible even when disillusionment seems inevitable.
Little Women (1994)
One of the daily scripture readings during Advent concerns the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary that she will bear the Christ child. Contemplating this event, Father Peter Malone puts forth Little Women as a movie that gives an ideal image of motherhood. This version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel—directed by Gillian Armstrong and featuring a cast of impressive names like Susan Sarandon, Wynona Rider, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Eric Stoltz, and Christian Bale—succeeds because it takes the themes of the novel seriously, presenting the bonds of family as a stable rock that is able to nourish the dreams and confront the challenges of life. (Plus, a significant portion of this movie takes place during the Christmas season.)
Susan Sarandon plays Marmee, the March family’s serene, kind, and virtuous matriarch. Through their mother’s wisdom and intuitive guidance, the March girls are able to survive growing pains and develop into women with ambitious dreams and loves of their own choosing. Their efforts to navigate the tension between their own commitments and dreams are still relevant today. Little Women’s insight is that the family, or the family-like community—those people or places we call home—gives us the strength both to serve those we love and to achieve great things of our own. Advent is a time to remember this rejuvenating power of our families and communities.
Wings of Desire (1987)
Damiel and Cassiel are real guardian angels in Wim Wenders’s fantasy-art film Der Himmel über Berlin. We are whisked through the city with them as they tend to their human wards, and we overhear the secret wishes and everyday thoughts of individuals—overlapping whisperings that combine into one giant prayer, united by longing. The particular lives of two individuals—Marion, an acrobat, and Peter Falk, as himself—so enchant Damiel (Bruno Ganz) that he decides to give up life as an angel to join them on earth. Up until this point, the black and white cinematography, floating high above a divided Berlin, has been cold, otherworldly, disembodied. But when Damiel “steps into mortal shoes,” as Edward Allie at Image writes, the movie changes to color, and “the effect is not unlike a child opening a box of Crayolas.”
The movie’s poetry, both visual and literal—in Peter Handke’s recurring “Song of Childhood,” which the author reads in voiceover—makes it difficult to summarize or categorize. But the movie hinges on one basic idea: Damiel’s longing to become human and to be made whole, unified in flesh and spirit. He immerses himself in the sensory delights and limits of mortal life. He falls in love with Marion. He bleeds. Damiel’s choice to give up his life of omniscient but passive observation for an immanent life of active participation—a choice which the movie argues we must make to be human—is one worth contemplating during Advent. For in Advent, we long for and anticipate the God who did just that, who deigned to be born into the broken world of humanity, into our experience, in order to make us whole.
Bonus: The Truman Show (1998)
The essence of The Truman Show is captured in the words of a 16th-century German Advent hymn:
“Sleepers wake!” A voice astounds us,
The shout of rampart-guards surrounds us:
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Truman’s transformation from a state of sleep to a state of wakefulness—his sense that he is, in the words of Walker Percy, “onto something”—is Advent’s call to prepare the way for the coming king. As Truman learns the true nature of his identity and purpose, he becomes a sort of prophet, living his life in anticipation of his liberation and the coming of the real world. The hymn goes on:
Midnight’s peace their cry has broken,
Their urgent summons clearly spoken:
“The time has come, O maidens wise!
Rise up, and give us light;
the Bridegroom is in sight.
Your lamps prepare and hasten there,
that you the wedding feast may share.”