You’ve noticed it: Many of us are feeling more generous, solicitous toward others, even downright neighborly during this pandemic. We’re seeing grace under pressure, not only expressed toward our kin and current communities, but our old ties and even strangers.
There are, of course, movies — of all kinds — about the rediscovery of our better angels during small and large crises. Here are some titles.
“3 Faces” (iTunes, Kanopy, Amazon): One of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Iran’s Jafar Panahi (“The Mirror”), plays himself in this unusual fiction from 2018 in which a celebrity director and his friend, popular actress Behnaz Jafari (also playing herself), travel from Tehran to a mountain village to save a young actress who sent them a video desperately pleading for their help. As Panahi coolly, visually conveys the sensory disorientation of an emergency road trip, neither his nor Jafari’s exaggerated screen selves fully appreciate their impulse to help, amid their own professional burdens, a stranger.
“Come What May” (Amazon, YouTube): Based on writer-director Christian Carion’s mother’s experiences in France during World War II, this 2016 epic follows a small farming community as it abandons its home to avoid advancing German soldiers. The caravan of neighbors shares its agony and celebrations alike, while a Scottish officer (a remarkable Matthew Rhys) pairs with a Resistance fighter to find the latter’s lost son. The film’s visual, dramatic and moral sweep makes it a riveting, beautiful experience.
“Every Act of Life” (YouTube, Amazon): Four-time Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally (“Love! Valour! Compassion”) died last month of complications from the coronavirus. This warm, life-affirming documentary from 2018 turns to the many people in his family and career who understood McNally’s trauma growing up gay under an abusive father in South Texas; as well as those (such as Angela Lansbury) who confronted him early about his alcoholism; and those who rallied for him during cancer battles. McNally’s plays about people living with AIDS during the epidemic’s peak are also given their due.
“The Human Comedy” (Amazon, iTunes, Vudu): Hollywood’s Golden Age produced some very good films about life on the U.S. home front during World War II. None is quite like this 1943 Oscar-winning drama based on a story by William Saroyan. Often treading a narrow line between reality and dream, the film (wonderfully directed by Clarence Brown) stars an outstanding Mickey Rooney as a telegram messenger altered by the war’s emotional toll on his community. There are very lived-in performances here as well as others gloriously wrapped in inspiring values. Above all is goodwill among the burdened and bereaved.
“Interstellar” (YouTube, Amazon): In the near future, Earth is irreparably trashed by climate change, and it’s time to look for humankind’s new home. For director Christopher Nolan (“Inception”), that doesn’t mean you or I will be saved, but rather our species will be reborn and raised on another world. This often mind-blowing, idea-driven 2014 film, starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain, is about profound personal sacrifices made to ensure our tiny pulse carries on in a vast cosmos.
“Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored” (Amazon): Roger Ebert said it best in his 1996 review of this somewhat forgotten, yet still exceptional drama: “[R]arely has a film more movingly shown how people who work, live and pray together can find a common strength and self-respect.” Amen. Actor Tim Reid (“WKRP in Cincinnati”) directed a stirring adaptation of the bestselling novel by Clifton L. Taulbert. Set between 1946 and 1962 in Jim Crow Mississippi, the generational saga starring Al Freeman Jr., Phylicia Rashad and Richard Roundtree captures the look and feel of the early Civil Rights Movement ascending among family and friends who have had enough.
“Only Angels Have Wings” (iTunes, Amazon): Howard Hawks’ 1939 classic is a movie you grow into with time and experience of the world and of love. Jean Arthur plays a tourist suddenly immersed in a colorful clan of airfreight pilots operating out of a South American port. The flyers are commanded by a blunt, unsentimental manager (Cary Grant) making no excuses for sending men on solo missions into the deadly void of mountain passes and black skies. But beneath the no-apologies strictness of this bunch is a mix of exacting standards, respect and great bonds, exactly like a sustaining family that sees you through anything — including forgiveness and redemption.
“Seven Samurai” (Kanopy, Amazon): Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic, in many ways, is the apex of movies about coming to the aid of a community wrapped in fear and danger. A 16th-century village of farmers (during the Sengoku period of Japanese history) hires seven ronin (i.e., samurai without masters) to fight off a small army of bandits coming to steal the village’s crops. As Kurosawa beautifully captures the look and feel of an agrarian society in perfect, ritualistic harmony, the seven warriors have to transcend their own individualism to achieve collective strategy and honor.
“Southern Pride” (Amazon, YouTube, iTunes): The LGBTQ people in two small, hostile Mississippi towns feel unsafe in this 2018 documentary. Fortunately, each town has a gay bar operated by strong-willed women offering sanctuary and resources within their establishments. When one of these women, Lynn Koval, organizes her town’s first Pride parade, she slams into obstacles from political and business leaders. Director Malcolm Ingram has made a bold work about courage and defending one’s right to be part of the American tapestry.
“Styx” (iTunes, Amazon): In filmmaker Wolfgang Fischer’s 2018 drama, Rike (Susanne Wolff) is a German doctor sailing alone between Gibraltar and Darwin’s Ascension Island. She confidently handles storms and seafaring mishaps. But then she spots, in the distance, a broken-down trawler full of desperate, howling refugees, with no rescue in sight. Emphatically warned by authorities (via radio) not to intervene, Rike is put to a test: Should she blindly obey, or do what is right? Fischer tells a haunting story about modern abandonment of displaced peoples.