Paradise Road (1997)
Times of deprivation and suffering can make or break a person, bringing the opportunity of attaining grace or falling into depravity. Based on this tension, many prisoner-of-war stories have made for great drama. Most movies on the subject deal with male soldiers. In Paradise Road, set in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, the focus is on women.
To keep up POW morale, a British tea-planter's wife (Glen Close) teams up with a former missionary (Pauline Collins) to form a vocal orchestra among the inmates, secretly rehearsing them to hum together as if they were the different musical instruments. Even their Japanese captors are moved by the sound of great music in such a desolate place. But the reality of the war and the enmity between the two sides gradually re-asserts itself.
Paradise Road pays attention to its characters’ spiritual development. Their moral crises are often confronted through the reading of a psalm or the recitation of a prayer. The movie dramatizes how, during times of great misfortune, “love is like a flame, visible to all,” and that the expression of love in the face of evil is almost always an occasion for grace.
Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)
Our culture undervalues teaching, looking particularly askance at those whose subject is music or art. The pay isn't good, and the profession doesn't get a lot of publicity. Because a teacher's effectiveness is hard to quantify and his influence may not pay dividends until years later, his worth often passes unnoticed.
Mr. Holland's Opus focuses on a public-school teacher's conflicting ambitions and how he resolves them over a 30-year period to the benefit of his students. Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) is a talented pianist and composer who has trouble supporting himself through his music. To pay the rent, he takes a job teaching at Oregon's John F. Kennedy High School in the ‘60s. At first, his classes are uninspiring, but slowly he gets hooked on trying to get his charges to share his passion, playing rock and roll to catch their interest and devoting extra effort to problem kids. At times, his absorption in work leads to conflicts with his wife and deaf son as he must learn to treat relationships with the same importance he gives to music.
The story plays off the intense political events of the ‘60s and ‘70s (the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate, etc.), but its main emphasis is personal. It's got a good-hearted sentimentality that feels genuine even upon second viewing.
I Confess (1953)
This year is the centennial of the birth of the all-time master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Much has been made of his Catholic up-bringing, and critics have long found Catholic themes buried behind his movies’ terror and thrills. But almost none of his 53 films deals overtly with religious subject matter.
I Confess is the exception. The setting is a grim, austere Quebec. Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) hears the confession of the church sexton, who admits to the murder of a local female lawyer. There are no clues linking the guilty man to the crime, and the priest is obliged to keep silent. By a cruel twist of fate, circumstantial evidence is uncovered which implicates Father Logan. When it's discovered that the cleric has his own secret to hide, he's quickly brought to trial. But Father Logan feels bound by his holy vows on the inviolability of confession and refuses to speak up even to save himself.
Many outside the faith may find his withholding of this secret hard to understand. It looks like it will allow the wrong man to be punished and a murderer to go free. But Hitchcock treats the priestly vocation and vows with great respect, creating both a series of probing interior conflicts and a taut drama that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last minute.