Jerusalem (1996)

Based on a novel by Swedish Nobel-prizewinner Selma Lagerlof, Jerusalem is steeped in the atmosphere of turn-of-the-century apocalyptic fervor. A son of the region's most prominent family falls in love with a schoolteacher's beautiful daughter. But the sweethearts get separated when she must sell all her possessions and go with her religious sect to Jerusalem to be present for the expected second coming of Christ. Will they ever get back together? Will their grand passion have a happy ending or a tragic one?

Jerusalem skillfully plays against conventional expectations to reveal a deeper understanding of the meaning of love than its protagonists at first possess. When the man and woman are confronted with moral choices, each opts for the way of sacrifice and forgiveness over ego gratification. Although painful, this process moves them closer to God even if they don't always get what they want. (The movie was filmed in Swedish, but the video has English subtitles.)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928; new to video in 1999)

Joan of Arc (Renee Maria Falconetti) was a 15th-century peasant-martyr who attempted to liberate France from English invaders. This silent film focuses mainly on her trial, and she communicates her emotions so effectively with her eyes that we don't need to hear the words. Although every sequence and shot are in themselves realistic, the overall effect is a subjective expression of her state of mind. Her eyes are fixed on God while her adversaries try to manipulate the truth for political advantage.

For years this 1928 masterpiece — which is on the Vatican's list of 45 films of special merit — could be viewed only in a ragged version assembled from out-takes. Home Vision has now released in video a newly restored and remastered cut based on a recently discovered print. We can at last experience the stark beauty of its intensely spiritual images in the manner director Carl Dreyer (Ordet) intended.

Sounder (1972)

Hard times can either bring out the best in people or drag them down, and in Sounder you don't know which way the main characters will go. Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) and Nathan Morgan (Paul Winfield) are trying to raise three boys in rural Louisiana in the early 1930s while struggling against poverty and racism.

In a desperate moment, Nathan steals a ham and is incarcerated in a hard labor camp. His wife and older son (Kevin Hooks) must find a way for the family to survive. The boy encounters a teacher who encourages him to study and better himself, but attending her school would mean separation from his kin. The movie celebrates the bonds within families without downplaying the struggles involved. Against all odds, the Morgans learn to believe in the power of hope.

–John Prizer