What makes a performance “spiritual”?

I’m linking to Beliefnet’s Film Awards to help tease your brain on this one. Beliefnet is asking visitors to vote on the “Most Spiritual Film,” “Most Spiritual Performance,” and “Most Spiritual Documentary.”

I find that I don’t know how to vote on these categories. The closest thing to a definition I can find on the site is this:

Beliefnet is proud to recognize the films and filmmakers whose work is of the highest quality while also being imbued with significant spiritual and inspirational themes.

That seems generally clear, but the options offered for the vote confuse the issue.

Was Atonement a spiritual and inspirational film? The movie and its source material seemed to me to be largely about the despair that comes from trying to atone for your own sins in a world without God… and ultimately, the failure to find any sufficient form of atonement without grace.

Was that more “inspirational” and “spiritually significant” than Lars and the Real Girl, which gave us a stirring picture of unconditional love in a community and a church, and yet isn’t included in the available options?

Was Will Smith’s performance in I Am Legend one of the top five “most spiritual performances” of the year? Moreso than Casey Affleck’s turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or the performances by the actors who played Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, or Tommy Lee Jones’s turn as the soul-searching sheriff in No Country for Old Men, or Laura Linney’s performances in The Savages or Jindabyne?

Some of these same questions come up when CT publishes its “Most Redeeming Films” list. I did vote as a part of that list, because it seemed a little clearer to me: Vote on movies that are uplifting and inspriational in their depictions of redemption. Note: Atonement didn’t show up anywhere, because there’s no redemption to be found. These were clearer instructions. (And it was a very different mission than the assembling of CT’s Critics Choice list, which entails voting for the finest works of big-screen art released in a year.)

Now, when we turn to talking about performances… well, then I’m really baffled. Am I to vote on the character who goes on the most transforming spiritual journey? Am I to vote on the actors who were most inspiring in how they brought a character to life?

How would you determine whether or not a film, or a performance, is “spiritual”?

Is There Will Be Blood not a spiritual movie, full of performances that bring to life characters in spiritual conflict? The movie may not make you feel good, but isn’t it a challenging story about sin and consequences, with faint glimmers of grace that provide contrast?

What about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, or Ratatouille, or Zodiac, or Paprika?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not registering a complaint. I’m just trying to understand the categories that Beliefnet is inviting all of us to vote on. Beliefnet is providing an opportunity to explore exactly what these categories mean by offering “debates” over who’s qualified to win.

But I find myself less and less capable of voting in these things. I can understand honoring a film for artistry. Or, if we’re voting on the “feel-good film” or the “best story about a character’s moral transformation”… that would be a clearer assignment than being asked to vote on what is most “spiritual.” (It reminds me of my experience in a Christian high school, being asked to vote on the “most spiritual young woman.” I’d rather vote on America’s Next Top Model.)

When it comes to “spirituality,” well… you could make a nature film, and the heavens would declare the glory of God. You could make a film about a character’s fall from grace that would be just as “redemptive” in its truth-telling and excellence as a film about a character’s salvation.

Again… what would you describe as “a spiritual performance”? If I come to understand this, I might actually cast a vote.

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