What does it mean to be merciful?
These films show us visions of a world so often lacking in mercy, as well as worlds in which one merciful act alters the landscape of human experience forever. Produced by the Arts & Faith online community, this list spans 93 years of cinema, from 1921’s The Kid and The Phantom Carriage to 2014’s Love & Mercy.
The Top 25 Films on Mercy is sponsored by Image, a literary and arts quarterly founded in 1989 to demonstrate the vitality and diversity of well-made art and writing that engage seriously with the historic faiths of the West in our time. Now one of the leading literary magazines published in the English language, it is read all over the world—and it forms the nexus of a warm and lively community.
1. Monsieur Vincent (1947), Maurice Cloche
Soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other social organs of coordinated charity are necessary expressions of mercy in an enlightened society today — a social advance linked directly to the visionary achievements of the 17th-century priest and philanthropic social reformer St. Vincent de Paul, played by Pierre Fresnay in Cloche’s luminous film, which won a special Academy Award in 1949. From his unwanted ministrations in an impoverished village gripped by fear of plague to his advocacy on behalf of convicts sentenced to grueling galley slave labor, the film highlights Vincent’s challenge to his world to a higher standard of mercy while persuasively cataloging various reasons most of us, now as then, fail to respond mercifully to poverty, sickness, or any kind of suffering: fear, fatalism, limited perspective, self-absorption, tribalisms of various kinds, and so on.
—Steven D. Greydanus
2. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), William A. Wellman
The Ox-Bow Incident is a movie about mercy refused. The citizens of Ox-Bow are hardened men and women, reacting in fear against an outside terror that binds them together into an unthinking mass and blinds them to the real humanity of their victims. Yet throughout the film there are glimpses of a more excellent way, such as the example of Sparks (Leigh Whipper), an African American man who has seen this kind of violence before and steps forward to offer comfort, if not salvation, to the victims of the mob. The film ends with Gil (an excellent Henry Fonda) reading the letter of one of the victims. That letter summarizes the themes of mercy found at the heart of The Ox-Bow Incident: “There can't be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody's conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?”
—Nathanael T. Booth
3. Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Robert Bresson
“Make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.” The cinema of Robert Bresson is difficult to crystallize, but the great director himself came close with these words. The rhythm of a Bresson film has one purpose—to uncover, layer by layer, the effervescent connections between moments; the invisible fabric of life made visible through patient observation. No wonder, then, that his first masterpiece should be adapted from Georges Bernanos’ tale of a hidden, heartbroken village priest suffering in secret for the callous souls in his charge. Training an unerring eye and ear on the plain world of a plain priest—a life steeped in the unspectacular exercise of mercy—Bresson translates the loving gaze of the Father to his camera. The deeply broken humans surrounding our curé are realized with an empathetic frankness, none more so than the tortured Countess whose reconciliation provides the film’s most stunningly realized sequence. Out of this rhythm arises a polyphony of compassion, suffusing every moment of Diary with that generosity which Bazin saw as the cinema’s salient virtue—the love that binds all.
4. Happy Together (1997), Wong Kar-wai
Wong Kar Wai has observed that critics tend to read the title of this movie ironically, but that for him there is no irony. No irony in the title, perhaps, but Happy Together is deeply concerned with the fundamental irony that mercy all too often can tip over into its opposite. When Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) is beaten, his estranged lover Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) nurses him back to health, bathing him, letting him sleep on the bed, feeding him. These acts of mercy are, at first, disinterested; the two men are no longer lovers, and Lai Yiu-fai has no desire to rekindle the relationship. However, Lai Yiu-fai becomes deeply embroiled in the relationship and mercy and selfishness begin to blend into each other. In spite of this irony, the two men find mercy in precisely the fleeting moments of happiness referred to in the title.
—Nathanael T. Booth
5. Les Misérables (1935), Richard Boleslawski
Influenced by Dreyer, Boleslawski's cinematic version of Victor Hugo’s classic possesses both whole-hearted sincerity and unabashed Christianity. The lost life of the justifiably bitter and disillusioned Jean Valjean (Frederic March) is transformed by the mercy offered him by Bishop Myriel (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). Meanwhile, Javert (a memorably internally conflicted Charles Laughton) is a courageous, principled police inspector committed to the uncompromising pursuit of law and order in a world torn apart by revolution. In this atmospheric gem of a film, the wide-reaching consequences of the repeated confrontations between mercy and justice, personified by these two characters, are set in the midst of the black and white luminosity, long dark shadows and beautiful imagery of Citizen Kane’s cinematographer, Gregg Toland.
6. Of Gods and Men (2010), Xavier Beauvois
Xavier Beauvois’s 2010 film Des homes et des dieux recounts the assassination of seven Trappist monks living in a Tibhirine monastery during the 1996 Algerian Civil War. Until then, this small band of Christian brothers had lived peacefully with their Muslim neighbors, providing medical care and assistance. The film beautifully renders the quiet rhythm of their devotion; prayers, hymns, and silences woven daily around their small acts of care for local villagers. But when the threat of violence from Islamic fundamentalists looms, the monks debate the cost of staying. Their hymns and conversations become conflicted as they weigh the balance of their lives against the call to love and fidelity.
Through these meditations, confessions of fear, and a final loaf of bread broken together as Tchaikovksy’s Swan Lake fills the room, we see the Christian gospel materialize. The ancient narrative of Jesus’ love for his enemies comes to life. The inevitable peril is received as an opportunity to bear witness to the miracle of peace even if it seems a lost cause. And in this exquisite film, we learn that while the scope of mercy is often small, its cost is often immeasurably great.
7. The Elephant Man (1980), David Lynch
The Elephant Man dramatizes the true story of Joseph Merrick, named John in the film, a man suffering from a to-this-day undiagnosed combination of shocking physical deformities. Lynch’s film, his second feature following Eraserhead, tells of Merrick’s (John Hurt) discovery in a freak show by Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) and Treves’s attempts to give the long-suffering Merrick a better life. Merrick’s story is possibly Lynch’s most straightforward and sentimental film, though the lovely black and white cinematography and surrealistic beginning and ending sequences featuring Merrick’s mother are typically Lynchian. It would be easy to attribute the role of mercy in the film to Treves’ consideration of the unfortunate Merrick, but mercy is significantly found in the actions of Merrick himself: in his love and his insistence on his own dignity among his fellow human beings despite his poor treatment at their hands. Merrick demonstrates mercy for the condition of a humanity that was not reciprocated, even unto his own death.
8. Frisco Jenny (1932), William A. Wellman
Released in 1932, two years before Hollywood studios began enforcing the restrictive guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code, William A. Wellman's Frisco Jenny remains shockingly modern in 2016. Ruth Chatterton stars in the title role, as a good-hearted gal turned madam and bootlegger who is fiercely unrepentant of the choices she's made. That is, until the final moments of the film, when she's transformed, miraculously, into a cinematic saint on par with Dreyer's Joan and Bresson's country priest.
9. The Son (2002), Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
The Dardenne brothers craft cinematic parables that evoke an ethical imagination within the viewer through subverting expectations. At first glance, The Son may feel like a typical revenge thriller as a carpenter (Olivier Gourmet) takes a young man as an apprentice with the knowledge that this troubled boy is the murderer of his son. But while images of saws and tools intimate violence and a tense third-act journey to an isolated lumberyard seems to set up an act of revenge, the Dardennes continually resist convention for the sake of mystery and mercy. The film opens in media res, the camera frantically following Olivier as we wonder where this man is headed. Olivier’s enigmatic decisions keep the audience guessing, the tension building as the carpenter and the young man grow closer, and the final scenes offer a catharsis that feels at-once earned and inexplicable. At one point, Olivier’s estranged wife tearfully asks him why he would take the killer of their son under his wing. “I don’t know,” is all he can say. We don’t know either. Sometimes—perhaps every time—acts of mercy confound our human expectations and tendencies, but we are always moved when we see them.
10. A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Jack Conway & Robert Z. Leonard
Ronald Colman’s Sydney Carton is an alcoholic barrister who, despite his natural intelligence and legal talent, has allowed his personal life to empty of both love and meaning. Then, despite his dissolute and failed lifestyle, he is offered only the mercy of mere friendship by Miss Manette. The direct result of this, despite all his other dreams having been crushed, is that history suddenly gives Carton the opportunity to perform one of the most famous acts of self-sacrificial mercy in all of literature. Fatally ensnared by revolutionary cruelty, showing mercy can also be an act of heroism, and this act enables Carton to offer strength and comfort to those around him up to the film’s last closing moments.
11. Scrooge (1951), Brian Desmond Hurst
Brian Desmond Hurst’s adaptation of Charles Dicken’s classic Christmas story not only makes claim to being the best film version of the much adapted story, but a significant film about mercy bestowed upon a wayward soul. On Christmas Eve, the miserly and miserable Ebenezer Scrooge—played here by the inimitable Alastair Sim—is visited by four spirits: his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Their effort to get Scrooge to change his selfish ways takes him on a cinematic journey into his own past, present, and future. In what transpires, Scrooge develops a heart of mercy, not only for the poor and downtrodden of the world, but for himself as well.
12. The Kid (1921), Charlie Chaplin
The Kid gives particularly charming expression to the compassionate humanism that runs throughout Chaplin’s cinema. The Kid was Chaplin’s first full-length feature film as director, and if it lacks the finesse of Chaplin’s subsequent films, it makes up for that in heart. Chaplin’s immense talent for physical performance is on full display as he imbues a series of hysterical comedy set-pieces with pathos. In The Kid, Chaplin’s most iconic character, the Tramp, becomes a surrogate father to an abandoned child. The challenges they endure together are both hilarious and moving, a vision of charity given from one outcast to another.
13. The Kid with a Bike (2011), Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Cyril is an angry young man, and rightfully so. Whether due to his circumstances of part of his nature, Cyril has a rambunctious and defiant spirit. Having been abandoned by his father to the local orphanage, he is constantly on the run in a search for belonging, causing him to collide with Samantha, a warmhearted hairdresser who compassionately takes Cyril into her home. Cyril’s habits of fleeing or fighting don’t magically disappear with this newfound relationship with Samantha. He injures her, both emotionally and physically. Why does she continue to extend grace to this defiant young man? Why does she even bother to let him into her life and her heart? Cyril openly demands these questions from her, and she can offer only a quiet shrug: she doesn’t know. We are not given clear reasons for her grace; we only know that grace is. The Kid with a Bike is The 400 Blows meets Bicycle Thieves meets the mercy of God. As Cyril rushes through the city on his bike, his vermillion shirt waving in the wind as his fierce eyes scan the horizon, I am seeing a picture of the prodigal son searching for his home.
14. City Lights (1931), Charlie Chaplin
City Lights, arguably Chaplin’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker and film star, depicts a romance between his famed Tramp character and a blind flower girl. As always, Chaplin’s social consciousness shines through the picture; the film’s comic set-pieces focus on the Tramp’s misadventures with an alcoholic millionaire, who repeatedly flips from intoxicated generosity to sober cruelty in a hilarious depiction of the fickle attitudes of the wealthy toward the unfortunate. The film’s heart-wrenching finale mingles the bitterness of sacrifice with the rewards of generosity in a breathtakingly powerful sequence of simple images.
15. Joyeux Noël (2005), Christian Carion
In December 1914, an unofficial truce occurred in the trenches of World War I between German, French, and Scottish soldiers. A German soldier who was present for the truce writes these words in his journal: “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines…something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac, and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits, and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over.” Friendship, mercy, camaraderie, and joy—these are certainly “fantastically unmilitary” postures. Joyeux Noël offers a brief glimpse into a kingdom economy where swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and soldiers will not need to train for war anymore.
16. Love & Mercy (2014), Bill Pohlad
Love & Mercy stands out among biopics for its unusual approach in portraying the life of its subject, Brian Wilson. Effortlessly jumping back and forth between Wilson’s tortured youth in the midst of musical triumphs (a brilliant Paul Dano) and his later years of abusive treatment under the guise of mental illness (a great John Cusack), the film highlights the pain of an artist reaching out through his music to anyone who will listen. The person who hears him through all his pain and awkwardness is Cadillac saleswomen Melinda Ledbetter (a great Elizabeth Banks), who embodies not only physical acts of mercy in her dealings with Brian, but also provides an unexpected second chance for him to rebuild his life, reminiscent of the spiritual mercy offered to us all by God.
17. Munyurangabo (2007), Lee Isaac Chung
In one long shot from Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo, we watch a family raise their picks and strike at the hard, dusty ground again and again. It may as well be a picture of what must happen to hardened hearts across Rwanda, which—as this intimate drama about two boys reveals—is still divided by hate-fueled grudges over all-too-recent genocide. As these boys, their histories divided by the war between Hutus and Tutsis, walk together through regions of damage and resentment, we begin to realize that one of them has vengeful intentions, and Rwanda’s future seems to hang in the balance.
18. The Phantom Carriage (1921), Victor Sjöström
In The Phantom Carriage, director Victor Sjöström plays David Holm, a heartless unrepentant rascal who receives two summons one New Year’s midnight. The first is from a dying nun who showed him the most undeserved act of mercy he ever received; the second is from the phantom who drives Death’s titular carriage. As the film shows flashbacks of Holm’s wasted life, the alternation between red-orange and blue tinting sets up a dichotomy between warmth and cold, life and death, damnation and mercy, that permeates the film. The mix of fantasy and morality tale plays out as incredibly as the special effects of the wispy transparent spectres, which float over the screen like the fleeting intangible offers of mercy and redemption.
19. Tsotsi (2005), Gavin Hood
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Hood’s adaptation of the brutal South African crime novel Tsotsi by eminent South African novelist and playwright Athol Fugard (who also wrote the film’s screenplay) is about a seemingly soulless young thug (Presley Chweneyagae) whose predatory lifestyle is upended by an unexpected intruder—a helpless baby—who awakens in him an all-but-extinguished spark of compassion. How Tsotsi responds to this empathic link is often as horrifying as it is humanizing, yet the film walks a razor’s edge between hope and despair right to the end. With a final image of transcendent rightness, the film offers an ending we may dare to hope is also a beginning.
—Steven D. Greydanus
20. The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), William Dieterle
Adapted from a short story by Stephen Vincent Benét, William Dieterle's film, starring Edward Arnold as the titular statesman and Walter Huston as his diabolical opponent Mr. Scratch, creates additional backstory for farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) and his relationship with Daniel Webster before Stone is corrupted by selling his soul to the devil for seven years of success and abundance. This backstory depicts a fall from grace, making Stone a thoroughly unsympathetic character as he learns, “all that money can buy,” (the film's initial title). More notably, the backstory highlights the abundant mercy of Webster's offer to defend Stone against the devil, suggesting there is hope and mercy to be found in the face of spiritual and physical death, a hope which Webster manifests, even to the damned.
21. Hadewijch (2009), Bruno Dumont
The childlike Céline/Hadewijch (Julie Sokolowski) believes herself to be undeserving of God's grace and mercy. Yet she still seeks God and she does so with a passion and an intensity that alarms and disturbs her fellow believers. Unlike others, she is hyper-sensitive to the beauty of God in the world around her. But this sensitivity doesn’t make her any less vulnerable and her faith still needs guidance. The innocent ease with which she suddenly finds that guidance within the darkness of manipulative religious fanaticism ought to give us pause. And while director Bruno Dumont does not offer easy answers, he makes the seeking of divine presence, righteousness and mercy believably compelling, and then he gives the film a mysterious finale that hints at how God might, just possibly, still offer us mercy within the real-life corruptible particulars with which we are given.
22. Pieces of April (2003), Peter Hedges
Sometimes an act of mercy is also a leap of faith, or at least of hope. Writer-director Hedges’ dysfunctional-family comedy-melodrama is about the risk we take offering a second chance when it isn’t the second, third, or even fourth. Oliver Platt and Patricia Clarkson play the longsuffering suburban parents of troubled April (Katie Holmes), whose offer to host her family for Thanksgiving at her Manhattan apartment is a half-baked bid for redemption. So much hangs on this reunion—yet the odds of disaster are great. The powerful upshot: try again anyway.
—Steven D. Greydanus
23. Spirited Away (2001), Hayao Miyazaki
There is no resolving the debate over which of beloved animator Hayao Miyazaki’s masterworks is his greatest, but Spirited Away is a popular choice—and it’s not just about the sumptuous colors and detail. It’s also about a remarkable twist on Alice in Wonderland, in which an insecure girl comes of age by striving to rescue her foolish parents from a world of monsters. Accepting hard labor in a punishing bath house, Chihiro responds to hostile forces—including a terrifyingly violent greed monster and a sinister stalker called No Face—with an increasingly courageous spirit of compassion and mercy, instead of the usual heroic shows of destructive force.
24. The Island (2006), Pavel Lungin
This film’s Anatoly is a priest who lives among a remote monastic community as prophet and provocateur. Director Pavel Lungin’s story about him is of course a film, but it seems to be of a piece with the great Russian literary tradition. Anatoly's actions toward the other monks are like those of a wily prankster, yet it is possible to view these affronts as a holy fool’s acts of mercy—exposing the monks' hypocrisy in order to heal it. Perhaps we are to see Anatoly’s actions as reflections of God’s mercy shouting to a world in which, as Paul Simon wrote, “no one dared disturb the sound of silence.” Yet the humanity of Anatoly comes into deep focus through the ways he himself receives mercy—at the film’s beginning being granted a mocking copy of mercy, then at the end a mercy that is genuine and flows from love. This is a film whose berth is wide enough to contain both the mysteries and the certainties of mercy.
25. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Hayao Miyazaki
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is the second animated film by famed director Hayao Miyazaki based on his own Manga series. The film’s success was an influential part of the launch of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation film studio that has for the last thirty years continued to push the boundaries of what an animated film can be and produced the first anime to win an Academy Award. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is the story of a young girl, the titular Nausicaä, in a post-apocalyptic world where the earth has been poisoned by Giant Warriors (an obvious metaphor for nuclear holocaust) long ago and her efforts to protect her village from both giant insects who inhabit an expanding poisoned forest and warring human kingdoms who desire to use their valley as a battle ground. Despite the diverse cast of characters and wholly original world in which it is set, the film manages to flesh out the story and characters with astounding depth and affection. As the film progresses, Nausicaä becomes empowered to make a world-altering act of mercy through smaller acts of mercy bestowed upon her. But this climactic act of mercy is also contrasted throughout the film by showing the consequences of living in a world created by a lack of mercy (and certain characters that do not value it). More than thirty years after its release, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is as important and relevant as ever.
—Darryl A. Armstrong
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