Human dignity is an idea which is hard to pin down. If you try to define it, it melts away. It’s best conveyed through stories. That’s why we present here some nominations for great films about human dignity. These are a few which have impressed me. Surely you will have others. We’d like your comments. Hopefully we can incorporate them into future instalments!

Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City)
Directed by Robert Rossellini | 1945 | 105 minutes

Rossellini began filming this neorealist classic in 1944, only two months after the Germans had evacuated Rome. It has a grainy documentary look and a gritty feel of truthfulness. The acting is simply magnificent. Aldo Fabrizi plays a nationalist priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini, who helps the resistance as well as tending his flock. Anna Magnani is wonderfully humane as Pina, the wife-to-be of a member of the resistance, who is senselessly shot down in the street. There’s not much moral ambiguity here — the good are noble and self-sacrificing, the bad are treacherous and cruel. But that’s understandable in a film produced in such circumstances. In the end, nearly everyone dies, but what remains is a stirring sense that life is worthwhile.

It’s a Wonderful Life
Directed by Frank Capra | 1946 | 130 minutes

This used to be a Christmas staple on American television and has been called the most inspirational American film of all time. It is probably the best of Frank Capra, although nearly everything he did was a minor or major classic. Jimmy Stewart is wonderful as George Bailey, a banker in the small town of Bedford Falls who is about to jump off a bridge in despair on Christmas Eve. He is saved by his rather bumbling guardian angel Clarence whose mission is to show him that life is worthwhile. Clarence shows him what life in Bedford Falls would have been without him for his family and friends. My favourite is the fate of his wife, Donna Reed. Instead of becoming the loving mother of four adorable children, she is doomed to become a librarian. Bailey sees that his life has made a difference and that people love him. Oddly enough, It’s a Wonderful Life was a flop at the box-office, but has become a Hollywood touchstone for wholesomeness and optimism.

High Noon
Directed by Fred Zinneman | 1952 | 85 minutes

Why can’t they make 85-minute classics any more? Starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, High Noon is a masterpiece of compression and suspense which covers 85 minutes of action in 85 minutes of screen time. Sheriff Will Kane has just married a Quaker pacificist, and is about to retire, leave town and become a shopkeeper. But then he learns that outlaws are coming on the noon train to kill him. When he looks for help, all his friends desert him. He has to choose between skedaddling or defending a town too cowardly to help itself. The film is often interpreted as a parable for the era of McCarthyism and John Wayne reportedly called it “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life”. But you needn’t know a scrap about American politics to recognise that this as a wonderful portrait of integrity under stress.

La Strada
Directed by Federico Fellini | 1954 | 104 minutes | Italian, English subtitles

Poignant melancholy rather than good cheer marks this Italian neorealist gem, which won the first Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1956. The brutish Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) scrapes out a living by travelling from village to village and breaking chains. He buys a simple young woman to help him. Gelsomina (played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina) is a delicate, bird-like girl whose innocent joy is gradually broken by Zampanò’s brutality. Finally he abandons her at the side of the road. Years later, he passes by again and learns that she has died. In the final scene, you see him weeping on a beach, full of remorse. A haunting film and an existentialist’s delight.

A Man for All Seasons
Directed by Fred Zinnemann | 1966 | 120 minutes

This classic about the ultimate man of conscience, Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, won six Oscars. It is an adaptation of a play by Robert Bolt which uses much of More’s own words, so the dialogue, unlike most cinema, is scintillating. The story is too well known to rehearse, so I’ll focus on the acting. Paul Scofield, one of the greatest actors of the last century, is unsurpassable as the witty, wise, manly and saintly More. One exchange sums up the greatness of the man. The Duke of Norfolk asks him, “Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?” To which More responds, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?” Splendid period drama.

Dersu Uzala
Directed by Akira Kurosawa | 1975 | 141 minutes | Russian, English subtitles

Any film by Kurosawa is a homage to humanity, but this unusual Japanese-Russian co-production is brilliantly successful. Based on the true story of friendship between a Russian surveyor, Captain Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) in 1902 and an indigenous hunter from the Goldi people named Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munzuk), the film is also an elegy to vanishing wilderness. Dersu acts as a guide for Arseniev and his troops as they tramp through the harsh forests of Siberia. He saves the captain’s life a couple of times and a warm friendship grows between them. There is not a lot of plot, just a few vivid incidents, but the characterisation and cinematography are outstanding. The film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1975.

Das Boot (The Boat)
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen | 1981 | 150 minutes | German, English subtitles

This drama about a World War II U-boat launched director Wolfgang Petersen into Hollywood. He spared no expense in recreating the claustrophic world of a submarine. The plot is simple: a non-political U-boat captain cruises around the North Atlantic looking for ships to torpedo. He sinks a couple, but he also has to endure the torment of depth charges. When he returns to his base at La Rochelle, he is given a new assignment — to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar. They are nearly sunk by the British but limp back to base, just in time to be bombed and sunk in the harbour. From one point of view, Das Boot is a standard anti-war film highlighting the futility of war. But it also tries to show the humanity of the German sailors, their dedication to their work, and their loyalty to each other. Note: under no circumstances should you watch the endless “director’s cut”.

Gandhi
Directed by Richard Attenborough | 1982 | 188 minutes

An epic in every sense, Gandhi attempts to relate nearly all of the great man’s life. It opens with his funeral, with people stretching as far as the eye can see. Attenborough found 300,000 extras — a world record, for that scene. The film may have skipped over some of Gandhi’s failing and foibles, but his nobility, courage and generosity in his struggle for Indian independence cannot be questioned. Ben Kingsley deserved his Oscar (the film won eight in all). Mesmerising.

Eleni
Directed by Peter Yates | 1985| 114 minutes

In the days before John Malkovich became seriously weird, he starred in this simple film about an incident in the vicious, but little-known Greek civil war in 1948. Based on the true story of a New York Times journalist Nicholas Gage, it relates his quest to learn how his mother Eleni (Kate Nelligan) died. It turns out that her mountain village was taken by Communists. When she attempted to smuggle her children out of the country rather than allow them to become Communist guerillas, she is summarily executed. Her last words are: “my children!”. Using all his skill as an investigative reporter, the hate-filled Gage tracks down the now-aged Communist commandant in order to kill him. This is very competent film, rather than a great one, but its message of a mother’s fierce love for her children is hard to forget.

To Live (活着)
Directed by Zhang Yimou | 1994 | 125 minutes | Mandarin, English subtitles

A deep and tender love for family is the strongest message of To Live, a Chinese epic about a couple who survive the most turbulent years of 20th century China. Xu Fugui (Ge You) is the spoiled son of a rich man in the early 1940s. A gambler, he loses everything, including his father’s home, and ends up on the street with his wife (a brilliant Gong Li) and child. But misfortune makes a man of him and he turns his hand to puppetry or whatever will support his family. His poverty becomes an advantage when the Communists take over and shoot bourgeois land-owners. Life gets harder under the insane policies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but the family stays together. To Live was banned in China for a couple of years because of Zhang Yimou’s depiction of sensitive political topics. A masterpiece. 

Smoke
Directed by Wayne Wang | 1995 | 112 minutes

This low-budget independent film didn’t make a lot of waves, but it must be one of the most touching interpretations of reconciliation that I have ever seen. The centre of the intersecting stories is a tobacco shop in Brooklyn run by Auggie (Harvey Keitel). A broken novelist (John Hurt) enters regularly to stock up on cigars. They talk, tell each other stories. People enter their lives unexpectedly; the past returns to haunt them. In the end, they find love, or at least contentment. Warning: lots of smoking, if you find that offensive, and some of the richest swearing I have ever heard on a girl’s lips. A very touching film.

Letters from Iwo Jima (硫黄島からの手紙)
Directed by Clint Eastwood | 2006 | Japanese, with English subtitles

This is an unusual movie. Filmed in the US, with an American director, all of the actors are Japanese. It tells the story of the battle of Iwo Jima from the defenders’ point of view. Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi is a talented officer who knows that his mission to hold the tiny island against the US Navy and Marines is doomed. But he heroically does his best. The focus of the narrative, however, is on Private Saigo, a baker conscript, who dreams of being reunited to his family, but fights on to the last bullet. The bushido code of death before dishonour is inhuman, but Clint Eastwood shows that the Japanese soldiers, in their own way, were courageous and noble in their patriotic zeal.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.