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.

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 is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.