Six Films Ignatius Might’ve Loved: Why These Movies Help in Discernment

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Compelling films hinge on compelling choices. “How the protagonist chooses … gives us the most penetrating view of his deep character, the ultimate expression of his humanity,” Robert McKee argues in “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting,” long considered a sacred text of the trade. The stakes of this choice might be as huge as deciding the fate of the planet or as intimate as deciding whether or not to stay in a marriage.

What’s essential, McKee says, is that the choice must be a true dilemma: “A choice between irreconcilable goods, the lesser of two evils, or the two at once that places the protagonist under the maximum pressure of his life.” The decision a character makes in those moments are what linger with us after the credits roll, that inspire endless rewatches or debates with our friends.

St. Ignatius of Loyola never wrote a screenplay (unless he was much more prophetic than we’re giving him credit for) but he was also concerned with decision-making. His rules for discernment, which appear in the Spiritual Exercises, are meant to help us navigate the real-life equivalents of McKee’s “true dilemmas,” specifically a choice between two seemingly equal goods. 

Ignatius’ advice is direct and practical, and I often turn to it when making a difficult decision. But sometimes what helps me most is reflecting on someone else’s story of discernment. This allows me to get out of my own head and pay more attention to the movements of my heart. As characters wrestle to resolve their dilemmas, I gain insight into my own.

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The list that follows aren’t the only movies about discernment, or even necessarily the best. But I offer them to you in the hopes that they’ll help you as they’ve helped me (or, at the very least, aid your discernment about what to watch at your next movie night).

“Love & Basketball” (2000)

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s insanely confident debut feature is about what happens when who and what your heart wants are at odds. Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) are childhood-friends-turned-sweethearts. They are also both talented basketball players with pro ball dreams and fierce competitive streaks. Over the course of a decade, they wrestle with how to balance relationships and success. Is it necessary to sacrifice one in order to commit to the other?

“Love & Basketball”is about two people learning to listen to the movements of their hearts, sifting through layers of ego and expectation to discover their deepest desires. The answers they arrive at are more complicated than the dreams they have at the start, but they’re also truer and sweeter (and make sure you stick around for a very cute post-credits scene). Now streaming on Fubo and Showtime.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018)

Spiritual directors sometimes recommend spending time imagining the different outcomes of a decision — “living” alternate realities to see which one inspires more consolation and closeness to God. In “Into the Spider-Verse,” Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) — a Brooklyn teen who has recently become the superhero Spider-Man — doesn’t have to imagine. When an accident tears a hole in reality, alternate Spider-Men (and Women) show up at his door. They include the confident Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), the jaded but good-hearted Peter (Jake Johnson) and others.

Young and inexperienced, Miles looks to them to learn how to be Spider-Man. And while they certainly help, what Miles ultimately discovers is that he needs to embrace a way of being a hero that’s authentic to him. That’s what we all have to do: Even if a million other people are called to your same vocation, no one will — or can — live it quite the way you can. There’s a running gag of the various arachnid-themed heroes introducing themselves as “the one and only Spider-Man.” But it’s also true: anyone can wear the mask, and every hero puts their own unique spin (sorry) on it. Now streaming on Fubo and FXNOW.

“Pleasantville” (1998)

One of the great American myths is that the 1950s were a simpler, more innocent time, when everyone knew exactly who they were and were content in the roles society offered them. That’s the fantasy offered by “Pleasantville,” an old sitcom that modern day teenager David (Tobey Maguire) watches to escape his disappointing life. But when he and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are transported into the black-and-white world of the show by a magical remote, the myth starts to unravel.

Real human beings are creatures of desire — sexual, yes, but also the desire for knowledge, for purpose, for creation, for freedom. David and Jennifer introduce these desires to the hermetically-sealed world of “Pleasantville,” like fruit from the forbidden tree, and light a spark that ends up transforming the community. St. Ignatius wrote that desiring the “vain honor of the world” leads to all manner of sins (he knew that temptation well from his youth).

In “Pleasantville,” the desire for perfection and certainty leads to fear and prejudice, and a rejection of the diversity that make us human. The film reminds us that we need to free ourselves from the anxieties and judgments of the world if we are going to become the people God calls us to be. Available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015)

The “Star Wars” franchise is better known for epic struggles between good and evil than discernment between two goods; you could easily imagine Yoda and Emperor Palpatine fitting into the Meditation on Two Standards. But “The Force Awakens,” the first movie in this most recent chapter of the franchise’s long history, focuses on smaller, more personal dilemmas for its heroes which nevertheless have intergalactic stakes.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) ekes out a sparse existence on the desert planet of Jakku, unwilling to leave because this was where her parents left her as an infant — what if they come back? When events force her off-world and reveal her connection with the mysterious and mystical Force, Rey has to choose: will she embrace an active role in the fight against the tyrannical First Order, or to continue searching for her lost family?

Similarly, Finn (John Boyega) is a former First Order soldier on the run from his murderous masters. He wants to disappear to safety, but also feels compelled to join the fight for liberation. Despite all of the laser swords and slobbering aliens, these are relatable dilemmas: many of us, I’m sure, often feel the tension between standing up for what’s right and wanting to preserve our own peace, job security or personal safety. Discernment helps us to navigate these competing goods and realize what fights are ultimately worth the cost. Now streaming on Disney+ and DirecTV.

“Good Will Hunting” (1997)

A world of opportunities opens up for a blue-collar math prodigy (Matt Damon) after an MIT professor learns about his brilliance. Will wrestles with the choice of pursuing lucrative job offers or staying in his modest life, with the only friends and family he’s ever known. But more than that, Will has to decide which internal voices to listen to. Through his sessions with therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), we discover that Will is hampered by old scars, sabotaging himself out of deeply-ingrained self-hatred.

The film depicts how authoritative the negative voices in our head — a function of what St. Ignatius would identify as the evil spirit — can be, making us believe that we’re not good enough, unworthy of love. Will’s sessions with Sean have much in common with the discernment of spirits, helping him to recognize the voices that lead to freedom and joy — and the ones that need to be ignored or overcome. Therapy and spiritual direction are different, of course, but there’s certainly an element of facing down his demons. Now streaming on Max and DirecTV.

“The Novice/Crossroads” (2006)

“The Novice” (later re-titled “Crossroads”) is, to my knowledge, the only Jesuit rom-com in existence. This low-key indie follows Peter (Jacob Pitts), a Jesuit novice working at a soup kitchen on the Gulf Coast. Peter is already struggling with his vocation (he has, in fact, already decided to leave, but his superior convinces him to do the soup kitchen placement first), and his discernment becomes even more complicated when he meets and falls for Jill (Amy Acker), a long-term volunteer.

The movie itself isn’t necessarily on the same level of quality as the others on this list, but it warrants inclusion for being a feature-length meditation on the process of Ignatian discernment. Peter talks with people in various walks of life, trying to figure out what resonates with his heart’s deepest desires. He receives spiritual guidance from his local superior (Alan Arkin) and novice master (Frank Langella). He puzzles over what might be signs from God (he can’t find shoes that fit, doors won’t open for him, stuff like that).

The best example comes late in the film, when Jill explains the concept of Ignatian detachment to him (without naming it as such). That’s the heart of the film, and discernment, in the end: making yourself free enough to recognize where you’re really being called. Now streaming on Peacock, Roku, and Hoopla.

The choices we make can change the course of our story. Ignatian spirituality offers us a rich tradition of prayerfully making these decisions, and choosing — through the guidance of the Spirit — what makes us more free and loving. And if you ever feel stuck in your process of discernment, try putting on one of these films. Maybe spending some time with someone else’s story will help make your own path clearer.

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