Films for the Year of Mercy

“Perhaps the most important thing a movie can do,” Roger Ebert once wrote, is to “take us outside our personal box of time and space, and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects.”

“I believe,” he added, that “empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.”

Empathy is, indeed, foundational not only to civilization, but to any sort of community or society, to any knowledge of others, and even — according to Saint Edith Stein, whose doctoral dissertation was on empathy — to true knowledge of oneself.

Empathy is not identical to mercy, but the two are fundamentally linked (a reality noted more than once by Pope Francis during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, now about half over.)

Empathy alone will not make us merciful, but we cannot be merciful without empathy. Without that habit of stepping outside our own personal box of time and space and putting ourselves imaginatively in the place of others, including those whose lives and experiences are very different from our own, we will not respond with mercy to their needs or weakness.

If movies can invite us to empathy, they can also invite us to mercy. Of course some movies do the opposite, just as some movies, far from promoting empathy, reinforce tribalisms and prejudices of all kinds. Among the most enduring Hollywood genres, after all, is the revenge story, which is the antithesis of mercy.

Which brings me to the newly released Arts & Faith Top 25 Films on Mercy.

Each year the diverse community of film lovers and film writers at Arts & Faith — of which I am a longtime participant and voting member — releases a new Top 25 list with a unique theme. Past topics include memory, marriage, comedy, horror, and road films. Continue reading

  • Steven D. Greydanus has been writing about film since 2000. He is the creator of, and his work appears in the National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, and the New Catholic Encyclopedia.
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