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When movies gained the power of speech, thanks to the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, a universal language was lost in the process. In the midst of today’s busy, talky culture, a great silent film can feel like a transmission from another plane of existence, transporting us to what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn referred to as “a realm beyond words.”
Unfortunately, the overwhelming amount of new content swirling around us can make hunting for these rare experiences a challenge. Here are a handful of time-tested gems (listed in chronological order) that communicate deep spiritual truths in a vital way, and some suggestions for where to find them.
Landmark - Commentary - Hypocrites - Aim - Pieties
An early landmark of cinematic social commentary, Hypocrites takes aim at the false pieties of an affluent, urban church congregation. It was an instant blockbuster and catapulted its director, Lois Weber, to fame and fortune. Weber’s bold visual choices—one character appears literally as the Naked Truth—galvanized audiences at the time, garnering widespread acclaim on one hand while inciting calls for censorship on the other. More than a century later, it survives as a compelling celluloid sermon. Available as a standalone DVD from Kino Lorber; there is also a fine HD transfer from KL’s recent box set Pioneers: Early Women Filmmakers.
Frank Borzage, a Catholic and practicing Freemason, won the first Oscar for best director for this primal melodrama about a Parisian sewer worker (Charles Farrell) who marries a pitiful waif (Janet Gaynor, pictured above) in order to save her from prison. They retire to the paradisiacal attic of a tall building (the “seventh heaven” of the title), and their love for each other begins to grow. The intense, Dantean romantic gestures, the haloes of light that form around the couple, and the barefaced supernaturalism of the ending all point toward a divine presence permeating the natural...
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