Top 5: Movies of Empathy

August 5, 2022

The great critic Roger Ebert once described the medium of film as a “machine that generates empathy.”  There are few avenues of art as powerful as movies, I believe, in making us try to feel what someone else feels. They at least seem, pace Ebert, to simulate the emotions and lived experiences of others.

The following films are striking examples of movies that try to make us feel what someone else feels, including those who could not ever tell their stories. Have you ever, for example had Alzheimer’s? Have you ever lost your hearing permanently? Since most of us would say “no” to these questions, we might have a difficult time understanding the situation of someone completely unlike us. 

These movies try to give us the experience of being like that other someone so powerfully that we feel that we have had their experience.

The Elephant Man (1980)

This remarkable movie by director David Lynch is the first film that came to mind as I compiled this list. Here we see, in beautifully stark black-and-white, the story of John Merrick, based on the real-life case of Joseph Merrick in late 19th-century London. Merrick had a number of deformities that led him to be a social outcast. Found in a “freak show,” Merrick is adopted into a circle of British scientists, befriended by one of them as played by Anthony Hopkins. Merrick’s Christianity peeps through the film, as we steadily find out what’s inside him, learning to look past what we see on the exterior. This is a classic “monster-with-a-good-heart” tale, and it’s certainly a great film for anyone older than age 10. The black-and-white cinematography also gives the movie a timeless look.

The Father (2020)

First-time director Florian Zeller adapted his theatrical play for the big-screen, casting Anthony Hopkins (his second appearance in this list already!) in the role of an elderly English father who is experiencing some kind of dementia or Alzheimer’s. He cannot tell who exactly he is talking to, who his daughter is, or even where he is. What this movie does extraordinarily is simulate what it would be like to have dementia. Because of the way it’s shot and the choices it makes, you will end up feeling like the main character: very confused, isolated, and frustrated. In the case of most movies, that’s not what moviemakers want audiences to feel. Here, though, you are supposed to feel what it’s like to be the main character, and it works brilliantly.

Sound of Metal (2019)

A rock drummer loses his hearing suddenly, and has to deal with a hard question: should he live with being mostly deaf, or should he get cochlear implants? While this film seems to be the difficulties in losing hearing—and it simulates that for us quite well—it’s really about a problem we can all relate to. The main character cannot sit in silence. Always fidgeting and needing noise to function, his new deafness irritates him to no end. I cannot recommend this movie enough to everybody reading this, if only for the experience of hearing what the world sounds like to those who have hearing difficulties.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

One of the best movies in the last several years is this unique film about urban gentrification. Here Jimmie Falls, a young black man, pines for an old Victorian house in San Francisco, where he grew up. The house is beautiful but priced in the millions; far too expensive for Jimmie or anybody else he knows to buy. So, when Jimmie has a chance to squat in it after the owners vacate it, he takes advantage of the opportunity to live in the house he believes belongs to his family.  This is a poetic film of much insight and depth, telling the story of those displaced in unaffordable, affluent American cities.

El Norte (1983)

Nearly forty years old, El Norte describes the complexities of American immigration across the Southern border as well as anything made since. The film follows a Guatemalan brother and sister, as they are forced out of their homeland to go to the “magical land of the North,” El Norte, which is the United States. Structured in three parts, El Norte shows us Guatemala, Mexico, and the U.S. as the immigrants and the land both change during their journey. I find that this movie takes sides with no one; it may be viewed as praising or condemning the American dream, and it may be in favor of simple rural living or the fast-paced technological world of the late 20th century America. Or neither.

Dig Deeper

If you’d like to check out more movie reviews, follow Josh Matthew’s work here or on his youtube channel.

About the Author
  • Josh Matthews has taught a variety of courses at Dordt, including early American literature, science fiction, and introduction to film as art. He specializes in early and nineteenth-century American literature, and he has published on the reception of Dante and the Divine Comedy in nineteenth-century America. His American Literature I class features research into the magazines and newspapers of nineteenth-century print culture, using the American Antiquarian Society's periodical database; this unique resource allows students to conduct original research on the intersections between American history, literature, and culture. His interests include Dante, Walt Whitman, and science-fiction writers Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick. Matthews has supervised Kuyper Scholars contracts on Mark Twain and David Fincher. He edits the book reviews for Pro Rege, Dordt University's journal of reformed studies, and he has also helped edit the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and the Walt Whitman Archive.

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