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Joel Mayward

Examples of "Cinematic Parables"?

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I have a brainstorming question for this community: I'm steadily working on my PhD thesis on the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, in which I suggest their films are "cinematic parables" via philosopher Paul Ricoeur's specific description of "parable" as narrative-metaphors with an existential referent, i.e. the story refers to something outside of itself in the real world of human existence. The story stands on its own as a story, yet it also refers to something outside of itself; Ricoeur looks for "signs of metaphoricity" which reveal the story as parable. Ricoeur makes a distinction between parable and allegory; the latter is more didactic and overt, a one-to-one correspondence in the metaphorical reference (e.g. Aslan stands for Jesus) whereas parable can have a polyvalence of interpretations. With parable, the narrative as a whole--as opposed to each individual character or plot element in allegory--refers to Something Else or illuminates that aspect of human existence. In this, parables engage the transcendent via the immanent, "religious" stories which utilize only "secular" language or images, and have a distinct realism, i.e. they're not fantasy or sci-fi or fables, but set in real-world contexts and ordinary, everyday life. These also prompt some sort of action or transformation in the audience; parables intentionally subvert expectations via indirection in both form and content, using the unexpected or a surprising/extraordinary moment to challenge commonly-held beliefs and reshape one's imagination and will. They're both invitational and confrontational; they draw you into the story, then blindside you with a lingering sense of awe and/or disequilibration. If you've seen the Dardennes' films, you can probably see how the above description applies to them.

All this to say, I'm looking for film examples which could be considered parables in the sense I'm describing above: realist narrative-metaphors which prompt some rethinking of one's moral and/or theological imagination. I'm especially struggling to find examples of Hollywood or "popular" films which fit this description. I've got plenty of examples in world cinema and indie films, especially in realist traditions (Italian neorealism, British "kitchen sink" realism, etc). But I'm wondering if parable can be "popular" too. The closest I've come up with is a qualified descriptor, i.e. a "sci-fi parable" or "parabolic superhero film" which loses that realism inherent to "true" parables. I'd distinguish parable from fantasy, magical realism, or fables (e.g. Guillermo del Toro). I think some of Chaplin's films, like The Kid or Modern Times, could be considered a parable. (I wrote about Darren Aronofsky's mother! and the genre of parable, if you're interested).

Help me brainstorm: what are some examples of cinematic parables?

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Practically everything I think of fails to meet one of your criteria. 

Some chapters of The Decalogue would qualify, but that’s not exactly popular cinema. 

The Truman Show is parable-like, but not realistic in the way I think you want.

How about Calvary? Is that popular enough? 

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17 minutes ago, SDG said:

Practically everything I think of fails to meet one of your criteria. 

Some chapters of The Decalogue would qualify, but that’s not exactly popular cinema. 

The Truman Show is parable-like, but not realistic in the way I think you want.

How about Calvary? Is that popular enough? 

Thanks! Dekalog and Calvary are on my list; I think Dekalog will play a significant role in my thesis, actually. I might classify The Truman Show as more of a satirical fable than parable. And if you think of films which aren't as "popular" that's helpful too.

25 minutes ago, Buckeye Jones said:

The Grey (the wolves are cancer)

Thanks! This is one I hadn't considered, but I think could apply, as the wolves could symbolize much more beyond cancer--mortality itself, sin/grief/regret, etc. The thing about parables, at least in the way I'm describing them, is that there's potential evidence within the boundaries of the story itself for more than one valid interpretation, even as those interpretations remain in the realm of truth, as opposed to personal judgment or preference. And these stories make us come back for more--we keep revisiting them and finding new applications or interpretations.

Presently on my list, I'm considering films from Rossellini, Bresson, Kaurismaki, Farhadi, Mungiu, Rohmer, and Koreeda, as well as Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, Anna Rose Holmer's The Fits, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, and Sean Baker's The Florida Project. Some Ingmar Bergman could apply. What doesn't *quite* fit--although I'd love to hear pushback on this--are the highly stylized formalist auteurs, e.g. Wes Anderson or David Lynch or Steven Soderbergh or Spike Lee.

Are there any documentaries that could fit the description?

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Posted this on Facebook—just thinking out loud, but a few that come to mind, but may or may not meet your definition are:
NETWORK
THE MOSQUITO COAST
Pretty much any Panahi film
Maybe BARRY LYNDON

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Based on the description you gave, I would have said mother! sounds like an allegory, not a parable.

Anyway:

A Serious Man, Fargo. I think there's a case to be made for The Big Lebowski as well.

Unforgiven.

Love & Mercy (is that not popular enough?)

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13 hours ago, Evan C said:

Based on the description you gave, I would have said mother! sounds like an allegory, not a parable.

The article I linked to is about how critics called mother! a parable when it's more allegorical, and how the Dardennes' The Unknown Girl fits the description of parable much better.

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The Adjustment Bureau

Ruby Sparks

Dogville

Certified Copy

Children of Men

Hail, Caesar!

Éric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales

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