Beliefnet’s Oscars

The winners of the 2008 Beliefnet Film Awards were announced this week. I couldn’t help feeling bemused at the list of nominees, which seem more than a little random. In each of the three categories—Best Spiritual Film, Best Spiritual Performance, and Best Spiritual Documentary—there are some puzzling choices, and some even more puzzling omissions.

Take the Best Spiritual Performance category. The judges picked Emile Hirsch for Into the Wild, which is a pretty sensible choice, though his character’s spiritual quest ends in tragedy. But the People’s Choice winner was Will Smith for his role in I Am Legend. Beliefnet judge Todd Havens writes in his “case against”:

The arc of his character is, to me, as spiritually redemptive as the Marquis de Sade writing a children’s book on his deathbed.

That may be a bit hyperbolic, but I didn’t see much spirituality in Smith’s atheistic survivalist. One gets the sense that this film won the People’s Award in this category not because of its intrinsic spirituality, but simply because more voters had seen I Am Legend than Into the Wild.

There are fewer obvious puzzlers in the Best Spiritual Film category, but there are some glaring omissions. Juno and Atonement made the list, but where are There Will Be Blood and Danny Boyle’s mystical science-fiction film Sunshine (which, for the record, would have gotten my vote)? There are five nominees arranged in each category, split into two rows. The empty space at the end feels like a placeholder for the movie you want to vote for.

In their defense, Beliefnet’s panel of judges have written pro-and-con arguments for each entry. But in several cases, the “con” argument comes down to “What makes this ‘spiritual,’ anyway?” The fact is that you can make a case for the spiritual message of any movie, especially when it comes to documentaries, which always have a moral message even if their subjects are purely secular. (Last year, the judges picked An Inconvenient Truth.)

And that’s the real problem here. “Spiritual” means something different to every person, which, when it comes to awards, doesn’t look too different from meaning nothing at all. It’s great that Beliefnet wants to reward films that explore moral and religious questions with depth and intelligence. But for the award to mean anything, they need to apply a more rigorous, less subjective standard for nomination. Otherwise, their readers and voters will be left scratching their heads and wondering what it all means—not the most rewarding kind of spiritual inquiry.