In The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, published in 1971, Ayn Rand articulated a simple framework for classifying art.
Using literature as the primary exposition tool, Rand constructed a dichotomy which addresses the making of art in a most fundamental way—which she designated as Romanticism vs Naturalism. It does not mean that every artistic work is completely one or the other; most, in fact, are mixed. There is a spectrum, not two boxes; nevertheless, it assists us to identify the two bookends of the spectrum.
Rand redefined Romanticism, then a pre-existing literary movement, while also defining its opposite as Naturalism, thus: “Romanticism, which recognizes the existence of volition---and Naturalism, which denies it.”
One could say that it is Romanticism if it showcases well the efficaciousness of purposeful action by which men and women try to shape the world around them as against being shaped by it. Of special interest to Rand was Romantic Realism, which showcased the real world as it could be, as opposed to a fantasy world from which we could derive allegorical lessons and a few thrills.
The medium of film is tailor made for showcasing the effects of purposeful action, so let’s look at a few illustrations from the world of screen stories. Note that we are not primarily concerned with good beating evil here, but human efficaciousness. In other words, it’s better to showcase events constructed by human action, even if virtue doesn’t win in the end (e.g. We The Living) rather than good beating evil with coincidences or divine intervention. Because virtue is only relevant when the world is not deterministic.
“Show, don’t tell”—the filmmaker’s Holy Grail—is also about connecting at an emotional level with illustrative concretizations—not speeches, essays, and tirades.
Every story has a moral. When the narrative ends, there is always an underlying message. If consequences are dictated by coincidences, the viewers would infer that life is about destiny. If nothing of consequence happens, the subliminal inference that your subconscious takes in is that human life is about chance, ordinariness, or even despair (if it all ends badly without hope). That’s the meaning imparted by meaningless narratives.
But story events propelled by humans in purposeful conflict give us confidence in our own abilities. What are some of the 21st Century’s best films in that regard? Unfortunately, any critic can only pick from what he has seen. I have picked six for special mention here.
I added another twenty in a list below, noting the year if they are not contemporary, and including two that contain elements of mysticism—unable to meet a strict Realism criteria but Romanticist nevertheless—Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pirates of the Caribbean were each spectacular adventure films that energized their audiences and sparked off a series.
Agora (2009): Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar reconstructed the tale of Hypatia, a female philosopher-astronomer-mathematician of the late 4th century Roman Egypt. Hollywood has never so openly celebrated the epistemology of reason over faith. As the Pagans are fighting a losing war against the invading Christians, Hypatia determinedly pursues scientific truth, saving important scrolls from the library destroyed by the Christians. Of her three prominent pupils, two (Orestes and Davus) are in love with her; the third (Cyril) becomes an aggressive Christian missionary. Orestes chases Hypatia and power; he risks losing his power over Alexandria because of his love for Hypatia, but only Davus can save the intransigent Hypatia from torture at the hands of Cyril’s mob. Agora is the most romanticist and aesthetically high-standard film I have ever seen. Amazing performances, eye-catching cinematography, and concretizations of various abstractions—the conflict of reason versus faith, the joy of discovery, the determination of history by the philosophical convictions of its age—are all integrated into a story of love: a human love triangle, the love of knowledge, and the love of a man for a woman based on the values she pursues.
The Counterfeiters (2007): Based on a true WWII story, this German language film is a telling of an incredible internal value-clash within a Jewish artist, Salomon Sorowitsch (Sal). Sal makes a living as a forger of passports and currency. The Nazis hunt him down and send him to a concentration camp. Here, he uses his portraiture skills to get himself a better bunkhouse and food. The Nazis want to use him to forge the British Pound and the U.S. dollar. Initially motivated by survival, he is conflicted by the fact of the counterfeiting assisting the Germans in the war, and further conflicted by the pride he takes in his work—he has never been able to perfect his counterfeit of the U.S. dollar, and the Germans are throwing money at it. His fellow prisoners are on both sides of the debate—is it better to die honorably now, or die after helping the Nazis while retaining a slim possibility of escape? Sal engages in covert delaying tactics to buy time, which starts an engrossing cat-and-mouse detection game. It won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for 2007.
The Dark Knight (2008): Even Metacritic picked this as one of the best superhero films, and one of the best movies of the decade. The Batman, the DA, and the Police Commissioner combine forces to stop rampant crime in Gotham City, but they seem unable to stop the relentless nihilism of The Joker (“This city needs a classier kind of criminal and I’m going to give it to them”). The Joker sets up a moral experiment on the seas that ends up with a result opposite to what he desired—it lifts convicted felons into moral uprightness rather than turn ordinary citizens into killers. His next experiment succeeds however, as The Batman, his alter ego the other male in an uneasy love triangle, miscalculates, letting the love of his life die, in order to rescue the personification of virtue and courage in the city, the DA, who loves the same woman. The DA survives. However, facially scarred in the fire, and emotionally scarred by the loss of his fiancée, he loses faith in virtue itself, and is turned by The Joker into Two-Face, an eccentric, evil killer in love with nihilism. The Batman, in an action that concretizes the ‘inspiring art as emotional fuel’ abstraction, offers to take the blame for the murders committed by the DA, to ‘preserve the possibility for Gotham that the good can persist to the end’. In the final scene, the Commissioner reluctantly takes up the offer, setting the police dogs to chase after The Batman, now Gotham City’s Dark Knight.
Conviction (2010): Based on a true story, a mother of two young children, works relentlessly for eighteen years to free her brother, an ex-small-time-felon, wrongly convicted of murder. The brother happens to rob the victims’ home moments before the murder, which places him at the scene. The mother’s obsession with the pursuit ends up with her having to put herself through law school, suffer divorce, estrangement from her children, and multiple setbacks via a judicial system uninterested in the truth, before she finally realizes her goal
Belle (2014): Watch with a box of tissues. Set in the late 18th century, Belle focusses on a mixed-race daughter (Belle) of a Lord’s nephew. The father finds her living in poverty and entrusts her to Lord Mansfield’s care. The Zong massacre, that arguably set the anti-slavery laws in motion in England, is the case that brings Belle to her soul mate. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Belle, doesn’t just beckon us into the world of Belle; she grabs us by the ears, never letting go, transporting us to 1789, where we suffer Belle’s every setback and rejoice her every triumph. In the end, my tears of relief were juxtaposed with tears of joy; it was art that triumphed in a catharsis that would have made Aristotle proud. Director Amma Assante never leads us astray—no moment is wasted in a hundred and four minutes of gripping drama; the subplots integrate perfectly into the main theme, the obligatory symbolism links back to an original painting of Belle and her light-skinned step-cousin, sister-like in friendship but poles apart in motivation. No Hollywood A-listers grace the screen, nor do any car chases, shootouts, or special effects—one never misses them.
Rang De Basanti (Bollywood, 2006): This is a long, 157-minute narrative, but it’s only the last 56 minutes that makes it a great film; the 101st minute has one of movie-making’s greatest narrative turns. A British filmmaker, Sue McKinley, wants to make a docu-drama about the revolutionaries of India’s struggle for political independence from Great Britain. Due to lack of funds, she can only afford to recruit university students. The students are living aimless lives, are inattentive to their studies, and are lethargic even toward learning their lines. McKinley manages to inspire them enough to make a diligent effort at their roles. Then history takes an unpredictable turn to awaken the young actors from their valueless slumber. In another astonishing turn, of life imitating art, which itself depicted life inspired by art, street marches and citizen activism in India soared in the years following the theatrical release of Rang De Basanti; activists explicitly acknowledged their inspiration from what the media termed the RDB (Rang De Basanti) effect.
Network (1976) The PhysicianDead Poets Society The Last King of ScotlandOn the Waterfront (1954) Strictly BallroomFlight Erin BrockovichSilver Linings PlaybookThe Illusionist Hotel RwandaThe Sound of Music (1965)Changeling Little Miss Sunshine La La LandSully The Imitation Game The Lives of Others (German)Raiders of the Lost Ark Pirates of the Caribbean (Black Pearl)
Vinay Kolhatkar is a freelance journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and finance professional. He is the Chief Editor of The Savvy Street. His work has also been published in The Missing Slate, Reason Papers, AS Journal, Cuffelinks, and JASSA. Vinay has penned two TV pilot screenplays (Marlon Stone, and Unlikely Partners), and has had two novels published in the unusual Romantic Thriller genre: A Sharia London and The Frankenstein Candidate.