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The Greatest Adversity! The Greatest Film? by Tom Cooper

It is a time-honored tradition for religious and spiritual people to debate and discuss why a loving, all-powerful God would create a world of endless violence, suffering and tragedy which is so often endured by the innocent and the Godly, not just by the ‘wicked.” One version of this question is explored in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s influential book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

At the apex of this question is the agonizing extreme, How could a God of love create or permit slavery, mass suicide, the plague, and genocide? Whatever your answer, a more in-your-face practical second question derives from the first: When such adversity comes to you, or your family, or to people you care about, what do you do about it? The question then becomes, How do “good” people handle “bad” things? In the context of this series of blogs about indigenous spirituality, the question might be restated as, How do spiritual people handle sustained, intense adversity?

If we agree that being a Jewish captive in a 1940’s Nazi concentration camp epitomizes such adversity, then two substantial answers spring readily to mind. The first is chronicled in Viktor Frankl’s celebrated book, Man’s Search for MeaningThe second is contained in film director, Roberto Benigni’s, 1998 tragicomic feature film Life is BeautifulBoth Frankl and Benigni illustrate that man’s indigenous spirituality cannot be extinguished even in the worst of circumstances, although Frankl’s work is non-fiction since he experienced life in a Holocaust concentration camp first-hand. Benigni’s fictional account is dramatically enacted albeit inspired by the real experiences of his father and others in his Italian community who also lived in Nazi concentration camps.

Both the book and the film provide role models who somehow sustain a positive attitude despite facing ruthless oppressors in a surround of horror, disease, and despair. Although I strongly recommend Frankl’s and Kushner’s books, this blog series is primarily devoted to electronic media so I wish to discuss and possibly introduce you to Life is Beautiful

To my view, Benigni’s film is in the running for one of the greatest movies of all time. Indeed, at the Academy Awards in 1999, the feature film took home the Best Foreign Film and Best Actor award for Benigni himself. Life is Beautiful became highly influential and also controversial since to some it seemed to treat horrific suffering in a light and almost dismissive way.

Indeed, you can see how Holocaust survivors and sympathizers might be outraged when hearing that a film used a concentration camp as the setting for sustained comedy. But after actually screening the film many felt differently and indeed Life is Beautiful was nominated for and received awards in many of the countries where Hitler had aggressively triumphed.

Once you get past hearing that this is a comedy about the Holocaust, it is possible to discover that Life Is Beautiful is a potent inspirational work that can change lives and aim a light through the darkness. Benigni plays a Jewish Italian man who is imprisoned in a concentration camp with his young son. To shelter the lad from the atrocities of the camp, Benigni’s character tells him that they are engaged in an elaborate game with strict rules. Naturally, the Nazi officers and guards are portrayed as the game leaders and referees. In one hilarious scene, the father deliberately mistranslates the words of a German guard to sustain the illusion of harmlessness for his son.

At the heart of the film, there are many messages which parallel Victor Frankl’s courageous perspective. These include 1) while a person can be stripped of their possessions, position, and comfort, he can never be stripped of human dignity and purpose, 2) worship, higher connection, and meaning may be known even in the direst circumstances, 3) no matter how self-centered one’s oppressor, one may continue to serve others—in Benigni’s case, he serves his son and other inmates, and 4) we may not know why God allows bad things to happen to good people, but we can continue to model good things as good people until the ‘bad’ people and things sow the seeds of their destruction.

Hence, Life is  Beautiful despite the controversy and its uncomfortable setting. It suggests that no matter how dismal our situation, we possess the tools of victory—humor, perspective, persistence, purpose, and especially for Frankl, our Divine connection. Hence the title Life is Beautiful is not only ironic and shocking but by the film’s end, it is also both true and profound.

Ultimately, Benigni’s masterpiece conforms to history and the main character is indeed killed by S.S. guards who tyrannize the prisoners. And before his death, the father and son stumble upon a near mountain of corpses which brings a sobering shock to an audience who is by now expecting more Benigni charm and punchlines.

So the film is aptly called tragicomedy. There is an attempt to see the humor in even the worst moments of life. Yet realistically, when the primary character is killed, tragedy momentarily seems to erase all comedy before we realize that the film ultimately transcends and inspires. It is neither tragedy nor comedy once the credits roll, but rather, as one contemplates its meaning, the film fits the genre I call “victory.” Benigni’s spirit lives on in his family and legacy as a magician who could make gourmet lemonade out of rotting lemons.

Ultimately Life is Beautiful is the highest form of inspiration. It is the non-didactic answer to all those who say “Yes, I can be spiritual on a nice day but if you were in my shoes, and suffered from my situation on most days, how could you possibly stay spiritual.” It is also an answer to the question “what if innocent children chronically suffer? “ Again Benigni shows, rather than tells the answer—an answer which might translate as “serve them. protect them. love them, no matter what.”

Although no doubt we pray that nothing like the Holocaust will come again, we have been shown the answer about what to do when “bad things happen to good people” and when children are among the casualties. Serve them. Protect them. Love them. No matter what. And the tools for countering adversity—perspective, humor, persistence, and upward connection—have been demonstrated through the most lovable of characters.

When Benigni won his Oscars, he shocked and delighted the Hollywood world by rising to stand upon his seat and applaud the audience. The moment was so powerful that in the following year when Benigni became a presenter at the same awards, comedian and host Billy Crystal stood behind him with a large net as if to protect the audience from any over-the-top Benigni antics.

But for many in the audience, Benigni’s joyous celebration was no joke. For a moment he stood tall as if to say “spirit has triumphed” not only over the cynicism of Hollywood critics, the controversy surrounding the film’s history, and Benigni’s doubts about being acknowledged outside of his native Italy. In a way, like the Allies, he had posthumously defeated the humorless immoral Third Reich all over again with his own effervescent and victorious spirit. Whether it could be articulated at the moment or not, many sensed it was a media moment of good people outliving and transcending bad things. Whatever “bad things” had happened to “good people” somehow an all-powerful Spirit had moved through to victory.

Seldom have I devoted an entire blog to just one media narrative. When I do, it is because I sense the film partakes of eternal wisdom and spirit which should not be missed—in this case despite the unsettling realism of the topic and the bittersweet ending.

As humanity, we cannot escape the reality of pain, death, and human nature at its worst. But we can reveal a more divine angelic nature no matter what our setting. Ultimately, we can reveal in our living that life is beautiful. And although Benigni only had 116 minutes to reveal his victory, we have every moment within a lifetime.

Tom Cooper

One Heaven of a Screening Party by Tom Cooper

Have you ever gone to one of those screening parties where a few friends or a group watched a movie and then discussed it or socialized? I’ve always enjoyed those special evenings. However, the downside was that by the time the film ended, it was often too late at night to have much discussion and, although on some occasions it was a great film, sometimes someone would choose a boring or depressing film.

What if there were creative ways to have screening parties that serve a higher purpose? Group fusion can be fun and uplifting especially in the winter or on a rainy night when it’s not easy to work or play outdoors.

Since this site if about primal spirituality, obviously if you are reading this you might wish to bring a group together to screen a short talk by someone like David Karchere, Martin Exeter, Jane Anetrini or others with catalytic thoughts on spirituality. Then you can expand upon their thinking over some wine or coffee. Or you could choose other spiritual leaders you value, like Deepak Chopra, Joel Osteen, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer, Pope Francis, Barbara Marx Hubbard, or the Dalai Lama and watch a video to spark discussion.

But why limit oneself to what others call “spiritual?” There are a lot of inspiring TED talks, documentaries on environmental sustainability, and artistic performances which can be great openers for a stimulating media evening. In an age when just about all recent and current major speakers and performers are online, there are endless possibilities.

One of my favorite media nights involved my family inviting several friends over for an evening of laughter. Who says that spiritual people always have to be serious meditators who watch only deep programs? As I recall this rich evening back in the 1990s, I chose four of the funniest excerpts I had ever seen which had kept theater audiences in stitches and I showed each ten-minute clip back to back in our living room with brief introductions.

In case you are wondering which scenes I chose, I recall choosing the infamous “Charles Grodin pretends to be blind in a restaurant” scene from The Woman in Red (with Gene Wilder and Kelly LeBrock). Another clip I selected showed a mock rock and roll group from This is Spinal Tap (by Rob Reiner). Next came an excerpt from Horse Feathers (by the Marx Brothers) featuring Chico, Harpo, and Groucho talking total nonsense, and then we ended with a funny scene from Oh God with George Burns, so there was a little spiritual content at the end to ignite discussion.

If, as Proverbs indicates, “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine,” then why not try a comedy night with a few of your own favorite excerpts, leaving time at the end for more laughter mixed with thought? You may recall that the famous writer Norman Cousins checked himself out of his hospital when he had a serious illness and he watched nothing but episodes of Candid camera coupled with megadoses of vitamin C.

I’m not a doctor and I won’t prescribe comic media as a cure-all for disease. But I think Cousin’s book, Anatomy of an Illness, makes a good case for how sustained laughter can be healthy therapy.

In case you haven’t looked recently, you can find almost all the great stand-up comic acts of the 20th and 21st century are online on YouTube and similar sites. So in one evening, you can easily screen Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First?”, Rodney Dangerfield’s “Can’t Get No Respect,” Tina Fey as Sarah Palin or Amy Poehler as Donald Trump from Saturday Night Live, and some of the most famous British, Russian, Italian, or Israeli comedians back-to-back-to-back, all in 30-40 minutes and in English! The possibilities are endless.

Planning an evening media feast is just like preparing a great meal—the menu is entirely up to you but you want to make sure to have something appropriate for everyone. After all, not all comedians fit everyone’s taste and not every great movie clip is universally appealing—even if it is one of your or my favorites. So giving a little thought to who is coming and how mature the presentation will be (especially if children are in the mix) is important.

Over the past two years in this blog, I’ve mentioned dozens of “media that matter” which touch or center upon the theme of primal spirituality. If you’ve not seen some of them, perhaps a group gathering is the right time to try out one or two of the shorter ones?

And of course, if there are spiritual works you’ve heard a lot about— like The Secret, or What the Bleep, or Chariots of Fire, or The Shift, there’s no harm in showing an entire feature film if you start early in the evening. Most features are 80-110 minutes but its best to check the running time. Why? Because films like Gandhi, Camelot, Lawrence of Arabia, and South Pacific all run over two hours. After such a screening very little if any time remains for group interaction.

If your screening group meets weekly or monthly like a book club, you can take an important work like Madiba (the four-part made-for-TV story of Nelson Mandela’s life) and discuss and view one episode each month. You can also work with films that share a common theme on a weekly or monthly basis. For example, if you choose “spiritual communities & utopias” as your topic for a four-month cycle, you could watch Brigadoon, Lost Horizon (Uranda’s favorite film), Camelot, part I, and then Camelot part II (the film, like the play, has a lengthy intermission) as a four-part series.

Naturally, I am not prescribing any of these possibilities but rather seeking to open doors by offering possibilities. People engage in all kinds of activities together in groups from going to boxing matches to watching horror films. Why not build substance instead by watching something together which elevates, educates, lubricates, or inspires? Laughter is the “mind sneezing” and we all need to sneeze out our tired concepts and self-restricting structures.

A screening group need not be an institutional coterie. You can arrange a movie night for your family, close friends, neighbors, work colleagues, rock band, classmates, or Super Bowl party clan. Ideally, you can, at the very least, have a lot of fun and at the most generate thoughts and actions that raise consciousness and activate fresh creation. What you do and how you do it is totally up to you.

It’s always great to involve others in the planning too. After all, anything I can do, we can do better! Happy screening and bon appétit.


If you think that James Bond and Indiana Jones epitomize life’s greatest adventures, you have not yet read Shantaram. If you imagine that Tolstoy, Homer, and Scott created the largest epic panoramas, you have not yet experienced Shantaram. If you imagine that you have colored in your experiential rainbow-like no one who has ever lived, you have not yet met Gregory David Roberts, the author of Shantaram.

I once taught a course entitled “What is a Masterpiece?” at Harvard. One answer was “a work which successfully and comprehensively creates an engaging world of its own.” Enter Shantaram. Another feature of a time-honored masterpiece is that it is populated by compelling characters you would want to meet or observe in the real world. Once again, Shantaram.

If you are fascinated by cats because they have nine lives, you will want to meet “Lin,” the hero of Shantaram. If you are seduced by love story plots that are impossible to predict, welcome to Shantaram.

When I read Gregory Roberts’ best-seller, I desperately wanted to Google all the characters to see which ones were real and what they looked like. My wife, who devoured the book, searched the Internet for the characters since any fan knows that wanting to see Lin, Prabaker, Karla, Lisa, Didier, and Madame Cho becomes an addiction. Now it will become possible to see them all incessantly on screens of all sizes since Shantaram is in development to become a Television Series on Apple TV+.

It seems impossible to see the hidden mysteries of India and Afghanistan without great danger, expense, and risk. And yet Shantaram makes you into a first-class voyeur. The work is all major genres in one—mystery, autobiography, action-adventure, tragic comedy, and romance. It is even laced with physics, cosmology, and especially ethics since Lin pursues not only his leading lady but also the true nature of justice and ultimately the meaning of life.

And that is why I am writing about this great book long after it first became a best-seller. Unlike the Tao, Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, and so many other books which can be one’s guide for life, and unlike the more recent “soft religion” or spirituality texts by Williamson, Dyer, Chopra, and others espoused by New Age and “alternative” gurus, Shantaram seems at first to be anything but a work about integrity and Divine depth.

It is, after all, a novel with fictional characters, and yet they are based upon real lives. The protagonist is a former bank robber, heroin addict, and escaped convict who joins the Bombay mafia, and yet after his ongoing transformation, he may be among the most spiritual and ethical people you will ever meet. Shantaram seems to be about a modern-day odyssey through the slums of India and tribal war zones of Afghanistan, and yet it is about our neighborhood—the one populated by homo sapiens—and it is about the need to awaken and about life itself.

The book is almost 1,000 pages! And the audiobook takes over 40 hours to listen to. So one can only imagine the length of the upcoming television series with Charlie Hunnam in the lead in the visualization of Shantaram. Johnny Depp and other celebrities have been at the forefront of embracing a book-to-movie conversion. So the visualization of Shantaram should be both epic and Hollywood gourmet.

A commitment to read or see it is more like a marriage than a date—you could go on two honeymoons in the time it takes to fully absorb it. For a month or two of your life, it saturates your thinking and perhaps your choices. And yet, it is worth it. The author, Greg Roberts, who has become a spiritual visionary in his own way, has committed his life to vertical art and meaningful social change. And his life partner, who wishes to remain virtually anonymous, is also a spiritual benefactor, thinker, and donor, who seeks to take Shantaram to the next mediated level.

If by chance I am preaching to the choir because you have already read the book, you’ll be happy to know that there is a sequel called The Mountain Shadow which is even longer! Both books have received outstanding reviews as literature, drama, and in-depth engagement.

But that is not why I am including Shantaram in my blog, Media that Matters. While Roberts laces his works with philosophy and spiritual insights, he has demonstrated that a transformational lighthouse does not have to be a work of theology or channeled revelation. It can be a novel which is itself novel in that it seems first to be about one life and then somehow becomes about Life itself.

Even the name Shantaram has spiritual significance. It means man of peace and as time progresses, the character’s name changes from Lin to Lin-baba. Baba is an affectionate suffix in India which is also charged with Light.  Still one cannot judge a book by (the name on) its cover. That cover must be opened to reveal a galaxy of characters who debate and reveal—to varying degrees—the nature of character itself. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Shantaram.

Ethics Goes to the Movies

Theater, Hollywood, and prime-time television have long been obsessed with dramatic ethical dilemmas which hook audiences. From the earliest known and best-loved theater, engaging characters have been obsessed with questions such as “to be or not to be?”, “to marry for love or for honor?”, and whether “to do the right thing but for theContinue Reading