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10 essential films that explore mental health

Mental health issues have been subjected to a lot of prejudice and misinformation over the course of centuries but thanks to many modern awareness programs, more and more people are getting a better understanding of how to maintain their psychological wellbeing in order to navigate the labyrinths of modern life.

Art has always been a highly effective mode of expression through which artists have conveyed what it means to live with depression and other mental health problems to larger audiences. Many filmmakers have translated their own psychological struggles to the cinematic medium and by doing so, they have created masterpieces.

As a part of our own Mental Health Awareness campaign, we have curated a list of seminal cinematic gems that explore the subject in unique ways – ranging from personal accounts to sociopolitical analyses of the institutional frameworks. These films are essential viewing for those who want insightful artistic investigations about the relationship between art and mental health.

Check out the list below.

10 essential films about mental health:

The Fire Within (Louis Malle, 1963)

One of the greatest works by Malle, The Fire Within is a fascinating adaptation of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s book Will O’ the Wisp. It tells the story of an alcoholic in rehab who ventures out to visit his friends in Paris after making up his mind to kill himself.

Structured as a man’s search for meaning in an otherwise empty and painful life, The Fire Within is a haunting portrait of how substance abuse contributes to steadily declining mental health. Frustrated by the bourgeois existence of everyone around him, our protagonist’s quest for subjectivity does not end well.

Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

Bergman’s Winter Light is an indispensable world cinema classic and even though other films like Diary of a Country Priest and First Reformed have featured the same themes, Bergman approaches the subject through his unique vision.

The film revolves around a pastor in a small town whose duties have become rather mechanical instead of being fuelled by spiritual fervour. Winter Light shows us how religious crises can result in the destabilisation of mental health since it signals the collapse of deep-rooted value systems.

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)

John Cassavetes’ magnum opus is one of the most influential masterpieces that emerged from the New Hollywood movement. Starring Gena Rowlands who delivered the best performance of her career, A Woman Under the Influence plays like a highly unsettling horror film.

Rowlands is fantastic as a housewife who exhibits strange behaviour that is symptomatic of mental health issues but the film is about more than that. It is a commentary on the institution of marriage and a critique of the lenses of “normalcy” through which we view life.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Forman, 1975)

Based on Ken Kesey’s eponymous novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is another beloved classic which provides fascinating insights into institutionalised insanity. It features Jack Nicholson as a criminal who manages to avoid the labour of prison by getting transferred to a mental institution.

In there, he meets all kinds of eccentric characters who are much more human than most members of society who have rejected and marginalised these individuals. It ended up winning all five major Oscars and was the second film to do so in the history of the Academy.

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

Probably the most famous film on this list, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver has remained an integral part of popular culture because of its depiction of modernity and the urban condition. Scorsese captures the nightmarish hellscape of a New York City that is overflowing with material filth and moral decay.

Robert De Niro delivers a haunting performance as Travis Bickle, an insomniac cab driver who floats along the streets of the city at night because he cannot sleep. Scorsese’s vision of the city highlights how mental health problems and violence are logical conclusions of living in urban isolation.

Documenteur (Agnès Varda, 1981)

Agnès Varda’s cinema often oscillates between fiction and documentary and Documenteur might just be a perfect example of Varda’s cinematic sensibilities. Intended to be an “emotion film”, it chronicles the psychological turbulences of a single mother.

Made as a complementary piece to Mur Murs, Documenteur traces the journey of a woman who struggles to find meaning in her life as she slowly adjusts to the unique demands of being a single mother after her partner breaks up with her.

Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami’s unparalleled masterpiece follows the strikingly simple quest of a middle-aged man who drives around the suburbs of Tehran in order to find someone who is willing to bury him after he goes through with his decision to kill himself.

In a society where suicide is looked down upon, such an adventure becomes quite challenging. Kiarostami constructs a beautiful framework in which the car that the man drives becomes an important part of the film’s commentary on materialism and existentialism.

Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010)

A modern gem from the New South Korean Cinema wave, Poetry presents the audience with the struggles of a woman in her 60s who becomes interested in poetry even though she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease which makes life very difficult.

Although she tries her best to find some sort of inner peace, her quest for tranquility is ruptured by the actions of her grandson whose juvenile delinquency causes pain and suffering. In such trying times, only poetry contributes positively to her mental health.

Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, 2011)

The second addition to Joachim Trier’s highly celebrated Oslo Trilogy, this 2011 film stars Anders Danielsen Lie as a recovering addict who ventures out into the city after he is given the day off in order to attend an interview for a job prospect.

Feelings of hopelessness and despair overwhelm him as he sees his well-adjusted friends who are living a “normal” life while he is failing to start over at the age of 34. A bleak vision of drug dependency and the urge to self-destruct, this is probably the finest instalment of the series.

‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Wang Bing, 2013)

Wang Bing is one of the greatest documentarians living today and ‘Til Madness Do Us Part is an essential Wang Bing masterpiece. For this work, Wang decides to focus on a mental institution in Southwest China who are confined on one single floor.

Living in terrible isolation and cramped conditions, Wang’s documentary shows how the marginalisation of mentally ill individuals is enforced by state apparatuses. A devastating cinematic experience, ‘Till Madness Do Us Part is a reflection of a harsh sociopolitical reality that most people shy away from.