And here we are. The day after Easter and we’ve reached the top of the mountain. While compiling this list, it’s become evident that true religious films just aren’t made anymore (and if they are, they are widely panned). That being said, religious themes exist in more mainstream movies than ever, despite there being no deliberate attempts to dub the films “religious.” Faith, God, whatever you want to call it – it’s influenced the history of nations, of politics, of culture, and of film. And these are the most important films in that wheelhouse. There are only two American films in the top 10, and only one of them is in English.
50. Sound of My Voice (2011)
Directed by Zal Batmanglij
Sound of My Voice stars Brit Marling (also co-writer) as Maggie, the charismatic leader of a cult, also claiming to be from the future. Two young documentarians named Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) decide to infiltrate the cult, hoping to expose Maggie as a fraud to the world and her followers. But, as they listen to Maggie and become more and more involved, both Peter and Lorna find themselves shifting back and forth between skepticism and inklings of trust in Maggie and her plans. The cult involves bizarre rituals, all of which end up, at the very least, giving these seemingly blind followers some sort of comfort. Efficiently, the story is told on an incredibly low budget, but still dives deep into every person’s need for faith in something or someone and the skill of some to skillfully gather flocks through careful persuasion. It’s a simplistic story, but engaging nonetheless.
49. Yentl (1983)
Directed by Barbara Streisand
Based on the play of the same name, based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” Yentl is a dramatic musical starring Streisand as the title character who enters a Jewish religious school dressed as a boy, at the request of her dying father. More or less a romantic triangle set with the backdrop of a strict Jewish school in Poland, Yentl garnered much praise, earning Streisand the first ever Golden Globe for directing given to a woman. It’s a surprisingly weighty take on how religion and society tries to shape and mold children based on their gender, this time in early-20th century Poland. Times may have changed since then, but the gender-based bias in many faiths still exists. Ironically, in Singer’s original story, Yentl’s betrayal of her gender and the faith finds her in a place of rejection, while the film leans a little more on the sociopolitical side, viewing Yentl’s dismissal of the era’s rules as virtuous. She may not get the happy ending she wanted, but individuality may be a better prize anyway.
48. Leap of Faith (1992)
Directed by Richard Pearce
In the middle of a hot streak, the great Steve Martin took the lead in a satirical look at faith healers and, specifically, the work of televangelist Peter Popoff, on whom the film is loosely based. Leap of Faith is the story of Jonas Nightengale (Martin), a traveling faith healer who cons small town folks out of their money by performing slight of hand miracles with the help of his friend and manager Jane (Debra Winger). When their bus breaks down in a tiny town in Kansas, they decide to hold revival meetings just outside of the town, which is struggling with unemployment and drought. When he begins his meetings, he finds pushback in the way of local sheriff Will Braverman (Liam Neeson), who tries to keep his fellow citizens from falling for the con. It becomes a battle of wits, a love story, and, in the end, a surprisingly honest portrayal of what faith can do for you in your darkest hour. Sometimes, the people you have so little respect for can be the people that change your mind.
47. Doubt (2008)
Directed by John Patrick Shanley
For the span of human history, of all the Christian denominations, Catholicism has been viewed as the strictest. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the church came under fire for various scandals. In 2008’s Doubt (based on a play also written by Shanley), the Catholic Church’s practices are narrowed down to a microcosm: an incident at one church in the Bronx. After seeing Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) giving a sermon on doubt, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) asks her nuns to be on alert for any suspicious behavior from Flynn. After young Sister James (Amy Adams) notices some strange behavior related to the school’s only black student and Flynn, she reports it, starting a domino effect of Sister Aloysius’ ongoing efforts to learn more, Flynn’s denial, and the peeling away of layers from all the parties. While Doubt could have been a burning indictment of child abuse aimed at the Catholic Church, it instead provided an incredibly well-acted ensemble film that, just as the title suggests, highlights the necessity of doubt and its place in society and, in turn, faith.
46. Oh God! (1977)
Directed by Carl Reiner
It’s a funnier inspiration for Bruce Almighty, and with a little more heart behind it. Directed by Carl Reiner, Oh God! stars George Burns as the Almighty himself, deciding to find a person on Earth to be his messenger. He appears as an old man to a man named Jerry (John Denver…yes, that John Denver), asking him to go forth and spread the news. When he does, he is met with criticism, most of which comes from members of the church. Despite the silly premise and the strange casting, Oh God! actually does hold on to some pretty interesting truths about faith. When Jerry decides to prove the existence of God in a court of law, his entire defense is structured on the mere fact that even the most critical can’t ever be sure He doesn’t exist. More or less, it becomes a modern retelling of the story of Moses, which, unfortunately, was followed by two lesser sequels (same God, different story and characters altogether). But, to this day, George Burns’ version of God may very well be the most original.
45. Elmer Gantry (1960)
Directed by Richard Brooks
Leap of Faith is more or less a contemporary remake of this film, though it takes its liberties for the sake of comedy and shifts away from a lot of the darker themes. Elmer Gantry – based on the Sinclair Lewis novel – is the story of the title character (Burt Lancaster), a con man and salesman who becomes enamored with a traveling nun’s revitalization road show. He talks his way into the act, playing the salesman who “saw the light,” only to have Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons) come to his rescue and explain the necessity of faith. The con runs into trouble when a former girlfriend (Shirley Jones) of Gantry’s figures out the scheme and aims to blow his cover. Lancaster won an Oscar for his performance as a flawed man who, despite his dishonest origins, at the very least sees some potential in the way his partners work. Gantry may never be filled with the spirit, but watching Sister Sharon and her conviction can’t help but have a positive influence on him, especially when tragedy rears it ugly head.
44. King of Kings (1927)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
It’s the first biblical epic, from a man who would take part in many more epics after this one. Cecil B. DeMille’s silent story of the last weeks before Jesus’ crucifixion also took a more detailed look at his appearance through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, portrayed in the film as a bit of a wild child. Overall, DeMille took a relatively straightforward approach to the story, using intertitles to deliver Bible verses to highlight moments in the film. At 2.5 hours long, it takes its time, not skipping any minor details in the story, and even throws in two Technicolor scenes (beginning and end). Long before Mel Gibson drew anti-Semitic criticism for his portrayal of the Jews in the story, DeMille was both praised and attacked. Occasionally, it relies on stereotypes, but overall, the film has a much more sympathetic portrayal of Jews, as he takes the time to clarify the reasons behind the final acts and the possibility of remorse among them. This was never meant as an attack; it was meant to be the first attempt to personalize an important story in the Christian faith.
43. Higher Ground (2011)
Directed by Vera Farmiga
The directorial debut from Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground is a fascinating portrayal of how faith can bring about good and add to compartmentalization of its followers. Corinne (Farmiga) has joined a radical New Testament church movement with her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) after a bus crash almost takes Ethan and their daughter Abby’s lives. For the duration of the film, we are never taken outside of this church community, as Corinne struggles with her faith, the strict rules of her pastor and fellow members, and how strict devotion may help you feel closer to God, but has the ability to destroy your psyche and individuality. Farmiga’s work behind and in front of the camera in Higher Ground is some of her finest, providing a nuanced look at something that, in someone else’s hands, would feel like another aggressive attack on the church and various conservative sects. Instead of deliberately pointing to answers, Corinne (and the audience) is left to ponder her place in the church, in her marriage, and in her world, as the things that seemed so simple before have become warped by what most would consider having an open mind.
42. Lilies of the Field (1963)
Directed by Ralph Nelson
Starring the great Sidney Poitier, based on the 1962 novel of the same name, Lilies of the Field is the story of a handyman and some nuns. Homer (Poitier) stops by a farm in the desert to get some water for his car. He learns there are some immigrant nuns in the area who ask him to fix their roof. He stays overnight, expecting to be paid in the morning. The payment doesn’t come and eventually leads to an interesting push and pull between Homer and the mother superior, Mother Maria (Lilia Skala). Slowly, Homer learns more about the nuns and feels driven to help them with anything they need, but always abstains from any religious activity (e.g. attending mass), since he is Baptist. This turns into his construction of a new chapel with a renewed sense of purpose. At the same time, Lilies of the Field humanizes the nuns, finding that, despite their belief that God deserves the only thanks for everything, appreciation should be shared with those people who are doing God’s work, too. It’s Poitier at his charming best, for sure, taking home the Oscar for his work.
41. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Directed by Sean Durkin
Written and directed by Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene was his debut film, a dramatic thriller about a young woman’s unsettling experience in a cult and her delusional mindset after she escapes it. Starring Elizabeth Olsen as the title character (all four are her names at some point in the film), it begins with her escape from the cult, living with her sister and brother-in-law (Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy). The film has a broken narrative structure, alternating between her life after escape and moments from her experience in the cult, led by the horrifyingly understated Patrick (John Hawkes). It is clear that Martha’s psyche has been greatly warped by her experience, bringing some of the social behaviors into the real world, which cause confusion in how she relates to her sister and her sister’s husband. Unlike Sound of My Voice, the cult is never viewed as a beneficial endeavor and Patrick is not deliberately charismatic. But he is in quiet control of everything and everyone, and expects Martha to be a leader among his women. While there is no ethereal “God” they worship, Patrick has made it clear that he is the one who deserves their praise and he will make their world better. And, even after your escape, he never really leaves you.
40. Marketa Lazarová (1967)
Directed by František Vláčil
The film often credited as being the best to come out of the Czech Republic, Marketa Lazarová was based on the novel by Vladislav Vančura and is an early, biting narrative about the chasm of difference between paganism and its shift into Christianity in the Middle Ages, as the daughter of a lord is kidnapped and becomes the mistress of one of her kidnappers, a robber knight. It becomes a textured and stylistic historical film, using creative cinematography to present a beautiful, almost introspective view of the era. It’s a revelatory discussion of religious dissension, while also serving as a parable about violence and love. It really boils down to an action film in the end, but stands as one of the most artistically significant art films of its generation, despite the action and violence.
39. Agnes of God (1985)
Directed by Norman Jewison
A varied look at the psychology of faith from the director of Rollerball, Agnes of God is a surprisingly graphic depiction of a nun’s mental breakdown or, she argues, her visit from God himself. Based on a play (and screenplay) by John Pielmeier, the film is the story of a young nun named Agnes (Meg Tilly) who is found in her room covered in blood with a dead baby. From there, it’s a relatively sloppy police procedural, centering on Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda) as she investigates Agnes’ past by interviewing the head mother Miriam (Anne Bancroft) and researching the convent. Agnes claims the baby was a virgin birth after meeting a man in the adjoining barn while under hypnosis. It’s a misguided attempt to be incendiary, though it doesn’t do a great job hiding its agenda. Fonda and Tilly are good, but they can’t save a movie that tries too hard. All that said, the film is a rare attack on a very difficult subject.
38. Dogma (1999)
Directed by Kevin Smith
After breaking in with Clerks, Kevin Smith took it easy with Mallrats, grew up with Chasing Amy, then went to a full-fledged religious satire with the raunchiest criticism of organized religion in the history of cinema. Dogma stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as two angels who find a loophole to get back into heaven after being exiled to Wisconsin. The catch: their doing so would unmake existence (it’s explained in the movie). To stop them, the voice of God (Alan Rickman) recruits Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), who gets help from two “prophets” (Jason Mewes and Smith), the 13th apostle (Chris Rock), and a muse (Salma Hayek). What results is a film rife with Catholic humor and take-downs of the most archaic principles still upheld, all within nothing more than a dirty road trip movie. In between all the typical Kevin Smith-style jokes are some relatively interesting insights into how Catholicism works and why the rules and bylaws (not just in Catholicism) are beside the point. Smith’s point is clear – “faith” isn’t bad; “religion” may be.
37. Boys Town (1938)
Directed by Norman Taurog
A biographical drama based on a house for underprivileged boys in Omaha, Nebraska, Boys Town won Spencer Tracy a much-deserved Oscar for portraying Father Edward J. Flanagan, a priest who is convinced to begin a mission to save impoverished children from a life on streets after witnessing a convicted murderer’s confession to police about his upbringing. He believes every boy can be saved, even the most difficult. Enter Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), who is staying at Boys Town while his older brother sits in jail for murder. The film heavily focuses on Whitey’s plight – a young man who is viewed as a criminal even before he has committed any serious crimes and his association with Boys Town, which paints the home in a negative light. Flanagan finds himself helping Whitey and his brother find the people who committed the crimes they have been accused of, eventually finding a way to prove that his place of safety is a gift to the community. Just like plenty of other 1930s and 1940s feel-good studio films, Boys Town lays it on pretty thick. But, also like many of those films, it finds a way to reach deep down into even the cruelest of hearts and find a glimmer of sunshine and hope.
36. The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Directed by Ron Howard
It began as a worldwide bestseller by Dan Brown, which means it needed to be a film. And who better to direct than the guy who did Apollo 13? The controversial book dove deep into a supposed cover-up by the Catholic church about the Holy Grail and the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were, in fact, married and had a daughter. The Da Vinci Code was met with great religious spite upon its release in 2006, the same way the book was. Didn’t hurt the box office pull, though, as it took in $224 million on its opening weekend worldwide. All this, despite not even being a good movie. Starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou as a professor of religious iconography and a police cryptologist, respectively, the film shifts in and out of secret hiding places in Italy, searching for the secret code within Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the results of which would surely destroy the Christian faith. Also starring Ian McKellen, Paul Bettany and Alfred Molina, Howard’s film didn’t reach near the heights of some of his better work, getting lost in the mysteries and not helped at all by some substandard performances. But, despite all that, it was the second highest-grossing film of 2006 and spawned a sequel, also based on Dan Brown’s novel.
35. The Apostle (1997)
Directed by Robert Duvall
Written by, directed by, and starring Robert Duvall, The Apostle is the story of Sonny Dewey (Duvall), a Pentecostal preacher who, due to his infidelity, finds himself separated from his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett), who begins a relationship with a youth minister named Horace. One day, in a fit of rage, Sonny attacks Horace, leading to a coma and, eventually, his death. He flees, destroying all connections to his past and changes his name to “The Apostle E.F.” He does his best to remake himself and begin a new church, only to find his calling has become more difficult, as he can’t seem to escape his demons. Duvall earned an Oscar nomination for his role, though most of the thanks goes to the screenplay and Duvall’s work behind the camera. It’s a religious movie that, despite being about a preacher, is not necessarily about God or faith. It’s more about human nature and redemption, as Duvall’s journey feels like a desperate one. Made over 20 years after Duvall originally wrote the script, he eventually decided the only way it would get made is if he financed and directed it. What results is a touching parable about a man who, despite his flaws, is a clear representation of what you would expect from a good faith leader: a real person who finds that, after all the pain he causes and suffers, there’s nothing left but to turn to something you can’t control.
34. Nazarín (1959)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Buñuel is famous for his surrealist takedowns of the aristocracy, the upper class, and the Catholic church, but none of his films were more literally about Catholicism than Nazarín, a 1959 Mexican film about a Catholic priest whose life parallels that of Jesus Christ. Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal) travels the world, performing miracles. He tends not to let himself be dragged into the dogmatic principles of the church he chooses to follow. He befriends prostitutes, two of whom agree to follow him. He befriends a woman living below him named Beatriz (Margo Lopez), a suicidal woman prone to psychotic episodes, demonstrating the patience and compassion that is integral to the Christ story. In a lifetime full of critical looks at the Catholic church, Buñuel’s most straightforward effort is more or less serving as an example, more than anything. His criticism here focuses on his belief of the church being hypocritical, falling back into the same law-focused practices that captured and eventually crucified the man that they so fervently follow. Nazario’s episodic travelogue may be another re-telling of the Christ story, but it’s worth mention, due to the director’s typical prowess. Instead of a two-hour riddle, he chose to be as direct as he could, providing some inspiring results.
33. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Co-written by Rossellini and Federico Fellini, The Flowers of St. Francis (technically, the Italian title is Francesco, giullare di Dio, which translates in English to “Francis, God’s Jester”) is an anthology of chapters, each showing a different point in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The film begins with Franciscan friars, meant to introduce the people who eventually would become the devout followers of St. Francis. The majority of the chapters are unconnected – some have a specific moral reason behind them, some feel like they don’t. The film is based on two books – Fioretti Di San Francisco and La Vita di Frate Ginepro. Fioretti, is broken down into 78 chapters, less about historical anecdotes from St. Francis’ life and more about his fantastical feats and those of his followers. The film follows that theme, splitting into nine chapters. More importantly, the film marked an interesting reflection of Rossellini’s ideals; not a Catholic, he still had a deep-seeded interest in Christian values, specifically the ethical teachings of the Catholic church. Priests were used as consultants during the production of the film, meant to instill a type of respectfulness among the filmmakers. The film is still viewed by the Roman Catholic church as an honest, deferential depiction of the saint’s life.
32. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Directed by Norman Jewison
Based on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s popular rock opera of the same name, Jesus Christ Superstar focuses on the final week of Jesus’ life and the conflict between him and Judas. Jesus (Ted Neely) is hailed as the Son of God, but Judas (Carl Anderson) does not believe he is such. He is more concerned about Jesus’ popularity than anything. From there, it’s the regular gospel story, but with quite a bit more flair. Both Neely and Anderson received Golden Globe nominations for their work and, while the film received minor controversy upon its release, it still garnered relatively positive reviews and response from the audience. Some of the words in certain numbers were changed to make the film even more appealing to a Christian audience, but it still managed to get protests from Christian churches, claiming the film was blasphemous in its stance that Jesus was an actual man and that he may have had a sex drive. In addition, accusations of anti-Semitism arose, as well as criticisms of the film being too Catholic or too Protestant. The same protests were made when the stage show premiered, too, so old habits die hard. Regardless, Jesus Christ Superstar was one of the first attempts to fully humanize Jesus Christ and, though it lays it on thick, it’s a reasonable success.
31. Kundun (1997)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Two years after Casino and two years before Bringing Out the Dead, Martin Scorsese took one of his major detours into Tibet with a biographical account of the fourteenth Dalai Lama and how he dealt with Chinese oppression, among other problems. Released only a few months after Seven Years in Tibet and boasting the same setting, Kundun has a much larger scope, covering the years 1939 to 1959, using a relatively simple chronology to tell the story of the young boy’s rise to become the religious leader. In 1937, a 2-year old has been recognized as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, the compassionate Buddha. He is educated at age 4, and at 14, is witness to the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The film follows him into adulthood, eventually to his escape to India in 1959. Nominated for four Oscars, Kundun is not one of Scorsese’s more memorable offerings, despite its majestic cinematography (from Roger Deakins) and a score by Philip Glass. Somewhere in between his gangster films and Oscar bait, this little gem fell through the cracks. It takes an impassioned look at a man not many in the Western world understand and does an inspired job following a child who has been told he is basically God from day one…not an easy thing to hear.
30. Beyond the Hills (2012)
Directed by Cristian Mingiu
Five years after his punishing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Christian Mingiu delivered an interesting look at a lifelong friendship formed at an orphanage. Beyond the Hills tells the story of two women, based on non-fiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran: Alina (Cristina Flutur) has fled to Germany, no longer able to take the poverty. When Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) refuses to join her, the two become separated, and spend years apart. When Alina can no longer bear the absence, she goes to Romania to find Voichita, only to find she is in a convent, nearing the time to take her final vows. What results is a fascinating, sometimes scary discussion of romantic love (or lust) vs. faith. Alina and Voichita were lovers, separated by fundamental differences. But while love conquers all for Alina, Voichita’s love of God has now replaced her love for Alina. Mingiu places this convent in an environment that feels almost like a horror film, where the fear and love of God is not exactly presented as a virtue. Eventually, the film’s setting and story deliver a compelling look at the sacrifice it takes to devote your life to God and questions whether or not it is an inherent betrayal of human nature or a worthy calling.
29. The Decameron (1971)
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
The first of Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life (including The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights), The Decameron is based on the novel by Giovanni Boccaccio of the same name. The film is broken into nine chapters, each thread connected by a pupil (played by Pasolini) studying under the great Boccaccio, planning to paint a mural based on his work. Though some of the episodes seem out of place, many focus on the influence of God or the church. In one story, a man pretends to be deaf and mute to get accepted into a convent, only to find out that the nuns are insatiable and exasperate him by forcing him to have sexual relations every night. In another, a swindler and liar tricks a priest while on his deathbed, eventually being hailed as a saint and martyr. Many of the other stories involve sexual misgivings and betrayal, though each involves a twist that is either stomach-turning or surprisingly whimsical. In the end, we see the mural the pupil has painted – a happy depiction of the baby Jesus and his mother that inspires bells to be rung. As are many of Pasolini’s other films, it’s graphic and borderline sadistic at moments, but The Decameron ends up being one his more digestable works, managing to maintain a necessary touch of playfulness throughout.
28. The Burmese Harp (1956)
Directed by Kon Ichikawa
Based of the children’s novel of the same name by Michio Takeyama, The Burmese Harp is a Japanese film about a soldier – also a harp player – played by Shoji Yasui who fights in the World War II Burma campaign. When he finds out that the Japanese have already surrendered, he decides to personally surrender to the British troops who have been spying on him. Mizushima (Yasui) takes a group of soldiers down the mountain at a camp, only to find himself almost killed and found by a monk. During his recovery, he steals the monk’s garb and poses among the monks to hide himself. While undercover, he finds himself fascinated by the peaceful nature of the monks he lives and studies with, vowing only to return to Japan when he has finished burying the bodies of the dead soldiers in the mountains. Mizushima’s path is a fascinating one, choosing peace over war, finding he is more equipped to bring about love than death. The argument may settle closer to the reaction to defeat – has he surrendered his life after his country surrendered their fight, but nothing more? The Burmese Harp was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film in the first year it was a category, but lost to Fellini’s La Strada.
27. The Devils (1971)
Directed by Ken Russell
Based on a combination of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play The Devils, Ken Russell’s 1971 film was met with a hailstorm of controversy, receiving an X rating in the United States and Great Britain (the same year as Stanley’s Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange earned the same rating). In The Devils, Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) has taken control of the city of Loudun. An insane local nun named Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) has become obsessed with him, completely losing her mind when she learns of his secret marriage. While Grandier has gone to speak to the King, men arrive in Loudun to destroy the town and the Protestant fortifications, only to meet Jeanne, who claims to have been bewitched by Grandier. Eventually, this erupts into an mass orgy in the middle of town, including the desecration of a Christ statue. Upon his return, Grandier is accused of causing the bewitching and finds himself sentenced to death. It’s an uncomfortable experience, more a film about how easily influenced men can be when reasoning is overtaken by blind faith. At the center is a wickedly graphic performance from Vanessa Redgrave, where the memorable moments are actually those which found themselves banned and censored in various locations. It won Russell the Best Director-Foreign Film award at the Venice Film Festival, despite the film being banned in the country. It may not be a great film, but it sure is unforgettable.
26. Frailty (2001)
Directed by Bill Paxton
Bill Paxton’s directorial debut proved long before our current Matthew McConaughey renaissance (McConaissance, if you will) that he had some quality acting chops. In Frailty, Felton Meiks (McConaughey) enters an FBI office in Texas to turn in his brother, who he claims is the “God’s Hand” killer they have been looking for. What it becomes is a story told in flashback by Meiks (The Usual Suspects-style), detailing his and his brother’s upbringing by their father (Paxton), who claimed to have been asked by God to find and destroy demons on Earth. When he captures people, he claims to see their sins, determining that they deserve to die. But what begins as a horror film about a crazy man and his father turns into a much more interesting thriller that takes on the concept of “God’s soldiers” and killing in the name of God. It’s a deeply revealing film with excellent performances at its core that turns its original story on its head, giving way to one of the more thoughtful, well-developed horror films of the last 20 years. Bill Paxton has only directed one other film (The Greatest Game Ever Played); perhaps he should step back behind the camera.
25. Silent Light (2007)
Directed by Carlos Reygadas
Taking place entirely within a Mennonite community in Mexico, Silent Light focuses on Johan (Cornelio Wall), a man stricken with grief because he has fallen in love with a another woman who is not his wife. Everyone – his wife, friends, and family – seem to know about the affair, but Johan’s guilt has less to do with them and more to do with his belief that he has betrayed his faith. Despite those worries, the affair continues to the point that he has sex with his mistress in a motel room while his children wait in the car with a stranger, eventually leading to confrontation. What makes Silent Light so fascinating is its incredulousness. It’s a very simple story, but it’s littered with inexplicable miracles – the seasons seem to abruptly change, people return from the dead. But within the context of the film, it all feels somewhat normal. The film’s entire cast is made up of Mennonite people from Mexico, Germany, and Canada. Reygadas based the film partially on Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, which takes a number of cues in terms of settings and the picturesque landscape of wide open farming country. It tied with Persepolis for the jury prize at Cannes in 2007 and landed in a number of top ten lists in the same year – a wholly original film from a talented director.
24. The Master (2012)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
So, Scientology, right? Paul Thomas Anderson’s psychological study of a struggling military veteran is less about religion than it is about trust and conquering internal demons. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has returned from the war, suffering from what can only be defined as post-traumatic stress disorder. He comes in contact with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a persuasive leader of a new movement titled “The Cause.” Clearly modeled after L. Ron Hubbard’s “church,” Dodd’s group of followers are dedicated to spreading their message – Dodd believes Quell can be one of his apostles. But, as Quell is drawn further into the movement, he finds himself at odds with Dodd, the only man who is intelligent enough to understand him, but observant enough to understand that he is a loose cannon. Alongside Amy Adams, playing his wife, Hoffman gives one of his finest, more nuanced performances, while Phoenix delivers one of his many divisive performances, proving his worth in terms of the physicality of the part more than most. Freddie Quell’s face alone is so overtly emotional, it’s easy to see why he can be drawn in by con men and charlatans. But, at the same time, he possesses the strength (or chaotic temperament) to buck the system when needed. Criticized by Scientologists across Hollywood upon its release, The Master still serves as the best big-screen look behind the curtain of this mysterious belief structure – even if it doesn’t clearly say it is.
23. Song of Bernadette (1943)
Directed by Henry King
Saint Berandette Soubirous ‘ story was originally written by Franz Werfel, only to earn a motion picture treatment the following year, where she was portrayed by Jennifer Jones. Bernadette is a sub-standard, 14-year-old Catholic schoolgirl, criticized for her lack of hard work learning the catechism. But one day, in a cave, she comes across a woman bathed in light, who claims to be the Virgin Mary. Despite no one believing her story, she returns to the cave multiple times, each time seeing Mary again. The real conflict arises when, after finally proving her story has merit, she is pressured to join the church as a nun, despite the fact that she wants to continue her normal life. It makes no effort to be subtle. It’s a clear adaptation of the story, making no bones about the story itself being aggressively pro-Christian. Bernadette finds herself the focus of many, viewed as a saint among commoners, despite her only real desire being to see and speak to Mary once again. She has no desire to be a martyr. She has no need to walk the Earth believing that she is special. What results is an interesting portrayal of a historic figure in the church and a parable about why true faith doesn’t necessarily mean giving your life over fully to the church. It also became a literal song, written by Jennifer Warnes, Leonard Cohen, and Bill Elliot; not exactly the same subject, but clearly inspired by the film and story.
22. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003)
Directed by Kim Ki-duk
Set at a Buddhist monastery and broken into five parts, Kim Ki-duk’s deliberately titled film is a look at the life of a novice monk as he goes through the seasons of his life, each roughly 10-20 years apart. It’s a straight-forward story, but it’s littered with Buddhist iconography and symbolism. In the first season, the apprentice’s master teaches him a lesson after seeing him abuse multiple creatures with rocks in nature. In the second, the apprentice finds himself lusting after a teenage girl brought to his master’s care, only to find himself overcome by his desires. In the third, the apprentice returns to the master, now an adult, only to have committed terrible atrocities, leading him to be taken to prison. The fourth sees the apprentice, now paroled, as he returns to the monastery, only to be visited by a woman, who leaves her baby and tries to run away. Finally, the last season sees the apprentice – now the master – teaching the abandoned baby, who is now his apprentice. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring is basically just a literal translation of every symbolic piece of the Buddhist faith, each demonstrated clearly through the apprentice’s life cycle. It’s a stunning, insightful story that’s certainly a good intro film for anyone interesting in learning more about Buddhism.
21. The Wicker Man (1973)
Directed by Robin Hardy
Long before Hollywood tarnished it with a terrible Nicholas Cage remake, The Wicker Man was an eerie British horror film directed by Robin Hardy. Starring Edward Woodward as Sgt. Neil Howie, the film takes on the ancestral faiths of the generations before us, when widespread Christianity had yet to find itself. Howie arrives at Summerisle, investigating the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan. A devout Christian, Howie is horrified to find the people of Summerisle worshiping the pagan Gods of long ago. He discovers mysteries within the people, specifically Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the island’s leader. He learns of the upcoming harvest and the possibility of sacrifice if it is not bountiful. From there, the rigid faith Howie has held dear may very well become his undoing. It’s a sharp depiction of the similarities and differences between modern faith and the world-focused faiths of the past, resulting in one of the most gut-wrenching endings in the history of the genre. Is it a criticism of non-Christians or a clear attack on the gullibility of the blind followers of Christianity (or any faith, for that matter)? Either way, it has birthed the aforementioned remake, a sequel in spirit (The Wicker Tree), and has a third piece of the trilogy in the works.
20. Babette’s Feast (1987)
Directed by Gabriel Axel
The 1987 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner (beating Au Revoir Les Enfants), Babette’s Feast is the story of two devout Christian sisters whose father – the leader of a small Christian sect in Denmark – has died. Unfortunately, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodjil Kjer) find they have no way to gain new members, so the church is slowly dying. One day, they are visited by a refugee woman named Babette (Stéphane Audran), hoping to be hired as a housekeeper. The sisters can’t afford to hire her, but she agrees to work for free, providing tasteless meals for the sisters and their congregation day after day. But, one day, Babette learns she has won 10,000 Francs from a lottery ticket an old friend from Paris sends her every year. Instead of spending it on her own well being, she decides to use the entire winnings to cook one massive, eloquent French feast for the people she has served for so long. As you may gather from the description, Babette’s Feast is not directly focused on the Christian sect these women lead and their trials and tribulations. But there are few films that better portray the warmth and goodness a meal can provide. The chefs who give us those splendid meals every night night out are truly artists, inspiring as much as any other painter, writer, or filmmaker, for that matter. Religion serves a similar purpose for many people – when the soul is hungry, there is nothing better than a hearty meal of faith and virtue to fill one up.
19. Intolerance (1916)
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Yes, the same man who made Birth of a Nation also made Intolerance. D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece is an incredibly early example of an anthology film, broken into four parts, each depicting a different time in the history of mankind, clearly drawing a line that connects man’s intolerance throughout human history. It begins in Babylon, where followers of rival Babylonian Gods create conflict among Babylonian and Persian leaders. Next, it moves to Judea, where it recounts the crucifixion of Jesus, due to the intolerance of the title. The third story shifts to France, centering on the Catholic intolerance of the Protestant Huguenots. Finally, it moves to the United States, where wealthy business owners’ inability to respect the common worker leads to the downfall of the American people. The passage of time is portrayed through the rocking of a cradle, while none of the main characters really have names (called “The Boy” or “The Dear One”). Griffith’s film was of epic scale, especially in the infancy of the medium. While its themes about intolerance and the undercurrent of religion are there, Intolerance‘s real gifts to film history are the creative editing techniques used in the film – assistant directors Griffith worked with during the film included Erich von Stroheim and Tod Browning, who would go on to influence film history in their own ways. Now in the public domain, Intolerance has about three or four versions floating around, the longest clocking in at 197 minutes.
18. Ben-Hur (1959)
Directed by William Wyler
Twenty years after Gone with the Wind basically defined the “epic,” Ben-Hur redefined it, taking home Best Picture and 10 more Oscars, the most until Titanic tied it in 1997. The title character, played by Charlton Heston, is a Jewish prince who refuses to give up anti-Roman Jews, remaining dedicated to his faith and his people’s freedom. After accidentally almost killing the new governor of Judea, he is thrown into prison, forced into slavery. The film is the story of his trek back to get revenge and give his people freedom, eventually resulting in the epic chariot race. He blames the Roman rule for the pain of his family, refusing to accept Roman citizenship. Upon seeing his family again, his story crosses with that of Jesus, who he attempts to give water to at one point. While Ben-Hur is really just a long story about vengeance, what results is a complete 180, as his witness to Jesus and the crucifixion gives him the desire to forgive. In a time when super-conservative Bible-themes films were commonplace, Ben Hur still stands as one of the biggest of all time. Heston’s performance defined his career, even when his personal beliefs became controversial in his later life.
17. Breaking the Waves (1996)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Leave it to Lars von Trier to make a film that meshes devout religion with sex. Breaking the Waves is Bess McNeill’s story – played brilliantly by Emily Watson – a Scottish woman with mental issues and her marriage to Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), a Norwegian oil rigger. The marriage has been protested by her family and her Calvinist church, which she attends regularly, believing God is answering her through her own voice. She and Jan express their love and sexual desires to one another through phone calls, leading to Bess one day praying for Jan’s return, only to see him paralyzed the next day and flown home. Now unable to perform sexually and mentally unstable, Jan urges Bess to find another lover and give him the details. Bess struggles with her belief that these acts may be keeping Jan alive, being God’s will, since she also believes his paralysis was caused by her prayers. Watson’s performance is probably the best of any performance in a von Trier film, clearly portraying that turmoil between perceived faith and physical infidelity. If you believe that God is literally answering every one of your requests or prayers, how do you keep from fulfilling every stray thought or request that comes across your mind? That’s the chaotic nature of Breaking the Waves, the way only Lars von Trier can do it.
16. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979)
Directed by Terry Jones
The Holy Grail would have worked for this list, too, but let’s stick with Life of Brian, the Monty Python troupe’s “narrative” triumph (in that it has a chronological structure to it that doesn’t shift to sketches). It’s easily Monty Python’s most direct satire, centering around Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), a Jewish man who happens to be born on the same day and right next door to Jesus. Unfortunately, this leads to Brian being confused with the Messiah throughout his life, as his runs parallel to that of Jesus. He attends the Sermon on the Mount. He escapes his hometown, as a fugitive on the run from Pontius Pilate. From there, he is mistaken for Jesus again, having every simplistic religious statement he makes be accepted as the direct word from God, once again being hailed as the Son of God. This leads to his eventual capture and crucifixion, despite the support of the crowd that gathers to praise “Brian of Nazareth.” Met with accusations of blasphemy (obviously) and banning in various areas of the United Kingdom and other countries (a tagline used in the promotional campaign was “So funny it was banned in Norway!”), Life of Brian still managed to be the fourth-highest-grossing film in the UK in 1979 and the highest-grossing British film in the United States the same year. Despite the perceived takedown of the most important story in Christianity, it has surprisingly uplifting themes buried within the insane comedy for which the troupe is known. It’s not as funny as The Holy Grail (or even The Meaning of Life, really), but it’s an original, well-executed idea that is still one of a kind.
15. Wings of Desire (1987)
Directed by Wim Wenders
Yet another film on the list that is shouldered by a sub-standard Nicholas Cage “remake” (the first being The Wicker Man). Wim Wenders’ gorgeous black-and-white (for the most part) tale from an angel’s perspective is a quintessential entry in his impressive filmography, telling the story of Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel who hovers over contemporary West Berlin. He and another angel named Cassiel (Otto Sandler) travel through the city, unseen by humans. Theirs is a solitary life, basically meant to fully understand humanity. That is, until Damiel comes across Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a lonely trapeze artist he finds himself slowly falling in love with. He eventually longs to be a member of the human race despite it including an eventual death. But, as he explains, limited existence may be a greater gift than eternity – he knows of pain and anguish, but has yet to feel it. A subplot involves Peter Falk (playing himself), as he is in West Berlin filming a movie about the city’s Nazi past. While Falk’s storyline has an interesting twist, the beauty of Damiel’s journey is at once inspiring and heartbreaking. Unlike the remake City of Angels, Wings of Desire ends ambiguously, leaving the answers open-ended (though they are answered in a later sequel). Love or eternal life? It depends on the circumstances.
14. Ordet (1955)
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Based on a play by Danish Lutheran priest Kaj Munk, Ordet was really the only film in Dreyer’s catalog that was both a commercial and a critical success. Based in rural Denmark, the Borgen family is made up a collection of characters: the father Morten (Henrik Malberg), now a widower, is a devout churchgoer with three sons. The oldest, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) is faithless, though he is married to a pious woman, now pregnant with her third child. The youngest son, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), is in love with the daughter of the leader of a Christian sect in town. Then there’s the middle child Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), who lost his mind studying philosophy, now believing he is Jesus Christ. The main plot is the family’s attempts to convince Peter, the father of Johannes’ girl, to give her to him in marriage. When Mikkel’s wife goes into labor during one of their meetings, faith gets questioned as tragedy strikes. The back and forth between the three brothers as each of their individual faiths (or lack thereof) is tested: Mikkel becomes more pessimistic, Anders remains focused on his romantic love, and Johannes believes the only way the family can avoid further heartache is to turn away from sin and worship him, the second coming of Christ. It’s still recognized by communities as one of the most spiritually significant films of all time, strongly endorsing the strength of prayer, despite the circular, unconventional way it goes about spreading the message. Additionally, it’s an early example of how religious films set in rural locations – farmlands, small villages – seem to make more impact. Perhaps it’s the spread out, vast nature of the setting. Perhaps it’s just God’s will.
13. Winter Light (1962)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Here’s another film about religion set in the middle of nowhere. Ingmar Bergman – the Swedish master of films with heavy religious themes, however subtle or literal – has always claimed this to be his favorite of the films he directed. Winter Light is one the more intimate works in his filmography, as the protagonist Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand) starts to have an existential crisis when he begins to question his Christianity. The problem: he’s the pastor of a rural Swedish church. Tomas has an ex-mistress named Märta (Ingrid Thulin) who still loves him, though he does not return her love. Part of their division comes from her atheistic nature, which she partially confesses in a letter she reads directly to the camera (in about a six-minute, uncut speech). Tomas has struggled with his faith since his time in the Spanish Civil War, and given the atrocities he sees in the world and with the people closest to him, he has all but lost faith in the existence of God. In the end, the thematic question is hinted at, but clearly stated late in the film: followers of God go through physical pain, psychological pain, and social anxiety as a result of their dedication to Him. While all that sounds terrible, the fact that God never literally answers prayers may be the worst part; God’s silence – the same silence Jesus hears on the cross when He asks for his father’s pity. This was Bergman’s plight, as documented in the Vilgot Sjöman film Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, filmed during the making of Winter Light. This was Bergman’s story – one of anguish, unease, and confusion of who he is in the great mystery of life.
12. The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin
Spinning heads. Split pea soup. The unfortunate misuse of a crucifix. Most people remember the horror elements of The Exorcist, but buried within those graphic moments was a true discussion of faith and the plight of men (and women) who dedicate their lives to the church. When archaeologist/priest Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) finds a small amulet in Northern Iraq, he fears that a demon he faced before may return. Sure enough, cut to Washington, D.C., where a young girl named Regan (Linda Blair) goes from normal to full on possessed by the demon. Her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) enlists the help of detective William Kinderman (Lee Jo. Cobb) who, in turn, questions and requests assistance from a young priest named Damien Karras (Jason Miller) who has lost his faith since the illness and death of his mother. Eventually, it becomes clear that an exorcism must be performed, despite Karras’ refusal. When Merrin is brought in to help, the exorcism is attempted, with haunting and unexpected results. Nominated for Best Picture (a rare feat for a horror film), the real impact of The Exorcist may still be its graphic nature and the horror stories of its troubled production, but, in the end, it’s Damien Karras’ story. In a film that seems so anti-religious at moments and difficult to sit through, its overall position on faith and God is surprisingly positive, despite the nature of Karras’ doubt and eventual fate. The Exorcist is the perfect example of how much more terrifying horror films can be when they include deeper themes; in this case, the metaphorical battle between God and the Devil inside everyone’s soul.
11. The Ten Commandments (1956)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
The true Biblical epic to end all Biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille’s dramatic retelling of the story of Moses (Charlton Heston) is a star-packed journey through one of the most important stories of Christianity and Judaism. Starring Heston as the fabled adopted prince of Egypt, it’s the story of Moses’ realization of his true heritage and his mission to lead his people out of bondage. He eventually leads the Exodus to Mount Sinai to speak to God where he receives the Ten Commandments. Standing in his way is the evil Egyptian king Rameses (Yul Brynner), the rebellious Hebrew Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), and hundreds Egyptian soldiers. Oh, and the Red Sea. Shot on location in Egypt, DeMille’s film is still one of the most financially successful films ever made, the seventh-highest-grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. With music by Elmer Bernstein, The Ten Commandments has every item needed to deliver a successful epic: an inspirational story, a huge budget, quality actors, and a studio willing to pony up the support. A film like this couldn’t be made today – if it was, it would receive the same reception as, say, the recent release Son of God; great commercial success, but a critical failure. Even a film like Noah is unable to do what this film did, since it delineated from the known story so much. If there’s a better film as an example of how the public’s view of Christian-themed movies has changed since the Hollywood era, this writer hasn’t seen it.
10. Andrei Rublev (1966)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
A brutally expansive biopic about the Russian iconographer divided into nine chapters. Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) is portrayed not as a silent monk, but a motivated artist working against social ruin, Russian cruelty, and Tartan invasions. Part one is split into six chapters: Hot Air Balloon, The Buffoon, Theophanes the Greek, The Passion According to Andrei, Pagan Feast, and Last Judgement. Part two is broken into three chapters: Raid on the City of Vladimir, The Silence, and The Bell. The more faith-focused sections don’t really begin until chapter five, when the monks watch a festival of naked peasants running through a forest. From there, it’s about Andrei’s decisions about who and how to paint, based on invasions and how the church will accept his work. Andrei Rublev’s life is littered with pain and disdain, but he forever maintains his faith and his art as a way to deal with the difficulties he sees around his church. Death, famine, and warfare surround him, but Andrei remains a God-fearing man and a wonderful artist. Tarkovsky’s work has never been more sweeping and, despite the incredibly long running time, Andrei Rublev is still one of the greatest Russian films ever made.
9. Viridiana (1961)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Loosely based on Benito Pérez Galdós’ novel Halma, Luis Buñuel’s Palme d’Or winner Viridiana follows the title character as she approaches taking her vows to become a nun. Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) leaves just before her final vows to see her uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), at the encouragement of her Mother Superior, as he is her only living relative. Don Jaime is struck by her resemblance to his late wife; when circumstances lead to his death, he leaves his property to Viridiana and his illegimate son Jorge (Francisco Rabal), who moves in, along with his girlfriend. Deciding not to return to the convent, Viridiana begins to educate local beggars and decides to make it her life’s work. When the beggars break into the home, Viridiana finds herself a changed woman, faced with the prospect of turning her back on her faith-inspired work. Buñuel’s meditation of the chasm between morality and human nature is as evident as ever here, which some critics (and governments) felt was an attack on the meaninglessness of charity and “God’s work.” The Vatican deemed the film “blasphemous,” to which Buñuel replied, “I didn’t deliberately set out to be blasphemous, but then Pope John XXIII is a better judge of such things than I am.” It’s not a clear criticism of the work that nuns and other selfless individuals do, but it is a realistic look at the tug-of-war between sin and goodness.
8. Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
Directed by Robert Bresson
On the surface, you wouldn’t think a French film about a sickly priest arriving at his first parish would be such a heavy influence on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but here we are. Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest is based on the Georges Bernanos novel of the same name, and was only made because Bresson didn’t approach it until after Bernanos was dead. Out of respect, he stayed much closer to the novel’s details than he would have otherwise. The priest (Claude Laydu) arrives in Ambricourt, his new and first parish, and immediately is viewed as an outsider. After he is falsely accused of driving a local countess to death, the priest finds himself with escalating health problems, only made worse by the constant tormenting and hatred he experiences. As in most other Bresson works, his camera is unflinching and, while it feels light on story, it’s deep on thematic elements of human nature and kindness, much like his masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar (made 15 years later). It was only Bresson’s third film and is certainly one of his best, as this brutal story of a man of God’s slow deterioration and social exile is only made greater by the brilliant performance of Laydu. Much like Travis Bickle, our protagonist sees the world for what it has become – a hateful, pain-filled world possibly not worth saving. “God is not a torturer” as the film says; that may be, but Country Priest shows that sometimes it’s questionable.
7. Black Narcissus (1947)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
When the tome is written at the end of time about the most beautiful movies ever made, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus may stand at the top, thanks to the technical expertise of cinematographer Jack Cardiff and art director Alfred Junge (the Criterion restoration is also immaculate). Taking place in the Himalayas, a group of Anglican nuns are setting up a school/hospital to help the locals. While there, they find themselves tempted by the surroundings, the culture, and various people who come into their lives. A British agent named Mr. Dean (David Farrar) is in the area; his relaxed attitudes striking a chord with the Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and fellow Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who becomes unreasonably obsessed with Dean. Despite the central themes of push and pull between working for God and “earthly delights,” the true star of the film is and always has been the vibrancy of the film. Cardiff’s use of creative lighting and camera angles were a shock in 1947, when the typical Hollywood film featured relatively steady, black-and-white or muted shooting. Clodagh’s yearning for a past when she could fully express herself both sexually and emotionally is only augmented by Powell and Pressburger’s decision on how she’s shot and how she is colored – she’s a wild, passionate woman doomed to a life of servitude and silence, until Dean walks into her life. It’s an ongoing struggle between a love of humanity and a love of human nature, all against a background of glorious visual intensity.
6. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Directed by Mel Gibson
Speaking of torture… some of you reading this list may have just been waiting to see where this film landed. Mel Gibson’s brutal depiction of the 12 hours leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus (Jim Caviezel) was one of the biggest box office successes of all time, riding on a wave of what can only be referred to as “Christian guilt.” While the film is a struggle to sit through – the violence meant to shock and influence audiences ended up overpowering whatever message Gibson was trying to deliver – there’s no arguing the impact it had. It was accused of anti-Semitism. It was accused of delineating too much from the Biblical texts. Despite those common criticisms, it became a film that, among a good portion of the Christian audience, was necessary viewing – if you didn’t like it, it meant you didn’t understand the sacrifice and weren’t a good Christian. This was a film employees would let children see because of the topic, despite the fact that it probably should’ve been rated NC-17. Gibson clearly stated that he wanted to show the brutality, though claiming he could’ve made it a lot worse (true). The Passion‘s resulting social and cultural response was more interesting to watch than the movie itself, eventually leading to Gibson’s fall from grace in Hollywood. But, when looking back at the history of religion on film, it’s certainly a milestone.
5. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
If the controversy revolving around The Passion centered on how brutally faithful the film was, the controversy surrounding this gem was in the opposite direction. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1953 controversial novel of the same name, The Last Temptation of Christ earned Martin Scorsese his second Best Director Oscar nomination and ran a gauntlet of protests (and one violent attack on a Paris theater), with many theaters refusing to show the film. Scorsese’s film features Willen Dafoe as Jesus, and portrays him in a much more humanistic light, turning him into a tormented man blessed and cursed with a mission directly from God. While most biographical accounts have Jesus as a confident man with faith unwavering, Kazantzakis and Scorsese make him even more human, filling him with doubt, uncertainty, and yearning for a normal life. Many of the same Gospel stories are here, but none of it is necessarily preachy. It all leads to his final moments on the cross, where he is shown a life where he can step down from the cross and shed his burden, marry Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), and raise a family as a regular person. The original cast saw Aidan Quinn as Jesus, but protests and money concerns halted production for Paramount. Five years later, Universal Studios became interested in the film, replaced Quinn with Defoe and Pontius Pilate – originally cast as Sting – eventually played by David Bowie. In a film history of religious-themed films, The Last Temptation of Christ may be the most controversial, but it also may be the most inventive and interesting.
4. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
One of the early landmarks of cinema history, Dreyer’s biographical film tells the story of the iconic religious figure Joan of Arc (Renée Jeanne Falconetti), her trial, and her execution. As the story goes, Joan of Arc believed she was given a mission from God to drive English occupiers from France, leading her to be tried and killed for refusing to change her story. She couldn’t read. She has next to no supporters among those trying her. Through her trials, she shows great courage, despite being malnourished and deceived by those who controlled her fate. Eventually, she is undone because of her refusal to recant her story, eventually suffering through torture and burning at the stake. The marvel of Falconetti’s performance still makes an incredible impact, even today. Dreyer’s decision to make the film came on the heels of Joan of Arc being canonized as a saint by the Catholic church in 1920, adopted as a patron saint of France. Dreyer gained the rights to Joseph Delteli’s 1925 biography of Joan of Arc, but used nothing from the pages, despite the author receiving credit as a source. If Black Narcissus was revolutionary in terms of camerawork and color in 1947, Dreyer’s decision to shoot so much of the film in close-up was a game-changer, focusing on Falconetti’s face more frequently than anything else in the film, capturing a level of despair and pain not duplicated since. Shots of her were softened, while shots of her accusers tended to be high contrast and rigid. Falconetti never acted on film again, but chose a hell of a performance to go out on – only her second role.
3. The Decalogue (1989)
Directed by Krzystof Kieslowski
This is a cheat. Technically, Krzystof Kieslowski’s masterpiece is a made-for-Polish TV 10-part miniseries, but it gets yearly votes for the Sight & Sound poll for the greatest films of all time, so here it is. The Decalogue is basically a series of 10 hourlong films, each one focusing on one of the Ten Commandments (the Roman Catholic version). None of the episodes are connected by theme – different actors, different stories – though one nameless character floats through the series, appearing in eight of the 10 parts (played by Artur Barciś). As part of a contractual obligation, Kieslowski expanded two of the episodes (five and six) into feature films titled A Short Film About Killing (an excellent standalone film) and A Short Film About Love, based on the commandments “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Each episode is a particularly compelling microcosm of a theme, not necessarily remaining concise about which commandment is being discussed. The biggest highlights of the series: episode six, where a younger man spies on an older woman, only to have her discover him, though she has an unexpected reaction; and episode one, which explores an obsession with science and technology, not to mention a beautifully captured father-son relationship. Truthfully, it’s difficult to single out specific episodes, since the entire series is necessary viewing. None of the episodes make an effort to discuss any of the commandments in a Biblical sense, but you can feel the influence of this long understood moral code throughout the 10-hour experience.
2. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
It’s the best film adaptation of any of the Gospel stories and it was made by an ardent atheist. When Pasolini was deciding which of the Gospels to adapt, he settled on Matthew, because, in his words, “John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too sentimental.” What results is a brilliantly simple picture of one of the most important figures of religious history that doesn’t delineate from the actual text much at all, Pasolini believing that the poetry of the writings were too good to change. Instead of making attempts to prove/disprove anything from the story itself, Pasolini portrayed Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui) as exactly as he was written: a man who, at the time of his life, was inspirational and misunderstood. Nothing is embellished. He takes nothing from any of the other gospels to form a juxtaposition of the story. Pasolini – a known atheist, Marxist, and homosexual – had made some of the most unreasonably stomach-turning films that serve as attacks on the status quo, the bureaucracy, and the ruling class (see his final film Salo…on second thought, don’t) before his violent murder in 1975. But something about his reading of the Gospels in a hotel room in Rome moved this project to the forefront in his mind. It took a non-Christian to make the best Bible adaptation of all time because he didn’t change a thing. The Bible is still one of the most important books in human history and has given the world countless stories that have influenced art and society. Pasolini recognized that and delivered a masterpiece by keeping it as straightforward as he could.
1. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
It couldn’t be avoided. It had to be Bergman. It had to be The Seventh Seal. The film stars Max von Sydow as Antonious Block, a knight returning from the Crusades, he finds his home in Sweden has been destroyed by the plague. There, Block encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot), a pale-faced, hooded man who has come to take him out of this world. But before Death takes him, Block challenges him to a chess match, to which Death agrees. From there, the film shows Block going various places – Death in tow – to meet sick and abandoned people, a travelling circus, and other places, all while his match with Death continues on the beach. Block’s goal – last as long as possible in the match so that, before he dies, he may accomplish one more great thing. While his end may be inevitable, Block’s journey is less about redeeming himself and more about understanding the meaning of all of it. Like Bergman’s other films before and after, it deals heavily with the concept of the “silence of God.” For a man who just spent years fighting and killing for religious freedom, only to return home to find his world in shambles, God is a faraway entity. And then, to learn you will also be taken from this earth? To Block, to Bergman, it doesn’t make sense. There’s never any clarification on why things are done. Block’s match continues and he does his best to bring some comfort to those he meets, tries to find those honest connections humankind lives for, and tries to delay his own demise, while doing his best to assure that none of these other people get taken away by Death on the way. Sure enough, the dance of death will eventually come. Is God there? Is this part of a greater plan? Nothing is clearly answered. Our entire lives are simply one long chess match with Death. It’s up to us to try to make the most out of it for as long as we can, protecting our queen by enriching those around us. And finally…checkmate.
— Joshua Gaul