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.
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.
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.
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