We move into the top 20 now, where the films become incredibly spiritual. One major component seen in many of these religious films: the overtones meant to instill a sense of mystery and wonder. You see it in films set in both sweeping landscapes and intimate settings. Whether or not any of the films on this list are condoning the acceptance or rejection of faith and religion is almost beside the point. The real point is that it is so influential on our culture that movies will always be made about it.
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.
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.
— Joshua Gaul