As we are full-on in the Lent season, our definitive list will focus on films about religion or some aspect of it. The #1 qualification to be on this list is to deliberately focus on religion, a religious figure, or have the presence of a religion/faith as an integral plot point. For example, most of Luis Bunuel’s films can be viewed as attacks on the church, but they aren’t literally about Christianity; therefore, they won’t be included. So, on this list, we’ll look at as many different faiths as possible (though, there are obviously a lot more movies about Christianity than any other religion). We’ll even dabble into cults and sects that don’t really exist. Final rule: no documentaries. We’re keeping this fictional.
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.
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.
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.
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.