Religious films have a reputation for poor design and cheesy acting, but there are good ones if you know where to look. People have asked me for a religious pick list in the past, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence finally inspired me to write one up. Here they are, in my opinion, ten truly great religious films of all time.
1. The Seventh Seal. Ingmar Bergman, 1957. If there was only one religious film I could save, it would be this one. It sounds a bit boring when described (a knight plays chess with Death), but it’s the knight’s journey around the game’s intervals, through a land struck by plague and fanaticism, and his attempts to penetrate God’s mysteries, that drive the story. It opens with the citation of Revelation 8:1: “When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. Bergman was obsessed with the silence of God in the world (see also entry #10 on this list), and in The Seventh Seal he ties that theme with mortality, existential dread, and apocalyptic fears. It’s set in the 14th century, as the crusades were becoming obsolete, and when modern anxieties queried even more basic aspects of the Christian faith. For example, in his futile quest for meaning, the knight’s best reach comes by enjoying a simple meal of wild strawberries and milk in the countryside with a peasant man and wife. The strawberries meal seems to contrast with the ritualized Eucharist liturgy. But there’s also huge entertainment in The Seventh Seal — bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation, and a witch-burning to top it off — that the theological side helpings make it one of the most balanced arthouse films I know. The final scene (above image) is my favorite frame from any film: the Dance of Death. If it is indeed this nihilistic dance that awaits us all, at least Bergman allows us to enjoy some comforts and unexpected epiphanies, and through a great cast of characters, before we get there.
2. The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick, 2011. This meditation on suffering was inspired by the book of Job, in which God replies to his servant’s anguish not by having the courtesy to answer the question, but by hubristically displaying His creation: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. (Job 38:4) This is what the 20-minute cosmos sequence is about, a stunning Big-Bang/evolution snapshot that makes us feel humbled by celestial mysteries. While it didn’t exactly make me feel better about the problem of theodicy (why the innocent suffer), the amazing visual canvass with Lacrimosa playing over it (you can watch the sequence here) helps put the matter in perspective in a way that words off the scriptural page cannot do so well. Our tragedies look admittedly small in the grand scheme of things. Basically, Malick takes an American Catholic family of the 1950s and frames them within this macrocosm of evolution, and also within a dialectic of nature vs. grace: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, insults, and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, to get others to please it too, and to find reasons to be unhappy.” What’s interesting, however, is that grace emerges in this film not as something which contradicts nature (even if it is its conceptual opposite), but rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. The film ends on a spiritual apocalypse that could move an atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, even if that’s a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with our losses.
3. There Will Be Blood. Paul Anderson, 2007. This blistering attack on the prosperity gospel was almost enough to make me renounce my capitalist convictions. Set in 1911, it’s about a man’s rise from poverty (a miner) to riches (an oilman), and his relationship with a young pastor who offers faith-healing and hypocrisy to those who dare the doors of his grim church. Daniel is a mean and hateful man, who has no friends and just wants to become filthy rich. The pastor is Eli, who is just as greedy but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty; Daniel scorns religion but has no problems using it as a means to an end. The middle and final scenes define this relationship. In the first, Daniel arrives at the Church of the Third Revelation and suffers a humiliating baptism which involves him screaming his confessions at the congregation and Eli slapping his face: “You will never be saved if you reject the blood,” warns Eli, a statement loaded with irony since there is plenty of real blood on Daniel’s hands. The final scene sixteen years later reverses the humiliation. Eli has become a failure and needs money, and Daniel (now an obscenely rich drunk and more mean-spirited than ever) says he will give Eli money if his admits that he’s a false prophet and God is a fiction. Eli confesses this, and Daniel finishes his revenge by clubbing him to death. Blood spills from everywhere throughout this film — from the land (oil), people, and the Lamb Himself — and critics are right to call it a masterpiece of rare vision. It’s about greed and evangelism eating each others tails.
4. Doubt. Patrick Shanley, 2008. When a liberal priest is accused of having an erotic interest in one of his altar boys, one nun becomes convinced of his innocence while another is certain otherwise. We aren’t sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest a sympathetic character. He’s progressive for the year 1964, while the inquisitorial nun (Sister Aloysius, above image) laments Vatican II. The pivotal scene is the conversation between Aloysius and the boy’s mother, who basically tells the nun to just let the priest have his way with her son, in a jaw-dropping and surprisingly compelling argument, given her limited options as an African-American woman of the time period. She isn’t wild about her son’s friendship with the priest, but thinks it’s a refuge from life at home under a violently abusive father, who hates and beats the boy for “his nature” (apparently the boy’s gay orientation is being signaled at an early age). That’s a hard idea in our world today which pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths, and that is part of Doubt’s challenge. It’s easy to like the priest for many reasons, not least his fantastic sermons. The opening one on doubt (being “a bond as creative and sustaining as certainty”) and the middle one on gossip (which skewers the two nuns wonderfully) are brilliant. Everyone has doubts to the end. Whatever the precise relationship between the priest and boy, it may not be a predatory one, though my guess is that it probably is, given the way the priest gets overly defensive about the obscure reason why he had to leave a previous parish.
5. Silence. Martin Scorsese, 2017. Scorsese’s occasional forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — have been so bad that I set my expectations low for this one, but he finally hit a home run. Silence is as brilliant as his gangster films, and a special treat for someone like myself who loves Shogun. That novel is set in 1600, in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635), and portrays the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Oda Nobunaga had welcomed them in 1568 in order to obtain guns and cannons for his military campaigns (though he was also genuinely impressed by the rigors of Jesuit life, while despising the hypocrisies of the Buddhist clergy); Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the next unifier who loathed Christians, issuing an edict to expel them in 1587, and then crucifying a whole bunch of them in 1597; with the ascension of Ieysu Tokugawa and the establishment of his shogunate in 1600 (to last until 1868), attitudes towards Christians became ambivalent, until finally in 1635 Christianity was banned and inquisitorial methods were devised to root out practicing Catholics. It is this “post-Christian” period in the late 1630s that Silence draws us into, and Scorsese is just as good as Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than it is a Mel-Gibson-like glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame — and essentially reaped what they sowed.
6. Love Exposure. Sion Sono, 2009. To celebrate sexual deviance in a context of religious dogma is a bold strike, and Love Exposure pushes more envelopes than South Park and Borat combined. It’s a four-hour sprawl of religious guilt, sexual frustration, family feuds, industrial pornography, and peek-a-panty photography — the last involving street boys who look up girls’ skirts while camouflaging their camera shots with hilarious martial-arts acrobatics. It’s impossible to summarize without sounding ludicrous, but be assured that critics and audiences love it. I fell absolutely in love with Yu and his quest for the right girl — his “Virgin Mary” as it were. He’s a genuinely good kid, but driven by the need to sin in retaliation against his repressive father, a Catholic priest who treats him horribly in the confessional booth. On the street he finds his dream girl, Yoko, who unfortunately despises men, and yet falls in love with Yu anyway because she thinks he’s a woman since he’s dressed in drag (again: it all sounds too absurd to make time for, but trust me, it works). Things get even crazier when another girl, Koike, comes between them and manipulates them in psychotic ways. While Yu is a product of religious repression, Koike is the product of religious abuse (repeatedly raped by her father until she castrated him) and a destructive sociopath. I felt like these characters were my family by the end of four hours (which seemed more like two and a half), and for all the absurdist comedy, the message about Catholic dogma, new wave cults, and the ultimate nobility of perversion is a very serious one.
7. The Witch. Robert Eggers, 2016. This horror film was misleadingly marketed to give the impression of a mainstream effort with loud bangs and cheap thrills. It’s far better than that, and a religious film primarily, as the characters obsess God and their purity of purpose. Set in 1630s Colonial America (interestingly, the same period of Scorsese’s Silence), decades before the Salem Witch trials, the story tells of a Puritan family who leave their plantation and settle miles away in isolation from other people. This forest border happens to be the home of a witch, who wastes no time lashing out at them, first by snatching their newborn infant under a game of peek-a-boo and stabbing it to death, and eventually by possessing the 11-year old son who dies screaming a prayer by John Winthrop (one of the Puritan founders of New England) in near orgasmic ecstasy. Not being familiar with the writings of Winthrop, I thought this was some kind of pagan perversion of a Christian prayer, given the erotic overtones (which I should have known better as derived from the Song of Songs). The boy is, to be sure, still in thrall to the witch’s possession at this point, but it’s not clear how much, and it’s incredibly scary. He dies after shouting this litany, and it’s pretty much heads or tails whether he’s saved or damned. The film doesn’t exactly choose sides between Christian zeal and pagan blood rites. If there’s any moral contrast, it’s between the misery and liberation of the eldest daughter, who is falsely accused by her family for being a witch, and then in the end becomes one. There is much to admire in the Puritan zeal, and much not to, as it turns out.
8. Noah. Darren Aronofsky, 2014. In some ways Noah is a boilerplate blockbuster, but I love it to pieces for the way it reinterprets the flood through Gnostic and Judeo-Christian filters almost impartially. And if it channels Lord of the Rings grandiosity, that works too, because the first eleven chapters of Genesis are complete myth — the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. It’s a sweeping epic, but a grim one that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide. Noah and his family are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out — because people, in God’s eyes, deserve nothing less. Noah turns homicidal like his Creator, as he plans to murder his daughter-in-law’s babies. Don’t listen to complaints that the theme of divine vengeance has been anachronistically aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism. If Christians knew their bibles, they would know that a significant amount of “environmentalism” can be derived from scripture; and if we’re going to be proper fundies, we would acknowledge that God didn’t add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3). Noah isn’t pro-environmental in any true modern sense, though it can resonate with some viewers on that level. It is a dark chapter of the bible come to life, with a great realization of the Ark and epic battle scene that rivals Peter Jackson’s Ents. But it also forces the hard issues of Job, the Saul and David stories, and the apocalypse of Revelation.
9. Jesus of Montreal. Denys Arcand, 1989. This reinvention of the passion play is, to be sure, a critique of orthodox Christianity but fires especially on secularist evils — fame, the media, and the contempt actors suffer in the commercial industry. It takes place in ’80s Montreal where a Catholic priest hires a talented actor to direct the annual passion play, but he wants him to get creative and rework the stations of the cross for a more modern consumption. The priest gets more than he bargained for. Using the latest of biblical scholarship, the actor (Daniel) casts himself as Jesus and with four other actors turns out a passion play in which Jesus is an illegitimate bastard sired by a Roman soldier, and less interested in making people feel good than terrifying them with lines from the Abomination of Desolation (Mark 13). The priest is outraged and does his damnedest to stop the project, but Daniel and his group persist and continue to draw crowds. Not only that, but Daniel’s personal life begins to strangely mimic Jesus’, especially in two pivotal scenes. The first summons the moneylenders in the temple, when an actress auditions for a TV commercial and is told to remove her clothes simply because the casting director wants to humiliate her. Daniel bounds to his feet and tells her to leave, and then overturns the lights, cameras, and tables. The second scene comes at the end, where Daniel delivers an incredibly haunting version of the Markan Apocalypse before collapsing on the subway station. Most Jesus films are lame; Jesus of Montreal is genius — the best Jesus film of all time.
10. The “Silence of God” Trilogy. Ingmar Bergman, 1961-63. I didn’t want to use any film director more than once, but there’s no escaping it with Bergman. His “Silence of God” trilogy is sometimes called the “Faith Trilogy”, but that’s rather misleading considering that Bergman is always about the impotence of faith. Each film stands on its own, but it’s helpful to watch them sequentially as they escalate the riddle of God’s existence: from the spiritual frustration suggesting God as sinister (Through a Glass Darkly), to the anger questioning his existence (Winter Light), to finally accepting there are no answers, though the search for answers remains important (The Silence). The first is a character examination of incest and psychological breakdown; it was my first Bergman film and I fell in love with Harriet Anderson (above image) completely. The second is a theological interrogation that shows a pastor, furious at God’s indifference, breaking his own “silence” towards the kindest woman with an avalanche of brutality. The third carries the theme of silence to its symbolic extreme, with non-communication pervading every level: two sisters stay at a grotesque hotel and retreat into their own silences/dysfunctions of sexual promiscuity and alcoholism. It adds up to a brilliant symphony which reflects Bergman’s evolution away from a doubtful Christianity. All the more ironic is that his secular humanism became even more doubtful, and I find myself revisiting these chamber pieces to get a handle on my own schizophrenic tensions between religion and humanism.