Religion is a difficult subject to tackle in film, since so many people have such wide and differing opinions on it. I am not religious at all, yet some of my favourite films deal with religion. So I thought I’d make an attempt at a list of the ten best films to deal with the topic of religion, religious people and/or religious beliefs.
10: The Virgin Spring (1960)
The first of three Ingmar Bergman movies on this list, The Virgin Spring is perhaps the most accessible. Inspiring generations of slasher rape-and-revenge movies, this dark drama actually contains very little blood. The story of a pure, innocent girl who is brutally raped by some vagrants, and her heavily religious father’s shocking reaction is one not to be missed. Contains one of my favourite movie endings of all time.
9: Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
The legendary Robert Bresson’s second film, Diary of a Country Priest is one of his most powerful. A young priest in a small village is ridiculed for his inexperience and youth, and ailed by a mysterious sickness that may or may not be cancer. His religion is the only thing he has to hold on to, and his attempts to share its wonder with his fellow townsfolk are ignorantly rebuffed. Bresson was good at telling sad stories, and this is one of his saddest.
8: The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s brutal, controversial retelling of the final hours of Jesus Christ as he was tortured and abused are powerful and important. Though discussions of the film all come down to the statement “is it anti-Semitic,” I find that irrelevant. It’s a truthful, bluntly realistic depiction of a man who died a martyr, and racial motivation has little to do with that simple fact.
7: Life of Brian (1979)
An unlikely choice, you might think, but I would argue a reasonable one. The seriousness of religion, if you think about it, seems strange and annoying. How can someone take so seriously something that’s impossible to prove? Never mind that. Monty Python here have made a film where it doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not, you can still have a good laugh at something no one ever considered funny.
6: Intolerance (1916)
D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, Intolerance is one of the earliest truly great epic silent films. Spanning thousands of years and encapsulating hundreds of emotions into 163 minutes, Griffith made his greatest film as an apology for the morally flawed The Birth of the Nation, and as much as I hate racists and the idea of racism in general, I think the man deserves to be forgiven.
5: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
I find it tremendously saddening that these days, the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini is remembered mainly as the director of the troubling but dubiously great Salo (1975). He made so many great films that are often glossed over or forgotten about amongst the controversy of his final feature. His earlier films, such as 1964’s brilliant The Gospel According to St. Matthew, are so much more amazing and interesting. This film, a biblical epic unlike any other, is a treasure of religious cinema.
4: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Martin Scorsese’s intriguing, misunderstood, inarguably great 1988 film is rarely considered as one of the true masterpieces of his work, but I cannot see why not. Though it’s different to films like Mean Streets and Goodfellas, it still attains a level of brilliance that only Scorsese could create; it is infused with his genius and rich, respective vision for all genres.
3: Winter Light (1962)
At 80 minutes, this is the shortest film on the list, but easily the most intense. The simple story of the pastor of a small church who is forced to confront his own religious doubts when his atheist girlfriend writes him a long and unforgettable letter, and a suicidal young man visits him with his fears of nuclear holocaust. Containing many well-written, very moving monologues, Winter Light is a film that explores the complexity of religion well through both its incredible dialogue or just the simplicity of the human face. If you are a religious person, you will enjoy this film. If you are not religious, you will love it.
2: The Seventh Seal (1957)
Generally regarded as a classic among critics and audiences, The Seventh Seal is exactly that, to put it lightly. One of the earliest of Bergman’s films to so precisely examine religious doubt, the fact that it is set in the Middle Ages only accentuates the power and beauty of its amazing, rich visual feel, and the tense but explorative emotional climate. With its delightful characters, well-written dialogue, subtle humour and unexpected warmth, The Seventh Seal is a masterpiece to be treasured, no matter what your religious vocation or belief.
1: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Referenced countless times in modern film, either with its plot or simply the empowerment of the emotionally strong woman whose beliefs and strength secure her in martyrdom, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the greatest films. Whether it’s the gentle flow of tears down Marie Falconetti’s cheek, or her unheard voice that we can only imagine is soft and heavenly, we feel her as a beautiful, important, strong woman who unselfishly fought for her God. Even the most adamant of atheists can’t deny that Joan of Arc had heart and was not a fool.
That’s my list. Did I leave any out? How many of these have you seen? Which are your favorites? Are you religious, agnostic or atheist? Leave a comment below.