The Ten Best Films About Religion

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.

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Posted on December 14, 2011, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. A few weeks ago i went through sort of a Jesus marathon with Passion, The Last temptation, and Life of Brian. Passion didn’t really do much for me, and to be honest i got a vaguely homophobic subtext from it(The devil being rather effeminate, the wacky king, and the guy who seemed to be enjoy whipping Jesus a bit too much). I liked the Last temptation and Life of brian more, although i didn’t love them.

    As for me, Doubt is the only that comes to mind that is not on your list. Not sure whether it counts as a truly “religous” film or not, but it did focus on priests and nuns.

    I generally don’t seek out religious movies myself. It is just generally not a subject find myself interested in. And i’m jewish, though my mom is Christian(my dad is jewish, so me and my brothers were raised that way).

    • Interesting what you think about PASSION OF THE CHRIST. I will have to see it again sometime.

      DOUBT I liked, but didn’t love.

      I’m not that interested in religious movies either. But these films are all great.

  2. Christian Hallbeck

    As always a well written post Tyler!

    I have seen eight of the films you mention (I haven’t seen “Intolerance” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”).

    Other films about religion worth mention are: “Andrei Rublev” by Tarkovsky, “Ordet” by Dreyer (this must be THE film about religion, come to think of it) and “Breaking the Waves” by von Trier.

    What’s your opinion on “Red” by Kieslowski and “Au Hasard Balthazar” by Bresson? Do you find them to be about religion?

  3. Christian Hallbeck

    I was just curious (about “Red”)…

    I have seen “Ordet” twice in the cinema. When watching the final scene some people cry, others laugh. This film is truly about faith! Either you belive or you don’t. You ought to see it.

  4. If you haven’t seen it, Simon of the Desert is a must. I’m guessing Ordet would have made the list, as well, once you see it.

    It probably doesn’t belong on the list, per se, but Scorsese’s Kundun is beautiful.

    I sort of have to point out here, for a list about religion, all of these are about Christianity. No other religions are represented.

    • I really need to see SIMON OF THE DESERT and ORDET. KUNDUN was good.

      Holy shit you are right! I didn’t even notice that! I guess I haven’t seen many films about other religions. I briefly considered the Coens’ A SERIOUS MAN, but didn’t think it was about religion per se. What do you think? If you could name any films about any other religions I would be more than happy to check them out.

  5. I’ve actually only seen four of these, so my perspective is limited, but I agree with your top picks. I think the Last Temptation of Christ there too, so it’s great to see it up there. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a stunning film.

  6. Great List! I agree with your choices. Though, I don’t agree that everyone will love The Seventh Seal. That was the first Bergman film I’d seen, and it was just too out there to digest. It was after going through his less mind-screwing movies like Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring before I could even begin to contemplate the Seventh Seal. It goes without saying that I saw the brilliance of the film the second time around.

    When I think of religious films, one that popped into my head is Ken Russell’s brilliant but INCREDIBLY disturbing “The Devils” (1971). Growing up Catholic, this movie creeped me the hell out, and I squirmed during its infamous orgy scene. But I absolutely loved Oliver Reed’s performance as the lead character, Urbain Grandier, a priest who comes in charge of the city of Loudun when the governor dies and challenges the authority of Cardinal Richelieu.

    Also, the film did point out to an extreme degree the type of fanaticism that sometimes comes out of blindly following a religious entity without really making any effort to understand it. So yeah, its a great movie, but it definitely should come with a strong warning about the sexual and religious themes.

    • Yeah, THE SEVENTH SEAL does take a few viewings to truly appreciate it but I still think it qualifies as valid for this list.

      I want to see THE DEVILS.

  7. The Passion of the Christ wasn’t anti-Semitic—at least not insofar as it wouldn’t inspire anti-Semitic feelings in anyone watching the film who didn’t hate Jews already—but it was a perversion of Christian teaching, the point of which (as I’ve always understood it) is not that Jesus died but that he was resurrected. Mel’s version demotes the resurrection to a footnote and is all about the death. What it says about him that he felt he had to drive the nails into his saviour himself is something I’m not sure I want to know.

    Cecil B DeMille’s 1927 King of Kings is old school Christ in many ways, but it’s a great piece of filmmaking.

    • I think perhaps he knew there would be controversy and decided to do it anyway. But yeah, the film is pretty fucked up.

      Hmm… I think I’ve heard of that one.

  8. I am not really a religious person. I shy away from these types of films as I hate to be preached to. Although you make a very good case for them all

    Thanks matey

  9. What a great list, love seeing so much Bergman here, as I think he was the best filmmaking in chronicling the great unknown.

    I completely agree that Last Temptation of Christ is misunderstood greatness, love that flick.

    Also, the last line of your Winter Light describes perfectly why I love it.

  10. Christian Hallbeck

    I almost never buy new movies, Tyler. But when I read about your strong reaction yesterday, after seeing “Incendies”, I bought the film right away. I expect it to arrive tomorrow. I take it there’s quite a few religious motifs in this film too…

    • Yes, religion is a key part in INCENDIES. Coincidentally, I’m writing a review of INCENDIES which will be posted within minutes of me writing this comment.

  11. I will assume you chose to exclude docos in your selection process. Religulous and Jesus Camp are worth checking out. Deliver Us from Evil is another good but disturbing doco but it is more about abuse rather than the religion that protects it.

    • I did choose to exclude documentaries, mainly because I haven’t seen many on the subject. I’ve heard of all three of the ones you mentioned though.

  12. I have no religion believes but I have seen many good films about it.I have seen The Virgin Spring,Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ,and I like them all.
    I’d like to add one film to this great list,which is Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence,a Japanese film.

  13. Mostly good selections, but I’m sorry, Passion is just crucifiction porn with no redeeming value (sorry, unintentional). In general I don’t look to H-wood fo their take on religion, but this was (very profitably) told by a multi-bigoted celeb who follows a retrograde form of Catholicism.

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