The best religious films aren’t always the obvious ones, featuring either clerics or bible stories (though there are some good movies of both kinds – and an awful lot of terrible ones). Rather, some of the best capture Christianity sideways, expressing the numinous or the fundamentals of faith through a human story or through a portrait of a way of life. This being Holy Week, when we’re right in the middle of The Greatest Story Ever Told (one to watch), it’s a good time to explore how film reflects religion, straight or infused.
The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson, 2004
It’s hard to imagine how even Mel Gibson got away with a film not just not in English, but in Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin. It was controversial on the basis that it was a) very violent and b) anti-Semitic, though we should remember the events of the Passion were appallingly violent and all the protagonists bar the Romans were themselves Jewish, including Christ. Mel Gibson drew on the gospels, supplemented with other accounts, and the effect a film take on the late medieval Catholic emphasis on identification with the sufferings of Christ. One for Good Friday, but not for the squeamish. Look out for the sequel in the making – yes, The Resurrection of the Christ.
Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois, 2010
Based on a true story from 1996 when a community of Trappist monks in the monastery of Tibhurine in Algeria were (bar one) murdered by Islamists during the civil war. It is an extraordinarily moving portrait of willing martyrdom, an exploration of the meaning of authority and of the monastic vocation. There’s even humour. This is a story of another Passion. It’s stunningly beautiful.
Silence, Martin Scorsese, 2016
A most unusual Scorsese film, his homage to the novel of that name by the Japanese Shusaku Endo. In a way, it’s a failure, chiefly because Andrew Garfield doesn’t really cut it as the main protagonist Rodrigues, one of two Jesuit missionary priests (Adam Driver is much better) who travel to Japan to find their mentor, Ferreira – Liam Neeson – who has unaccountably apostasised. But there are some wonderful scenes and terrific performances by the Japanese actors, especially Issey Ogata as Inquisitor. It’s an exploration of, inter alia, the nature of the crucified Christ, and it’s based on the persecution of Christians in seventeenth century Japan, epitomised by the fumi-e, or crucifix which Christians trod on to renounce the faith. Nice. But it’s the novel that’s really life-changing.
The Mission, Roland Joffe, 1986
This account of a Jesuit mission in eighteenth century South America is memorable for its terrific cinematography – notably a Jesuit on a cross sent over a waterfall – and stellar cast including Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, with screenplay by Robert Bolt. The plot concerns both individual redemption and the way that faith plays out in a fallen world where realpolitik trumps religion, and two Catholic powers, Spain and Portugal, fight out their interests through the native tribespeople.
A Man for All Seasons, Fred Zinneman, 1966
Robert Bolt’s take on the life of Thomas More, which began life as a radio play and moved successively to television, stage and finally an Oscar winning film starring brilliant Paul Schofield. Famously, Bolt projects Sixties liberal values onto More, notably the exaltation of individual conscience above all else. As the historian Eamon Duffy observes, “as a good medieval Catholic More insisted on the primacy of the objective truth, witnessed to by the community of the Church, whatever the individual did or didn’t believe about it. That was why he was so implacably opposed to heresy.” And yet there is truth in this film’s depiction of More as humanist, humourist and affectionate father…and a Christian of utter integrity.
It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra, 1946
This is everyone’s favourite Christmas film, unless you’re hard of heart, and it remains the most exuberant affirmation of the worth of every human being, as well as confirmation of the angelic hierarchy explained by Dionysus the Pseudo Areopagite. George Bailey, 38 years old, contemplates suicide, but his family’s prayers reach heaven, which sends down an angel (second class), Clarence Odbody, to remind him of the difference we make in the world. It must have saved more souls than the Samaritans.
The Song of Bernadette, Henry King, 1943
This is a sentimental and charming representation of Bernadette Soubirous, the young French girl whose visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858 led to the finding of the healing springs at Lourdes that pilgrims visit today. It’s based on the novel by Franz Werfel, and won’t appeal to hardbitten modern viewers. Yet it led one man I know, trembling on the brink, to become a Catholic.
Babette’s Feast, 1987, Gabriel Axel
On the face of it, this is about a French refugee from the Franco Prussian war who is employed by two pastor’s daughters in Denmark. When she wins the lottery. she cooks them a feast. If you look just a little harder, you’ll find a fabulous metaphor for the Eucharist.