People are often surprised when I tell them I studied religion at school. It doesn’t really seem to fit my personality. The common question is “Why would you study religion? Did you want to be a preacher?” No, I never had a desire to be a preacher. Especially considering that, though I did attend Sunday School regularly in the decade preceding college, I am not at all religious and speak so dismissively of certain religious doctrines. I probably can’t stress my irreligiosity enough.
(Tangent—G Clark Finfrock fun fact: In sixth grade, for a lark, I suppose, my teacher made all the students in class fill out a lengthy ScanTron questionnaire, the results of which would reveal which vocation would best suit us. At the time, I think I wanted to be a famous pulp novelist, but that wasn’t #1 on my results sheet. No, my best vocational match was Pastor/Priest/Rabbi. The result has amused and perplexed me ever since. End Tangent.)
“Well what did you study religion for? Did you want to teach it?” No, I didn’t want to teach it either. I didn’t have any good, practical reason for why I was on track to major in Religious Studies. Religion was simply a fascination for me, and I was naïve enough at the time to believe that college might be about studying things just to know them. I despair at this post-recession notion that college must be about getting you a good-paying job to have until you die; “extraneous” knowledge being a waste of your time and whoever’s money you’re desperately borrowing for your studies. Anyway, I didn’t end up majoring in Religious Studies. It is still a subject I hold great interest in; I have never stopped studying it.
I’m sorry to have spent the preceding paragraphs talking about myself so much, but mulling over these subjects led directly to the creation of this essay. Though my interest in religion as a subject of study is not readily apparent, anyone who spends even a fleeting amount of time with me is almost immediately introduced to my love of cinema. And cinema is my main passion—and is probably yours, too; else why are we both here at Film Misery? But when someone discovers my interest in both of these subjects, the question naturally arises, “So what’s your favorite religious movie?”
This is an extraordinarily broad question. Well, seemingly. When most people ask that question, they usually do so with Christianity specifically in mind, it being by far the dominant religion in United States culture (and, with two billion adherents, the world). But there are many religiously-themed films that don’t use Christian themes or imagery. Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …and Spring, for example, is a lovely little Buddhist fable, with a simplicity and directness I found very moving.
There are many films that have spirituality, if not strictly religion, as their central theme. The Tree of Life comes immediately to mind, and I’ve written of it elsewhere. There is a strong spiritual element to much of the work of Terrence Malick, and it is one of the reasons he is among my favorite directors.
Faith was a sincere theme of Carl Th Dreyer; The Passion of Joan of Arc clearly deals with the unwavering spiritual convictions of its title heroine. Leaves from Satan’s Book takes a Jewish perspective of the Devil, and his relationships with God and Mankind. Day of Wrath, set amongst the witch trials of the seventeenth century, touches upon those who use religion as a weapon to suit their personal needs. Dreyer’s clearest statement on faith and religion is certainly in Ordet; he contrasts the stolid, officious, and rigid dogma of the warring fathers to the personalized spirituality of the seemingly mad Johannes. Johannes believes himself to be Jesus Christ, and so is dismissed by all the other characters in the film, but he is the only one we see with sincere, unshakeable belief—the kind of belief necessary to create miracles. The difference between a proponent and a believer was never so clear.
If you are going to talk about soft Christianity in films, there are countless titles to mine. Most of Scorsese’s films are awash with Catholic themes and symbols. Few are outright religious—only The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, ironically the least Catholic ones, are so explicit. Certainly many films of Luis Buñuel deal squarely with religion. Buñuel was a famous critic of the Catholic Church, which Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, and The Milky Way demonstrate nicely.
I can think of barely any Islamic films. Mohammad, Messenger of God comes to mind, but in true Islamic fashion, Mohammad is never seen. Muslims consider it gravely idolatrous to depict their prophets in art, which, you can see, makes it difficult to make historical Islamic films á la The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Ah, yes, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Films such as that and King of Kings (both versions) are impressively epic cinematic monuments. It might be unforgivably bourgeois to say, but I like those movies because there is always a certain thrill in seeing their sheer scale. I appreciate their movieness. Their spiritual components, though, leave me wanting. Jesus ends up being portrayed as a walking, talking Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Iconic moments like the Sermon on the Mount and Judas’s Betrayal come across as pretty postcards or reverential illustrations from a child’s Illustrated Bible.
I’ll admit to liking Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar and David Greene’s Godspell for their subversions of some of these tropes. Since both of those films ostensibly take place in the present (at least the ‘present’ of the early 1970s, when both were released), they make the continued relevance of Jesus’s message apparent better than Cecil B. DeMille’s elephantine productions. And the music is great, too.
The best reverential treatment of Jesus is pretty much Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St Matthew). Passolini tells the standard narrative of Jesus’s ministry and Passion, but does so in an Italian neo-realist manner reminiscent of de Sica. It adds a welcome immediacy to the narrative, so instead of looking at some stolid, holy icon, Jesus’s life becomes direct and dynamic. Leave it to an atheist homosexual Marxist to make the most worshipful film of Christianity’s most important figure.
But my favorite film about Jesus has to be Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. The film was vilified upon its release for being blasphemous, which isn’t surprising, since it gave us the most human Jesus yet committed to celluloid. We see Jesus in doubt, fear, lust, anger. Seeing Jesus behave in human ways has always made Christians uncomfortable—they’re fine with depictions of a stately, stoic, aphoristic leader, but any deviations from this image are met with protest.
I’ve always been puzzled by such reactions. Since the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon in the fourth and fifth centuries, respectively, Christians have held the doctrine that Jesus was one hundred per-cent fully divine, and one hundred per-cent fully human. Not some demigod, fifty-fifty mix like Hercules, but fully both, at the same time. Yet, many Christians balk at recognizing any of Jesus’s human attributes. Even holding the thirteenth century Aquinian view of Jesus as a “perfect human” can’t change the fact that, like it or not, Jesus ate, digested, peed, and pooped just like every other human being. Denying Jesus’s human side always seemed equally blasphemous to me because, by Christians’ own admission, you would not be denying half of him, the human half, you’d be denying all of him, since he is 100% human. And without his humanity, the Incarnation means nothing. A film like The Last Temptation of Christ should be extremely useful in this regard.
This is why I feel Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to be such a great educational tool for Christians. In secular circles, the film was seen both as repetitive torture porn and too reverential—a kind of ultra-bloody TBN special. But it is exactly the focus on the torture that is important for Christians to see. Too many Christians in America—around the world, really—don’t seem to really grasp this central tenant of their religion. “Sure, Jesus died for my sins. Good for me!” Yes, how nice. The Passion of the Christ makes this unnervingly real. Jesus was whipped, flogged, beaten, shredded, stabbed, pounded, and crucified for Christians’ salvation. The focus is almost entirely on the body, the physicalness of Jesus. Without all of it, his sacrifice means nothing. Any film that throws that concept back in Christians’ faces deserves at least a bit of my respect.
The Passion of the Christ is also remarkable considering that most films made by true believers tend to fall completely flat. Have you seen any of the Left Behind films? Oh, I’ve seen every one; they’re a hoot. Actually, they share a lot in common with pornography: terrible production values, ridiculous acting, amateurish direction, and a limited appeal to a built-in audience that doesn’t care about aesthetics. Obviously, the pleasure I took from these movies, and others like The Omega Code and Megiddo, was ironic. They may be superficially “biblical,” but they are not spiritual by any measure.
Okay, so there’s a lot of religion in movies; I could go on and on. But when I’m asked “So what’s your favorite religious-themed movie?” it’s no contest. Without a doubt it is Luis Buñuel’s Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert). Have you seen it? I hope you have at least heard of it. The premise is fairly simple: it concerns Simon (Claudio Brook), who has sat atop a tall pillar in the desert for six years, six months, and six days. Various congregants come to him to ask for blessing, or sometimes to deride him. Local monks offer him a priesthood, which he refuses, thinking himself unworthy. Satan often visits to tempt him, amusingly appearing as a busty blond woman (Silvia Pinal, in a great performance). Simon of the Desert, rife with Buñuel’s trademark wit and irreverence, covers every religious theme imaginable—faith, devotion, asceticism, miracles, repentance, evil, immanence, eschatology, free will, sin, forgiveness, prayer, ritual, sainthood, skepticism, so many more—and does so in only forty-five minutes. So, if you’ve never seen it before, there really is no excuse. It’ll take less time to watch than an episode of Breaking Bad; you’ve got the time.
It occurs to me that there is so much in Simon of the Desert, that if I were to talk about it in depth, this essay would double or triple in size! I’ll likely have to write about it at length, at a later date. Before I do, though, I really need to say this about it: Simón del desierto is on my shortlist of the greatest endings in all of cinema. So, if you haven’t actually seen it before, please don’t read about it before you do. It will spoil everything. It is available on Netflix of course, Hulu Plus, or from the Criterion Collection.
I’ve been talking about religion and movies for a while now, but I still don’t feel like I’ve really scratched the surface. I know there there are numerous religions I didn’t even mention—Hinduism, Satanism, Taoism, Judiasm, Animism, Zoroastriansim… the list could go on for pages. And I’ve purposefully left out documentaries.
What are some of your favorite religiously-themed movies? Is there a particular film that resonated with your spiritual or religious beliefs, or lack of belief? A film that changed, challenged, or confirmed your beliefs?