Religion and Cinema

Religious Movies - Simon of the Desert 1People 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.

Religious Movies - Ordet

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.

Religious Movies - Mean Streets

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.

Religious Movies - Jesus Christ SuperstarAh, 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.

Religious Movies - GodspellThe 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.

Religious Movies - The Last Temptation of Christ

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.

Religious Movies - Left BehindThe 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.

Religious Movies - Simon of the Desert 4Okay, 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.

Religious Movies - Simon of the Desert 3It 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.

Religious Movies - Simon of the Desert 2

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?

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  • Great essay, G Clark!

    I have not seen ‘Simon of the Desert’ (and not nearly enough Bunuel films), but I definitely want to check it out now.

    My favorite religiously themed movie is Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Winter Light’ about a priest in a small Swedish town who has difficulty connecting with his declining congregation. Specifically I like the scene that contrasts what you have to say about ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and Jesus’ physical anguish. The church sexton is a cripple who walks with anguish in every step. He speaks to the pastor about the church’s emphasis on Christ’s physical pain, which compared to somebody with a lifetime of surgeries and illness is rather brief and minor. He then explains the bigger pain experienced during the crucifixion:

    “Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. But just think of Gethsemane, Vicar. Christ’s disciples fell asleep. They hadn’t understood the meaning of the last supper, or anything. And when the servants of the law appeared, they ran away. And Peter denied him. Christ had known his disciples for three years. They’d lived together day in and day out – but they never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him, to the last man. And he was left alone. That must have been painful. Realizing that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on – that must be excruciatingly painful. But the worse was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross – and hung there in torment – he cried out – “God, my God!” “Why hast thou forsaken me?” He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.”

    It hits right at the heart of the pain and uncertainty that the pastor in ‘Winter Light’ is currently experiencing. I think Gibson’s film was missing the social and psychological abandonment that Christ experienced (he put too much emphasis on Mary and the fact that Jesus was never alone).

    I never studied religion (I went to a hippy school where it wasn’t even offered), but I’ve grown up in church my whole life. Currently I attend Woodland Hills where theologian Greg Boyd is the lead pastor and his progressive view on Christianity and faith with an emphasis on historical texts might be interesting to a Religious Studies geek like you, G Clark. He always spurs some great conversation with the wife on the drive home at least.

    Anyway, great piece and keep up the great work!

    • Abashedly, I admit that Winter Light is a Blind Spot for me. Got homework to do, I suppose.

      I’ve always wondered about Jesus’s final moments on the cross. When he says “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” it does seem like he’s calling out to a God that has neglected his pain. But it is also the exact, word-for-word beginning of the 22nd Psalm (“…why are you so far from saving me / so far from my cries of anguish…”). The entire Psalm is about how God is always around everyone, even when they cannot remotely feel His presence. So I always wondered if it was the last, perfect affirmation of his faith and duties in the material world. Maybe that’s Gibson’s take, though I can’t know for sure.

      That Woodland Hills website looks great. I’ll have to spend some time really going through it. Thank you.

  • One movie about Islam that I can recommend is Ismaël Ferroukhi’s Le Grand Voyage (it’s on Netflix Instant), which is about a son bringing his elderly father on a road trip from France to Mecca to complete his pilgrimage. While it is probably more of a road-trip/father-son movie than anything, I think it does a really nice job of using the father’s devoutness to religious tradition both as a source of tension and as a means of raising the stakes. Whoever that asshole is who made The Innocence of Muslims should have a good long look at that movie.

    I agree with Alex. Fantastic article, G Clark. The Last Temptation of Christ is one I have always needed to see, but it definitely has that “homework movie” vibe about it – fair or not. Oh, and mostly for the reasons you mention, count me as one of the few Gibson semi-defenders when it comes to depictions of the Passion (I say “semi” because Gibson the guy is a noted Jerkface McAss-hat).

    It’s actually a TV miniseries, but I grew up watching Franco Zifferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth every year during Lent, and even if that movie probably skirts over Jesus’s humanity in a way that would rub you wrong (he is almost TOO benevolent), it will always be the definitive film (TV) treatment of Jesus to me.

  • Fascinating read, G Clark! For my part, I rarely watch cinema with a single spiritual bone in my body, but the director who has had me most contemplative on “matters of the soul” is oddly enough Lars von Trier. Atheistically inclined as his films are, they come from a place so deeply embedded in spirit that, even in denouncing notions of God and life after death, they lead inevitably towards deeper consideration of them.

    If there’s a single film that comes to mind, it’s Steve McQueen’s “Hunger”. That absolute commitment to a belief, encompassing and exceeding notions of immortality and religion, always affected me on a piercingly deep level.

    • Von Trier! Of course!! A perfect example of atheistic yet metaphysical filmmaking. I should have thought of him; the man could get his own similar essay.

    • I second you on Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger.’ That 20-minute conversation between Michael Fassbender and the priest is what made me love Michael Fassbender.

  • Hank George

    Bravo, Clark!

    You hit the nails (no pun) on the head.

    I encourage your readers to watch A MAN FROM EARTH, written by the guy who did much of Star Trek. Although the theme isn’t religion per se, they will find interesting the responses of the professorial types in the room to a rather incredible disclosure by the main character. Besides, it is one of the finest films I have ever seen.

    Last Temptation was even a better novel than it was a cinematic masterwork. It is predictable that it would be demonized as sacrilege.

    Color me crazy, dude, but I consider it s tad blasphemous to have a former member of the Hitler Youth holding down the throne of St. Peter!

    Who knows…if the Church of Rome can at least get into the 20th century they might yet turn around their decline amongst people with an IQ over 100.


  • I haven’t seen too many religious-themed films, but of the ones I’ve seen, my favorites would be The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and Of Gods And Men. Simon Of The Desert and Last Temptation Of Christ look like great movies. I’ll have to look for them.

    I also love that scene in Hunger :) One of my favorite scenes of all-time.

  • Excellent Essay! well done.

    Well i have seen many movies with great spiritual overtones, the last being one of my favorites Tree of Life. Religious movies, my favorite has to be Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ… thanks for mentioning the other brilliant movie i’ll definitely watch them.

    Well i am a Muslim and the only Islamic movie i have seen is Mohammad, Messenger of God which i really like.

  • Wonderful essay. Religion seems to be in many movies, either overly sentimental films (have you seen Courageous? Don’t.) or so subtle you can’t tell or constantly beaten down and ridiculed. The best “religious-themed” film I appreciate the most has to be The Passion of Christ. So many Christians love to judge in their holy huddles, but this film brings them back to reality. I love films that are honest and real, and this one is exactly such. It even showed some humanity to Jesus, unlike how most films want to portray him as some static character who’s slightly handsome, oddly white, and lightly haughty. I was glad to see Mel Gibson showed another side – a more real and true side – of Christ.

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