With Holy Week upon us and many people getting into the mindset of religion and spirituality, I thought it would be fun to dive into best films cinema has provided regarding humanity’s thirst for God and truth. Regardless of where you sit on that spectrum – a full on believer or a devout atheist – cinema has given us some captivating films about faith and how complex the journey is along the way. Sometimes it’s urgent and existential. Other times it’s just a matter of ruminating and contemplating on what might be out there. Either way, let’s take a look at faith and religion in film, and the five best that distinct themselves from all the rest.
5. Andrei Rublev
There are some filmmakers (several on my list, if not all of them) synonymous with spirituality and faith, and Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly one of the best. His films, especially Rublev, are chock full of complex and thoughtful ideas on faith and how people wrestle with its challenges. Rublev is long and contemplative, but it becomes a provocative exploration in Andrei Rublev (the character) ruminating on how faith has summoned humanity’s most tragic irony. Some see the Church as a path of hope, but most are drowning in their own suffering, and Rublev is constantly in conflict with that dichotomy. Especially when people indulge in actions that the Church would despise when in reality they are coping mechanisms that they cannot live without. There are many great scenes in which these things are debated, and it’s all channeled through Tarkovsky’s brilliant framing and imagery.
4. The Night of the Hunter
The Night of the Hunter is not only a thematically stirring film, it’s stunning how relevant it still is today. I mean, how often do we see in the news of some sort religious or political figure using “love” and “Christianity” to mask the hatred they demonstrate? Even using Christian bibliography to excuse their manipulative agenda. Preying on those who are vulnerable. Asserting authority wherever they can. The dualities of love and hate are not just written on Harry Powell’s hands, but they’re deeply interwoven within every aspect this narrative and the actions of these characters. It evokes a cynicism that’s wholly counterintuitive to the spirit of Easter, but it’s worth talking about because its ethos is rooted in highlighting the very things Jesus was against. Additionally, the film is simply captivating in its drama and conflict.
Martin Scorsese is one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers (hot take, I know), and is probably best known for his psychological studies and work in the crime genre. However, his spiritual explorations are equally fascinating. The Last Temptation of Christ could have easily made this list as well (more flawed, but still very compelling), but Silence is one of Scorsese’s best films. Period. In fact, you could argue that it’s a Top 3 Scorsese, top 5 at worst. At three hours long, it’s one of the most nuanced and complicated looks at faith and the deflating path it can take you down. There’s a clear dividing line in Silence between being righteous and being truthful. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is constantly forced to reconcile his faith with the reality around him. And it’s captivating to see his desperation devolve into hopelessness as adversity becomes more cumbersome for him. Primarily because, as the title suggests, he starts to question the idea of God when the silence is overbearing. When he needed God the most, he found himself alone and broken. Perhaps that’s just part of the test when indulging in your faith. Either way, this is Scorsese wrestling with the religious human experience (and probably his own) and the deafening echoes of silence that you often hear on your faith journey.
2. The Seventh Seal
It is against the law to write about faith in movies and not include Ingmar Bergman. In fact, this whole list could have just been his entire filmography. Honestly, any one of his movies would suffice (you won’t get much push back from me), but The Seventh Seal is the one that stands out the most. Maybe because it’s the most overt of any Bergman film, but its notions on faith are at once challenging and extremely relatable. It has so much to say about the search for God, and doubts we may have about God’s existence (and by proxy the afterlife as well). The film evokes questions of isolation and emptiness when it comes faith and feeling God’s absence. Antonius Block’s (Max von Sydow) torment and desperation to prove God’s existence, or at the very least experience him in a tangible way, renders some of the most poignant imagery we’ve seen in cinema. It means something to him, whereas the squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) has already accepted the absence of God. Bergman’s dueling perspectives on faith throughout the film is nothing short of sublime. However; I do want to emphasize, what makes The Seventh Seal slightly distinctive as it relates to these ideas, is Bergman’s genuine approach to them. The previous films on this list have a more cynical bite to them (which I love, don’t me wrong, that’s not a bad thing at all), but that dichotomy of rationalism vs faith here is captured with an earnest curiosity for some sort of truth. Whatever that may look like. It’s as if Bergman was truly struggling with this and needed some artistic catharsis. As a result, it’s one of the most honest and balanced depictions of spirituality in film.
1. The Tree of Life
Like the aforementioned filmmakers above, Terrence Malick is known for his spirituality and religious themes. But nothing gets to the heart of faith, in an American context, better than The Tree of Life. At the heart of Americanism are two things – religious freedom and “big” things. For better or worse, American Christianity has been a foundational block since the inception of the United States, and it’s been a defining trait for many families over the decades. The United States has also become a beacon for the biggest and baddest things. Big houses. Big trucks. Big guns. Big everything. So what does Malick do here? He explores religion through the absolute biggest prism possible; the cosmos. Nature and spirituality are woven into the DNA of this film, coursing through its veins as it explores provocative existential questions surrounding and our place in the universe. Using the Book of Job as an allegory for Malick’s family in the 1950s, we see the hardships they experience together. At first its domestic conflict, a father struggling to make the American Dream a reality. But then it shifts to deep grief with the sudden loss of a son and brother. But underneath that, at the heart of the film, is a journey of seeking and understanding God (or some sort of faith) and finding peace along the way. A notion that Malick funnels through this dichotomy of nature vs grace, which sets the groundwork for how this family will cope when their faith is tested. We love our children endlessly. We can also prepare them for the harshness of reality. But the truth is we can’t always protect them. Tragedy can strike at any time. Nature is as beautiful as it is unrelenting. An idea Malick depicts through the Big Bang and even dinosaurs. But in all of that, the film suggests something about faith and understanding that our lives are in the hands of a force beyond us. A force far bigger than we can even conceptualize. We may not understand all of life’s uncompromising difficulties, but there are bigger truths that can comfort us knowing that our dramas are fleeing compared to the majestic and wondrous stage they take place on. That is the thesis of The Tree of Life and it’s one of the most profound cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.
Here are some honorable mentions, as there are several more that make great arguments for being in this conversation: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Winter Light, First Reformed, The Witch, Black Narcissus, Stalker, The Virgin Spring