There are so many ways that individuals attempt to connect with their faith (prayer, music, meditation, study), and over the years, I’ve found that the way I most deeply connect with my faith is through the art of film. Of course, I’m not talking about every moviegoing experience – I wouldn’t say that I feel a deeper connection to my faith when I watch the latest action movie or brainless comedy. But so many of the great works of cinema invite us to contemplate what it truly means to be human, using symbolism and imagery in much the same way that religions use similar techniques to link us to the divine. The lights go down, the projector flickers to life, and for two hours I am submerged in a series of images and sounds that force me to wrestle with what it means to be a person of faith in the midst of a broken world, searching for God at the edges of my screen, in the gaps between those 24 frames per second.
As we approach Holy Week and Easter each year, I always look forward to engaging with my faith tradition’s most sacred and meaningful season through cinema. When selecting films to watch at this time of year, I try to avoid films that offer easy affirmation and confirm my preconceived notions. I look for films that will force me to wrestle with my faith, that eschew simplistic moralizing or easy answers. I want to struggle with Christ through the pain and agony of Good Friday through to the joy and resurrection of Easter Sunday.
So my list of Holy Week/Easter Weekend films won’t include things like The Passion of the Christ or any of the terrible Christian films that seem to hit theaters around this time every year. To one degree or another, all of these films are meant to provoke and challenge, to cause us to reflect more deeply on our faith and the human condition. They may not be as comforting as the treacly brand of faith-based films that are being made today, but I guarantee the experience will be much more rewarding.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is an incredible exploration of faith, art, and the brokenness of humanity. Following the life and work of the Russian iconographer in the midst of tremendous social upheaval. It asks us to consider the role of art and religion in the midst of so much suffering and pain.
John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary tells the story of a good priest who is told during confession that he will be murdered in one week. Over the next seven days he wrestles with his priestly duty, his faith, and the callous indifference of the world around him. It’s a tremendously powerful exploration of faith in the midst of crisis.
Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski created this ten episode series for television in the late ’80, each episode exploring one of the Ten Commandments and its implications for modern life. The series asks us to look deeply at a 2,000-year-old religious tradition and what it might mean in current days.
Paul Schraeder’s First Reformed is the story of a preacher whose encounter with a parishioner lays bare his own existential crisis of faith. Exploring the corporatization of the church and the responsibilities of people of faith to speak against injustice, the film is a primal scream of rage and despair against a religious institution that has come to value power more than justice.
The Gospel According to Saint Matthew
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew is an almost word-for-word retelling of the Book of Matthew, but shot in the Italian neorealist style. Nonprofessional actors play all of the roles, and the filmmaking is documentary-like – even the miracles seem grounded and down to earth. It’s a powerful retelling that eschews emotional manipulation and showcases Christ’s compassion for the poor and marginalized.
Au Hasard Balthazar
Robert Bresson is another filmmaker who relied heavily on nonprofessional actors, and Au Hasard Balthazar is an astonishing film about a donkey who takes on the sin and brokenness of its owners. This portrait of suffering is tremendously moving, a reflection on the true consequences of our selfishness and cruelty.
The Last Temptation of Christ
I grew up thinking that Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was the most evil and depraved movie ever made, but once I finally saw it, I found it to be one of the most powerful and moving films about Christ that I have ever seen. An exploration of the theological assertion that Christ was both fully God and full man, the film lays bare the struggle to truly hear and understand God’s voice, and the powerful allure of temptation.
The Miracle Maker
Perhaps the most straightforward retelling in this list, The Miracle Maker is the most emotionally moving version of the Christ story I’ve seen. Using a blend of puppet and hand-drawn animation – as well as a brilliant cast of voice actors – the film comes closest to humanizing all of the characters we grew up learning about in Sunday School. It never shies away from the doubt and the pain, making this work of animation one of the most honest portrayals of Scripture.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
It’s the only comedy on this list, but Monty Python’s Life of Brian is one of the sharpest satires on religion and blind obedience I’ve seen. Following the misadventures of Brian, who was born in the stable next to Jesus and is mistaken for the Messiah, the Monty Python troupe deftly shows the ways in which misinterpretations and misunderstandings can produce fanatical believers unwilling to consider any interpretation other than their own. It’s an important reminder to live out our faith with humility and recognize the imperfection of our understanding.
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is the closest thing I have to a big-budget action film on this list. Like The Last Temptation of Christ, it received a lot of backlash from the Christian community when it was first released. I found it to be a deeply moving exploration of what it means to hear the voice of God, the ways we struggle to understand, and the ways we get it wrong. In this time where the Christian church is so certain of their infallibility, a film like Noah is an important corrective to our pride and rigidity.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the masterpieces of cinema, an almost verbatim transcript of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. A film about the intolerance, misogyny, and cruelty that is often embedded in religious institutions, the film is also a moving portrait of faith that perseveres in spite of those forces.
Martin Scorsese’s second film to explicitly address the Christian faith, Silence is about Jesuit missionaries in Japan and the government’s persecution of Christians during the 17th century. It touches on questions of colonialism and the ways in which faith can too easily become entwined with nationalism and the quest for power, but the most moving part of the film is the way in which it wrestled with suffering and the silence of God.
The Tree of Life
Encompassing everything from the Big Bang to the afterlife, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is the closest I’ve come to experiencing cinema as prayer. The poetry of whispered voiceovers, the pairing of the intimate and the cosmic, it’s a film that left me in tears and shows that faith and science don’t need to be in conflict with one another.