A well done religious-themed movie can be a powerful spiritual experience. Unfortunately, the movie industry generally either shies away from religious themes (unless to deride them), or they fit in the Christian cinema niche that produces simple starches for the masses. It is hard to find a religious-themed movie that is authentically spiritually touching and has good production value, that’s not sappy but also not cynical. Because of their rarity I’m on a lifelong hunt. I’ve scrounged foreign, domestic, old, and new, and these are the fruits of my labors (in order, so 1= my favorite). If I’ve missed some, do let me know. They are rank ordered with favorite=1.
1. Son of Saul
Academy award-winner for best foreign film in 2015. A Jewish concentration camp prisoner forced to help dispose of gas chamber bodies comes across the corpse of his son and tries to find a rabbi to say Kaddish. The cinematography is experimental (the camera focuses on his face the whole time), which creepingly makes the graphic horrors of the camp happening at the edges seem like a sideshow. Definitely not for kids, but a very powerful depiction of earnest, concrete faith.
2. A Hidden Life
Terrence Malik is controversial (aesthetically, not socially/politically), but I like his work. A Hidden Life is the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a (now beautified) Austrian Catholic living in the Alps who was executed for refusing to fight for the Nazis. The cinematography, music, and settings are gorgeous, and the dialogue and themes are very overtly Christian. Sometimes when life gets stressful here by DC I’ll watch the last few minutes, which depending on my mood is either a depiction of the Millenium or the Zion-like farming hamlet that I want to move to.
First saw this in my BYU English class (shout out to Zina Petersen). Emma Thompson plays a English professor grappling with a terminal illness who gradually comes to terms with the shortcomings of her academic-driven life and, near the end, gets a glimmer of the numinous that is described in the poetry she has studied her whole life without really “getting it.” Very interpretively rich movie that made me want to get into John Donne.
4. Tree of Life
Again, Malik is controversial, so don’t skip the rest of the list if he’s not your thing. In this movie, Malik’s explicit voice-over philosophizing about nature and grace doesn’t do it for some people, but I thought it added more than it took away. For some of Malik’s movies it makes as much sense to watch them for the plot as it does to watch a painting for the plot.
When what I thought I wanted to be when I grew up wasn’t turning out, I kept thinking back to the scene where Brad Pitt’s character’s business fails and he comes home to his kids: “you’re the only thing that I have, and you’re the the only thing that I want to have.”
The non-CGI creation scene with quotes from Job playing in the background convinced me that CGI was a copout that we haven’t recovered from.
5. Midnight Mass
A definitely-not-for-kids miniseries from an atheist writer. A mysterious priest is assigned to an isolated island town and the residents deal with all sorts of heavy religious issues such as faithfulness to tradition, conversion, skepticism about miracles, the afterlife for miscarried children, religious epistemology, and non-believers grappling with a world without grace for sins.
If you don’t want to watch the whole series, episode 4 from 27-37 (minutes in, not minutes left), is one of the most powerful religious discussions of miscarriages and the afterlife I’ve ever seen on film. Also, vampires burning up while Muslims are performing their morning prayer to “nearer my God to thee” is surprisingly touching.
6. Amazing Grace
Story of the religiously motivated campaign to abolish slavery in England. Great acting, somewhat predictable, but it’s clearly supposed to be a feel good “family film,” and for that aim it succeeds admirably well.
7. Les Miserables (2012 film)
I’m a huge Les Mis fan. In this version the all-star casting was close to perfect, so I think this is the best movie depiction we’ll ever get. The deathbed scene was one of those “watch when I need a spiritual/emotional lift” go tos for me for a while.
A pair of Jesuit priests undertake a dangerous journey to then anti-Christian Japan to try to serve the underground Catholic community there and save their mentor who apostatized. My favorite “voice of God” scene in cinema is near the end of the film. The “everyman” theme of chronic sin and repentance is heart wrenching.
Fun fact: a BYU professor is the translator for Sh?saku End?, the author of the book the movie is based on; although he didn’t translate Silence he consulted with Martin Scorsese on the film.
Great production value, takes the scriptural source material seriously enough to be true to it, and not just the mainstream 21st century understanding of it (with some Hollywood, of course). The left can be just as preachy about their issues as any cheesy Hallmark movie, but Noah delivers a message about creation that is powerful without being didactic. Also, Russell Crowe reciting the Genesis creation story, enough said.
A good Catholic priest struggles to minister to a jaded congregation in post-sex abuse scandal Ireland. During a confession an anonymous parishioner reveals that because he was an innocent who was victimized by a then-deceased priest, he will seek justice by murdering an innocent priest. The priest continues to go about doing good among his non-appreciative congregants while preparing for his own death. I have no idea how they made a film that managed to be both authentically tender and saturated with Quentin Tarantino-esque dark humor, but they did.
11. States of Grace
In my opinion one of two good things to come out of the “Mormon cinema” moment (Brigham City being the other one), and this film is most certainly the apogee. It’s a tragedy that it didn’t receive more exposure; it’s much more profound and artistically well done than anything in Mormon cinema before or since.
12. The Chosen
Series on the life of Christ is a little hit and miss, but the hits are powerful. Great character development. However, while I realize artistic depictions of the Savior are tricky and controversial, I’m not a fan of super smiley Jesus (yes yes, I know this makes me a conservative curmudgeon).
13. Color of Paradise
Tear jerker Iranian film about an impoverished father who struggles with the difficulties in his life brought on by his religious son’s blindness. The director, Majid Majidi, is better known for Children of Heaven, which is also good, but I like this one better.
14-17. Fiddler on the Roof, Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, and The Ten Commandments.
Growing up these were the classic “Sabbath appropriate” Sunday night family movies that you’d calendar in to watch with your family when you saw they were playing on public television. Of course, this was before the ubiquity of on-demand media options and smartphones killed family movie night. I’m probably the last generation that remembers the thrill of finding out that a particular movie was playing on channel two.
18. The Mission
The second film on this list where Liam Neeson plays an Age of Discovery Jesuit trying to minister to an indigenous people. Probably most famous for its moving soundtrack, also a touching story of redemption.
19. The Nativity (the Church movie)
Some might think that putting a Church production on here is like listing a Mormonad as a great religious work of art. Still, I’ll defend this listing as one of the greatest nativity depictions on film.
20. The Passion of the Christ
A controversial choice, but still probably the best cinematic depiction of the Passion Week. Again, while cinematic depictions of the Savior are tricky and risky, The Passion’s Christ feels more accurate to me than The Chosen’s depiction.
21. The Man who Knew Infinity
Biopic about Ramanujan, one of the smartest mathematicians ever, who, with only a rudimentary formal education solved problems that had befuddled professional mathematicians for years. He attributes his mathematical inspiration to his hometown Goddess, to the befuddlement of his largely irreligious British Oxbridge colleagues.
Charming, innocent romantic comedy about a friendship between an Orthodox Jewish and Muslim woman and their respective intra-faith dating lives.
23. Hacksaw Ridge
Story of a 7th Day Adventist conscientious objector who wins a Medal of Honor. Somehow manages to come off both as a feel-good family film and a gratuitously gory war film. Didn’t appreciate how they seemed to downplay how his particular faith played into his decision to not carry a weapon, but still a powerful faith based movie.
24. Cry, the Beloved Country
The book is great too, both so especially near the end.
25. Prince Egypt
Moving soundtrack, great kids movie
26. Guys and Dolls (1955)
One of the few movies where the highly religious character is the only one with her head on straight. The kind of movie I show my sons to give them ideas about the kind of person they should marry.
Biopic about CS Lewis (played by the inimitable Anthony Hopkins) struggling with his wife’s death. Fun rumor (but heard it from an actual MoTab member who was there), Anthony Hopkins is a MoTab fan.
28. To the Wonder
Another Terrence Malik film, not his best, but there’s a subplot about a priest overcoming a faith struggle that is insightful.
Polish miniseries about faith that was a standard at the BYU foreign cinema when I was there. Addresses faith issues through a variety of stories.
Story of Thomas Becket, who was supposed to be a political appointee as Archbishop of Canterbury who decided to take his spiritual responsibilities seriously and paid the ultimate price for it.
31. The Scarlet and the Black
My wife, half tongue in cheek, has stated that if I don’t behave she’s going to be Gregory Peck’s plural wife in the afterlife, and between this movie and To Kill a Mockingbird you kind of understand why. Biopic about a priest in the Vatican who sheltered people from
Captain Von Trapp the SS commandant in Rome.
Okay, not really a religious film, but the afterlife scene at the end is very powerful.
Possible future addition: The Way of the Wind
Not out yet, but will probably be on this list, a forthcoming Terrence Malik film about the life of Christ with a great cast.