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.
What do you think of “Last Days in the Desert” with Ewan McGregor?
Haven’t heard of it, but it’s going on the to-watch list; thanks!
Interesting list; thx for posting. One typo: Franz Jägerstätter was BEATIFIED
Cool list. Thanks. I’m glad you included “The Tree of Life,” which is so incredibly beautiful. I’ve never seen another movie like it.
The new release American Underdog could be on this list. An uplifting story that honors God without the usual Christan movie preaching.
“Signs” from M. Night Shyamalan. A story of faith lost and gained, all unfolding during an alien invasion. One scene involves Joaquin Phoenix wearing a tin foil hat and explaining to Mel Gibson that God protected him from a vomiting drunk girl.
@Tom: haven’t heard of that one either, thanks!
@Ber: Of course, I forgot about Signs, that’s another great one.
What? No Ben-Hur, It’s a Wonderful Life, or The Sound of Music? ;>)
“Ordet” directed by Carl Dreyer is probably the most theologically profound movie I’ve seen–I highly recommend it.
This movie came out at the beginning of the pandemic and didn’t the word of mouth advertising it would have otherwise. Highly recommend it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corpus_Christi_(2019_film)
Incompletely misses those 3! Also, never heard of Ordet, so thanks!
I watched Corpus Christi, it didn’t really do much for me, although I do enjoy a good no holds barred prison brawl as much as the next guy.
If you breakdown Groundhog Day, you get a textbook working of the Plan of Salvation. You begin with a completely carnal, sensual, and devilish man played by Bill Murray. When he realizes that he has been put in a situation where there appears to be no consequences to any of his actions, he initially becomes more hedonistic. But soon he realizes that this behavior makes his life totally meaningless, even boring. Next, he tries to use the knowledge that he gains from each day to make a romantic conquest of the angelic Andie McDowell through manipulation…and utterly fails. Slowly, he begins to care for the individuals he confronts “daily”, particularly a man who dies day after day. As he begins to interact in a positive manner towards others, he begins to experience the warmth that unselfish service can have for his life and others. He also begins to experience a form of eternal progression as he adds new skills that can serve others. Finally, he truly learns how to love. When this happens, he now enters – with his eternal companion – the next phase of his existence as a changed (born again?) individual.
…or at least this is the way I see it.
@Seeker: There were a lot of movies that could have been interpreted through a religious sense, but for purposes of this list I kept it to those that directly addressed religious issues. I thought about Sound of Music, for example, but if you think about it it only addresses religiosity explicitly near the beginning, but it isn’t really a consistent theme throughout.
@Mark B., I watched The Apostle years ago when I got bored easier, but I should give it another chance (I originally hated Tree of Life, but understood it more when I got older).
The Last Sin Eater
The Ultimate Gift
I Can Only Imagine
I think Risen is very well done, and the series A.D. as well.
Thank you everybody! (And keep them coming if you can think of others.) This is really a feast, I wouldn’t have known about most of these suggestions despite the systematic way I’ve gone about looking for them.
Also, Whale Rider! I forgot that one, but that is another powerful movie about the vitality of family-based indigenous religions and the tension between tradition and modernity.
Dan Witherspoon over at the LDFaith podcast frequently mentions the movie “Jesus of Montreal”, but I haven’t been able to download it. I understand that it is a modern-day setting of the passion.
I whole-heartedly second “Whale Rider”.
A Christmas Carol (1999) w Patrick Stewart.
Joan of Arc (1948).
The Robe (1953).
Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It has some bawdy humor, but teaches us to see the good in each other, looking past quirks and faults- to see w spiritual eyes. Should be required viewing for any missionary about to become a 24/7 companion. Amiright?
Oh God (1977) w John Denver and George Burns. We as LDS should love this one- God chooses an ordinary guy to share his word.
Miracle of 34th Street (1947). How to believe.
Contact (1997) Carl Sagan novel w Jodi Foster.
Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe movie series (2000s?)
First Contact -Star Trek (1997)
*I’m saddened to see so few options about women of faith, or options where women are the lead characters. I noticed that several of the Mary-based movies were left off the list.
Oh – one last one! Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcast w Donny Osmond.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927)
The Chosen (based on the Chaim Potok novel, not the current series)
Fill the Void
Les Miserables (1998 version)
I loved The Chosen (the movie). Word on the street is that Babette’s feast is Pope Francis’ favorite movie, but I didn’t get it, I’ll have to check it out again.
Des hommes et des dieux (Of Men and Gods or Of Gods and Men), 2010 – human, spiritual and touching.
Dead Man Walking. In a blog post well over a decade ago, I wrote:
[Dead Man Walking is] one of the most profoundly spiritual films I’ve seen in my life. For those who haven’t seen it [warning: spoilers ahead], it’s the true story of a Catholic nun who ministers to a convicted murderer awaiting his execution on death row. She works to help this young man acknowledge the magnitude of the crimes he denies committing and take responsibility for his actions before he is put to death.
In reaching out to both this man and his family, the nun ends up angering the families of his victims, who perceive her efforts as ‘siding’ with the man who had brutally turned their lives upside down. (It also didn’t help matters any that, as a Catholic, she opposed his execution). Heartbroken, the nun struggles to somehow find a way to succor everyone: the families coping with the vicious murders, the young man who has committed the terrible deeds, as well as the young man’s family, who in a very real sense are victims themselves. The film is very even-handed, but still manages to delve meaningfully, and without superficiality, into heavy issues like love, forgiveness, the rippling consequences of sin, and our continuing search for peace in this life. The closing scene, in my mind, is a poignant work of art; it’s understated, but that adds to its impact.
After the execution and funeral of the young killer, the father of one of the victims confides in the nun that he is struggling with a great deal of hate. The murder not only had deprived him of his child, but it tore apart his marriage, and has left him increasingly bitter. Before parting ways with the nun, the father says that he wishes he had the nun’s faith. She responds that it’s not that easy, that it’s not just faith, that finding a way out of the hate takes work. He tells her that he doesn’t know if he can do it. The movie then cuts to a shot of them, through the warbled glass of a Church window, kneeling in prayer at some later point in time. It’s a tough film to be sure, but I can think of few other movies that have so vividly crystallized gospel principles for me. In a very real sense, it helped to shape my view of forgiveness. No matter how justified we might feel we are in our anger and hatred toward others, we still have to forgive. Retribution and justice, though they may be called for, won’t bring us peace… only forgiveness can do that. And often, the only way we’re going to find that ability to forgive — or that peace — is by working on our knees.
Saw Wit when it was a play. My very “into the performing arts” friends hated it. But it moved me a great deal, I think in part because I’ve lost a sibling and had several relatives die of cancer. I view the creation scene in Tree of Life as a secular endowment presentation. I think both are great choices. BTW, I think Prince of Egypt is sneakily good. It moved me much more than the Charleton Heston film.
Some films are religious themed. Some borrow those themes lightly like a borrowed coat and I don’t count those, though they may be a good film in any case. Others are just using religion as scenery–again, they may be good, but they are not religious themed. I’m seeing all those in the comments.
I always thought of the Mission as a Jeremy Irons film.
I would include both the Borgias and Lucifer as series with a surprising amount of religious/philosophical content.
I want to place a vote for “Mass Appeal” starring Jack Lemon as a charismatic Priest assigned to mentor a young firebrand newly graduated from the seminary.
What no Kirk Cameron movies?
Sorry about this very late entry: A Man for All Seasons