The age old problem of evil is no stranger to philosophy, theology, or film. Filmmakers have struggled with evil and its existence since creation (of the medium). Simply put, how can evil exist in the face of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent deity?
Philosophy, which itself developed from theology, and specifically philosophy of religion has struggled to make room for such a good God for millennia. Now, the problem of evil is a hot topic in secular ethics and the sciences, as thinkers try to understand how notions of good and evil were developed over time and how this relates to the creation of religions.
In what follows, I offer a list of the top 12 films struggling with the problem of evil. I limit this list to one film per filmmaker.
12. Viridiana (Luis Bunuel, 1961)
Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a young lady about to take her vows and join a nunnery in Spain. Her Mother Superior (Rosita Yarza) insists that she visit her uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) who then tries to persuade Viridiana to marry him. After going back and forth a few times, he decides to try to trick her into marriage, with that failing horribly.
The film continues on, with every twist and turn happening at Viridiana’s expense. Buñuel’s point, it seems, is that human nature is fallen and immutably so. Viridiana attempts to overcome her nature and aid others in their saintly journeys of faith, but is continually disappointed.
The homeless she helps take advantage of her, her uncle manipulates her, and she has to disappoint the nuns by refusing to take her vows. Ultimately, Viridiana loses her faith, and gives in to sin. I mean, everyone else is doing it, so there can’t be a God watching, as Buñuel wants us to think.
11. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
Au Hasard Balthazar is a Bresson masterpiece following Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) and her donkey Balthazar over its life. Both Marie and Balthazar lead rough lives, enduring abuse and suffering. Balthazar in particular is made to work constantly (as most donkeys are) and is treated cruelly by different owners throughout the film.
Marie, after facing hardships, begins to lose her faith in God, wondering how God could allow such things to happen if he is indeed perfectly good and loves goodness. Balthazar, on the other hand, endures, remaining patient and loving to his owners and never losing his faith.
Bresson depicts Balthazar as a saint, remaining faithful throughout hardships and always trusting in God’s will. Evil is no deterrent and suffering is necessary as Balthazar clings to the notion of salvation.
Marie cannot reconcile her notion of God with the evil in her life, but she cannot give up on him either. She remains faithful to a degree, determined to figure out how God and evil are not mutually exclusive, but unable ultimately to resign herself to God’s will.
10. Mr. Nobody (Jaco van Dormael, 2009)
This Jaco van Dormael film takes place in 5 timelines, 3 of which are mutually exclusive. Van Dormael wants his viewers to consider each timeline and decide which of the three, if any, is ideal for his protagonist, a young boy named Nemo (Thomas Byrne) faced with an impossible choice.
The film takes place at the beginning of things for Nemo, as his mother and father meet each other and fall in love. When they decide to have a child, Nemo is chosen by angels and sent to his new family. Not too long later tragedy strikes, and his parents divorce forcing him to choose which of them to live with. How is Nemo to choose and, more importantly, why must anyone choose between their parents?
Nemo Nobody spends the duration of the film trying to choose, and viewers are to spend their time trying to realize the meaning and significance behind this choice.
God is removed from the picture, and everything takes place in a fairly secular (minus the angels) setting. Evil abounds, and there is nothing to appeal to for viewers or Nemo. In the end, there is no right choice, and nothing can undo the evil of his predicament. God is dead.
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
One of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s many masterpieces, The Passion of Joan of Arc is heralded as a cinematic work of genius. Its production, given when it was made, and the acting of Renee Jeanne Falconetti (Joan) is absolutely phenomenal.
This accurate film describes Joan’s trial and execution, in the famous and story, as she is interrogated by the French and tempted to say something heretical or dishonest. After being threatened with burning at the stake, she signs a “confession”, only later to recant it and submit to her death.
The film is, as must be expected, a trial of Joan’s faith in the face of persecution and evil. The French continually try to deceive her, reading her a letter supposedly from the French monarch, and yet she remains steadfast. Seeing the torture chamber meant for her doesn’t deter her, though it causes her to pass out. She submits initially to a fake confession, but as soon as she realizes that this is unfaithful to God (the opposite narrative was presented to her) she revokes her signature.
Evil abounds, but she trusts in God and his will to the end. For Joan, God and evil can coexist, and it is her duty to remain faithful to God in the face of great evil.
8. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
In this famous Kubrick film, Alex DeLarge (Malcom McDowell) is a youthful disaster, engaging in “ultra-violence”, stealing, raping, and doing drugs. He and his friends are terrorizing London, and eventually are captured and taken in by the police. Alex is then subjected to experimental rehabilitation techniques as society tries to make him right again. The film deals with psychiatry, violence, sexual perversions, Beethoven, and the problem of evil.
The central issue in the film, however, is that of free will, which allows Alex to do these dreadful things, and how the state is not a tool apt to deal with such mischief. Near the end, Alex is upheld by the government as a successfully rehabilitated criminal, regardless of his actual state.
What is upheld in the film is not rehabilitation, not the goods of this society in London, and not even Beethoven, but is rather the necessity of choice. Choice allows one to choose virtue or vice, and this presentation of it answers the problem of evil and God’s existence without ever touching God.
7. Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
Amadeus begins with composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), who has taken an oath of chastity before God so that he can be the greatest composer of his time. At first, he is met with great success, and is named the court composer for the Austrian emperor (Jeffrey Jones). Yet, shortly thereafter, Mozart (Tom Hulce) comes onto the scene.
In brief, Mozart is a womanizing scoundrel of brilliant skill and imagination, and he quickly captures the hearts of every music lover in Europe. Salieri is (justifiably?) outraged.
The narrative is told as Salieri confesses to a priest (Herman Meckler). He questions God, asking why this can happen, screaming that it isn’t fair. He even rips a crucible from his wall and casts in into the fire.
Not only is there evil in his world, this evil has been blessed by God and is met with great fortune. Salieri loses his faith, and ultimately loses his mind, as jealousy takes over his life. Can such evil exist and be so blessed by a good God?