6. Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)
A directorial experiment for Hitchcock, Rope is one of his darkest films. Two recent college grads Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) strangle a former classmate and friend, David Kentley (Dick Hogan). Why? The murder is a perfect murder and intellectual exercise—it proves that they are the Nietzschean ubermensch and David is not.
They then, out of a sick impulse, invite David’s girlfriend and family over, as well as the three’s mutual former teacher, Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart). To complete the scene, they dine on a chest, which is concealing David’s body, and they make small talk of David and his life.
While this isn’t the most horrifying or action-packed Hitchcock film, it is the most blatantly Nietzschean and nihilist. Rupert must realize that teaching his students Nietzsche in such an approving manner is dangerous, for Nietzsche condones rising above good and evil (since, notably, “God is dead” so to speak).
An interesting project, the film is shot in 10 takes and edited so as to seem like one long take, almost entirely inside one apartment. Can there be anything but evil without a God?
5. Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)
Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) are in a dark world and following a series of twisted, ghastly crimes. The murders seem to be committed with great skill and patience, as a sermon against evil calling out the seven deadly sins.
Mills and his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) are new to the city hoping to start their lives together, whereas Somerset is set to retire in a week, unable to take the cruelty of the modern world. Sounds a bit No Country for Old Men, eh?
As the murders continue, becoming more gruesome and premeditated, Somerset reflects on how awful the world is, telling Mrs. Mills that he didn’t dare to bring a child into such an awful and cold place. He knows and admits that he will miss the force, but he cannot understand how things have gotten so bad. He is without faith, alone in the world, and disgusted with that fact.
Mills, on the other hand, has his wife, his goals and aspirations, and his fallen human nature. Without God, both are alone in the face of evil, and “with” God, the murderer is bent on bringing sanctification to the world.
4. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
This Tarkovsky film follows iconographer Andrei Rublev through eight chapters of life and film, as he struggles with artistic freedom, freedom of religion, and political freedom. The kicker is, Andrei Tarkovsky was struggling with the same things at the same time, making this rebellious film controversial and leaving it censored for 5 years until an altered version could be released in the Soviet Union.
For our purposes, we need only to look at its prologue, which features Yefim (Nikolay Glazkov), an artist attempting to escape persecution by flying away in a hot air balloon.
Yefim, we can surmise, is like Rublev (or Tarkovsky) in that his work is controversial and he faces persecution by the state. Rublev and Tarkovsky were at times persecuted for their religious work, as their opinions differed with the church or secular state in their respective times.
Because of this persecution, they were ostracized and denied the recognition they perhaps deserved, by evil acts of oppression. Yet, faced with this evil, they remained faithful, quite like our Joan of Arc earlier, and continued with their work and devotion in the face of persecution. If this is enough to interest you, the subsequent eight chapters are much better.
3. Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
One of Ingmar Bergman’s favorites, Winter Light is perhaps his most interesting film. It follows Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a pastor in a rural area, as he helps his parishioners and deals with his ex-mistress.
One parishioner in particular, Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), is depressed after hearing that China is working to develop an atomic bomb, and has come to Tomas for help. What is to follow is a fascinatingly depressing series of events in which Tomas struggles to come to terms with his existence, the teachings of Christianity, and evil. He and Jonas lose their faith in the face of catastrophe and struggle to find any good in the world, causing each to come to different conclusions.
Bergman’s professed issue in this film (and the other parts of the trilogy, including Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence) is the silence of God in the face of great evil. He has a character ask Tomas if God’s silence isn’t “worse” than anything else, specifically in the context of Christ’s crucifixion.
Tomas agrees that it is, furthering his doubt. He struggles with God’s silence, as a stand-in for Bergman himself, and yet Tomas remains a pastor. The conclusion is thus that we should accept God’s existence in the face of evil, even if this acceptance is made on faith alone and in the face of great doubt.
2. A Serious Man (Coen brothers, 2009)
A Coen brothers’ masterpiece, A Serious Man stars Michael Stuhlbarg as a 1960s physics professor named Larry Gopnik. It opens with an ancient quote by Rabbi Rashi, “receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Setting the tone for the rest of the film, this quote reveals that Larry’s story will be one of great troubles. And that it is. He has troubles with his wife and son, his brother commits crimes and is socially unacceptable, and he faces problems at work as he goes up for tenure.
At first, he is solid, a man not of great faith (for he delays seeing a rabbi as long as possible) but of steadfast character with optimism and a rich tradition and culture to fall back upon. As things progress though, he begins to question why God can allow such things to happen to him.
The answer provided to him is never satisfactory. He meets with two rabbis, only to be met with great disappointment. The second tells him a story of a man with “help me” written in Hebrew in his teeth, and of how this seemed to be a sign to a dentist. The rabbi tells Larry and the dentist that this message meant nothing, it wasn’t a sign from God, and God doesn’t work in such ways. Disappointed, Larry tries to meet with the famous elder rabbi, but is denied admittance.
Faced with great evil and disappointment, Larry is alone in his faith, and must decide to do what is ethical and what is not. In their dark comedy, the Coen brothers portray a human nature that is bleak, hilarious, and reasonably accurate.
1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
The Tree of Life is perhaps the most ambitious project ever successfully attempted by a director. Malick’s autobiographical piece focuses on a family, led by the father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain). In the first five minutes, we watch as father and mother learn that one of their sons has died, though it is never explained how or why.
The film is built around the passage of scripture in Job which rabbi Rashi was perhaps commenting on, “where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy?”
For those unfamiliar with the tale, Job is a well-to-do, faithful servant of God until Satan decides to take away all that he has, kill his family, and leave him sitting in a pile of ashes. Satan succeeds in getting Job to curse his life, but Job is rebuked for questioning God’s will.
In this film, we see the father, mother, and brother of the victim all question why this has happened and struggle to come to terms with it. In response, Malick shows us God’s making of the earth, the beauty of creation, and all of the wonders of God’s work, while reminding us that he plays a role in each life on earth. The response thus is theological and philosophical: 1) God reigns supreme and can do what is reasonable, sure, but 2) for there to be good in the world, there must be evil.
The mother in the tree of life is exemplary of grace, accepting this tragedy and loving God all the same. She grieves for her loss, but becomes saintly as she worships God and gives him her son, choosing virtue and faith over agnosticism and depression. Perhaps the greatest film ever made (and winner of the illustrious palme d’or), the film is summed up with Mrs. Obrien’s quote, “I will be true to you. Whatever comes.”