In the optimistic forecast by a Enlighten and Positivist person, from the eighteenth or nineteenth century point of view, the twentieth century will emerge as a universe in which faith would be purged, expelled from their usual points of reference by human reason and the Science explanatory potential.
Fighting institutions remained active until the early nineteenth century, as the Inquisition, or autocratic regimes as certain European monarchies, the Enlightenment and positivism only perceived in faith some regressive nature, relying the truth only in the Science and Technology. For this hypothetical Positivist, a future full of progress a future in which religious faith occupy the archaeological site guaranteed to the mythology of antiquity was a certainty.
But this is not what happened. The hunger for transcendence and the impossibility of science offer relief to the anguish of man before the unknown – our common home and destination – boosted the Art in the direction of faith. But this new impulse did not mean a dive in some kind of quietism: in the case of cinema, appropriating faith involved a tense, sometimes brand new, original and heretical interpretations of God, religious life, faith itself, the spiritual depths of man.
Filmmakers from different countries and traditions offered multiple approaches of faith and transcendence, which did not exclude conflict (sometimes adherence) with established views by conventional religiosity or all kinds of fanaticism. In fact, the conflict has become a fundamental element of these views, for such films often served as an intimate exorcism of its directors, a kind of spiritual exercise in the church of movie theaters.
So, the Faith as a fundamental film element is a complicated, multilayered fact – and the list below, as far as possible, tries to deal with this fact.
19. The Passion of the Christ directed by Mel Gibson
The Australian actor and director Mel Gibson was pursuing a vision to realize this film about the Passion of the Christ – fundamental point that the Catholic faith and even the essence of the Christian religion, because the Jesus crucifixion had atoned by his sacrifice the world’s sins, a brutal, relentless and violent vision guided by the most direct and crude realism. So, the speeches and dialogues of the film were in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic.
The face of Christ was shaped, like a mask on the face of actor Jim Caviezel. Have been shot in Italy was the only detail that disagreed with this reconstitution at any cost philosophy – which, moreover, does not cease to be a “realistic” aspect, since there is much in the film of entrenched Catholic view. But this lapsus was balanced by the violence, springing blood furiously from the Christ wounds to the screen.
This is a very dogmatic approach to faith, centered on the violent image of Christ’s sacrifice softened in very few poetic sequences (the view of God at the end of crucifixion, for example).
18. Androcles and the Lion directed by Chester Erskine
Produced by Gabriel Pascal, this film was a adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play with the same title. The old fable about the paw of a lion wounded by a thorn – that gets help from a slave, turning the wild animal something like a loyal dog – is the basis for the discussion on the clash between the values of the Roman paganism and the new Christian belief fanatically defended by its adherents.
Faith in this sense acquire a comic and ironic treatment: both faith and certain cleverness (cynical and corrupt) go hand in hand, especially in the trajectory of Androcles and Ferrovius. Working characteristic types – as the naive aided by the turns of fate – to create comic effects, the cast of the film is one of the highlights, especially the comic performance of Alan Young as Androcles.
17. The Night of the Hunter directed by Charles Laughton
A perfect blend of fairy tale and horror story: this is what seems most evident when we see the movie masterpiece The Night of the Hunter, the only film directed by the extraordinary actor Charles Laughton. However, this amazing movie – the eponymous novel adaptation has one of the most remarkable representations of the puzzling paths between faith and deception, redemption and crime, in terms of narrative film.
The powerful image of the good and evil combat in a pantomina evoked by the minister Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) fingers intertwined, a correct interpretation of Manichean religious conception. The movie works with biblical and universal plots – the flight of children, who are a haven for their ailments and the final redemption – and this strategy transforms the movie into a powerful allegory of transcendence, always surrounded by dangers, temptations and distortions.
16. Wise Blood directed by John Huston
Based on the first novel of Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor, John Huston builds elegantly complex universe of evangelical denominations in the United States.
Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif, in particularly inspired performance), a young man fresh out of the army decides, as chance of realization, open the first Church Without Christ in the small town of Taulkinham. The results of this new Church, worked by a sharp tragicomic structure, become ambiguous on the choice made by Motes to embrace a distorted kind of holiness.
The vision of faith and transcendence in the film, faithfully following the O’Connor’s book is both ironic and fierce: there is something empty in the belief that facilitates the work of charlatans who exploit other people’s faith but not even these charlatans can set aside the sacrifice and its horror.
15. The River directed by Jean Renoir
Jean Renoir made in 1951 this film adaptation of the novel by English novelist Margaret Godden Rummer, author of the novel that gave rise to another film on this list, The Black Narcissus, both acclimated in India.
The author spent his childhood in some area of British Raj (now Bangladesh) witnessing with keen sensitivity distant religious conceptions in open conflict with her western and Christian formation. This shock is the composition element of perception of the sacred in the movie, filmed in Technicolor, in the beauty landscape of a fairy-like, the ancient and mythical India.
The film’s main idea is about the reality fluidity and unreliable nature – like a current in a river –, which unfolds the narrative told by captain John (Thomas E. Breen), catalyst of the crisis about the young Harriet character (Patricia Walters). In this unstable universe, the divinity may be present in daily events, transmuting them into new arrangements and meanings.
14. The Last Temptation of Christ directed by Martin Scorsese
Based on the controversial novel by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, published originally in 1951, director Martin Scorsese – with a script by Paul Schrader – created a film possibly more controversial than the original book, equally the subject of heated debates.
The premise is the same in both the original book and in film adaptation: if Christ had undergone the final temptation alluded to in the title? Subverting the usual idea of “imitation of Christ” (ie, the duty of every Christian to try to approach the examples provided by the life and passion of Christ), the film discusses the martyrdom psychology, if a martyr (even the most important one, at least for the Christians) would remain in the way of the horrendous death after horrible torture if there was any alternative.
Shot entirely on location in Morocco with Michael Ballhaus photography, the sober and minimalist tone of the film – whose contrast was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ – without exaggeration or blasphemy is a clever approach about the limits of faith. But this approach displeased fundamentalists who threw Molotov cocktails in a movie theater that showed the film in Paris.
13. The Burmese Harp directed by Kon Ichikawa
Spiritual fable set in the end of the Second World War, when the remaining Japanese regiments surrendered to the allied forces (in this case, the British Army in Burma) directed by Kon Ichikawa. The soldier Mizushima (Shôji Yasui) is the harp player from a small group of soldiers commanded by Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) skilled in music and dance, intended to improve the morale of the Japanese army, on the verge of defeat.
After a terrible confusion, Mizushima emerges as the sole survivor of a group of soldiers who refused to surrender. After stealing the clothes of a monk and shave his hair, the soldier disguises himself as a monk to escape, disguise that will become the new veteran life at the end, because his conversion is sincere and definitive.
Powerful metaphor against the war, Ichikawa’s film addresses questions of faith with subtlety, as the Mizushima awareness of spiritual background could be synthesized as follows: from the shock of human bodies desecrated and left to rot in the open air, we can only live to ensure, at least, some spiritual comfort to the fallen ones.
12. Wings of Desire directed by Wim Wenders
Wim Wenders directed Wings of Desire in 1987, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a complex structure of narrative, visual and aural elements, whose script was written by Wim Wenders, Richard Reitinger and the famous writer Peter Handke. The plot revolves around Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel that, along with his companions, prefer the tops of the tallest buildings in Berlin, where they can hear the thoughts of human beings below them.
After all, the mission of these heavenly beings would be – in the words of another angel, Cassiel (Otto Sander) – “gather, testify, preserve” human reality. Damiel, however, falls in love with a trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), and this love takes the angel to depart from the eternity and the omnipotence (the divine attributes), opting for the limitations of human existence which, however, come to his senses as more genuine and true.
Shot by the legendary Henri Alekan – with scenes ranging from the vividly colored to the beautiful, sepia tone black and white – Wings of Desire is about the impossibility of reconciling divinity and humanity, the various ways in which humanity can transcend existential and physical limitations far away the circumscribed areas of a strictly defined theology.
11. Breaking the Waves directed by Lars Von Trier
Lars von Trier was no newcomer in 1996, when he released Breaking the Waves, his most significant international success and also his best film, perhaps on of the best 1990s film, indeed. If the previous Trier films – The Element of Crime (1984) or Europe (1991) – were exciting, creative approaches on traditions as the melodrama or film noir, Breaking the Waves dives, with incredibly density and originality, in the cinematic Norse tradition about sacred matters from Dreyer to Bergman.
In this Trier film, we follow the fate of Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a young belonging to an extremely puritanical religious community at Scotland, who falls in love for Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), a worker of oil platforms nearby in the North Sea. Bess is seen by the small town community in which she lives as a mentally disturbed person, since she usually “talk” to God, doing both voices of the dialogue.
After an accident that put the life of Jan at risk, Bess plunges into a journey perceived both by the characters representatives of rationality – his sister, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge) and the Dr. Richardson (Adrian Rawlins) – as by local religious Puritans as a dangerous and harmful degradation, which would qualify Bess at least as prostitute or crazy. But God (and the director) show that the situation is much more complex, with a prodigious, extraordinary final scene.
Filmed on the northwest coast of Scotland by the photographer Robby Müller – with its simultaneously sophisticated and delicate approach to handheld camera technique –Breaking the Waves is about faith in multiple layers: the intolerant fanaticism of the city elders, balanced and rationalized faith of doctors and nurses, the physical universe seemingly devoid of spirituality of oil rig workers. Of these layers, the “simplistic” or “mad” beliefs of Bess seem the most sincere, closer to a true transcendence.