10. Black Narcissus directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Another adaptation of Margaret Rummer Godden and a new story about the clash between cultures and sacred visions of the West and the East.
A group of five nuns was established in a convent in the Himalayas, but soon tensions arise both in relation to the external universe as within their own isolated group. In this sense, the Nature, always hostile and seductive, drives a conflict between the mind (which includes both Reason and Morality in the shape of Faith) and the body (the senses, instincts). In this battle, mind prove that sometimes is inadequate to curb the body.
The beautiful photography in Technicolor (in charge of Jack Cardiff) recreated a fiery Himalayas in the studio, accentuating a universe of sexual conflicts only by the color contrast – Cardiff stated that the film’s color palette was inspired by the Dutch painter Vermeer, deep reds and virginal whites, light and dark, small details in the serene faces or twitching of the religious and the natives around them.
9. Black God, White Devil directed by Glauber Rocha
Free adaptation of the Jean-Paul Sartre’s play The Devil and the Good Lord, the Glauber Rocha movie was one of the landmarks of the Cinema Novo, a Brazilian cinematographical movement strongly influenced by the aesthetics of Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave.
In a landscape desolated by drought, the countryman Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey) and his wife Rose try to survive. Fooled by a colonel when sharing the profits from the sale of livestock, Manuel commits murder and, next to his wife, resolved to leave everything behind, joining the group of a religious leader, Sebastian, who promises the end of suffering through a primitive communion, vaguely Christian and apocalyptic.
The Catholic Church, in collusion with the landowners, hires a gunman, Antonio das Mortes, to exterminate the Blessed and his followers. Religious fanaticism, violence, mystical communion and the use of faith by the powerful are the central themes of the film. Though harmed by certain political didacticism, it still display force in the performances and in the picture of the faith and politics in the Brazilian rural universe.
8. The Milky Way directed by Luis Buñuel
The Spanish director spent his childhood in the Spanish small village of Calanda, at Aragão country, receiving a strict Catholic education in Jesuit school. He said that the priests, their teachers at school, taught how to refute the Immanuel Kant metaphysics in two minutes. Buñuel soon turn against this education, adhering to surrealism – although of course the deep spiritual scars on matters of faith, the existence of God, doubt and sin soon manifest in his films.
The Milky Way, in this sense, occupies a prominent position. It is a narrative of fragmentary episodes involving pilgrims, saints, Jesus, the Marquis De Sade, a mother superior, inquisitors, the devil and blinds that even when healed of their blindness miraculously, still walking stumbled into an abyss.
The ironic and sacrilegious vision of Buñuel in The Milky Way created a kind of narrative/cinematic debate about the heresies and cultural shocks caused by the different and possible views of faith, with a pondered homage allegorical images of Medieval and Renaissance Christian tradition, in surrealist rereading.
7. The Virgin Spring directed by Ingmar Bergman
Concerned about various metaphysical questions, Ingmar Bergman repeatedly used the turbulent medieval period as raw material. The Virgin Spring is perhaps one of the greatest expressions of the Bergman’s view of metaphysical turmoil at medieval times.
Set in Sweden during the fourteenth century, the plot – based on a Swedish thirteenth century ballad – begins with a terrible crime: a young virgin, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), daughter of wealthy landowners, was raped and killed by goat herders when she was in the way to bring candles to the local church. The herders ends up finding shelter within the Karin family, and the crime ends up being revealed by a cruel and subtle twist.
Revenge rushes, while questions related to views on faith, virtue, and very different sacrifice possibility conflicted, since the rape would have been conjured by Karin’s maid Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), who secretly worships Odin, god of the Norse pantheon. The paradox between innocence and cruelty that seems to depart God from human understanding, referred to in the Karin’s father, Töre (Max Von Sydow) final speech, adopted the old dilemma of the biblical Book of Job.
The modernity brings the dark matters to this paradox, with a even more brutal reading of this story by Wes Craven in the exploitation horror-movie The Last House on the Left (1972).
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
The lists (even the simplest and partial ones) that addresses the question of faith in cinema will not be complete without some films by the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. In fact, almost all Dreyer films touch on the problem of faith in one way or another, a strong element in this filmmaker’s rich and complex universe.
Illegitimate son of a Swedish farmer and her maid, spent part of his childhood in foster homes before being adopted by a strict Lutheran family, fact that marked the Dreyer religious view with some elements. The Passion of Joan of Arc is famous for the sophisticated visual composition based on large plans that oppose the ugly and tense world of inquisitors (faces, costumes, instruments of torture) to the world ripped apart but transcendent of Joan, victim accused of heresy.
Embodied by Maria Falconetti – dressed in burlap sacks, with the shorn hair and the martyr’s expression in a medieval or Renaissance painting – Joan appears in the Dreyer film as the most perfect incarnation of supernatural madness of faith.
5. The Gospel According to St. Matthew directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
When Pier Paolo Pasolini – poet and gay activist, besides filmmaker who caused a stir throughout the Italian society – announced that he was working on an adaptation of the evangelist Matthew, many thought the result would be a continuous and immense blasphemy. Instead, the film released by Pasolini in 1964 is a deep meditation about the political meanings of faith that were on the agenda at the Jesus time of life.
Pasolini’s Jesus (embodied by a young economy student with Spanish and Italian progeny, Enrique Irazoqui) is a man whose spiritual essence does not hinder the fight against the powers that determine the fate of society, preaching in parables to the masses that sometimes prays in agreement, occasionally abandon the preacher, a complex reflection on the limits between politics and faith.
Galilee of the film was reproduced in desolate landscapes of Italy, demonstrating that the Gospel story has a clear and universal appeal.
4. Andrei Rublev directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
It would be very difficult to imagine a list of films about faith and religiosity without the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. Son of poet Arseniy Tarkovsky, he had a conceptual and complex view of religion, usual in his films plenty with allegorical and spiritual images. In this sense, the conflict between spirituality and the calling – often terrible – of the material world gain a dramatic format in the Tarkovsky film about the life of Andrei Rublev, the icon painter, his woes in the tumultuous Russia fifteenth century.
In 205 minutes there are so many long, continuous plans, devastating sequences – a example: the battle, invasion and destruction of the church in the city of Vladimir, ravaged by the Tartars. It’s a slow, complex film with large ethical and religious discussions (sometimes provocations) elaborated with intensity and intelligence.
This is not a “religious” movie in obvious terms, although the subject are directly relates to the faith, because nothing definite or stereotyped is provided in its multiple layers. But it is a metaphysical and spiritual unique specimen in cinema history.
3. Ordet directed by Carl Dreyer
Based on the homonymous play written by the Danish minister Kaj Munk – who was murdered by the Nazis at the end of Second World War – this was the penultimate film by Carl Theodor Dreyer, which would end his career as a director with Gertrud, nine years after Ordet (1955). Dreyer directed very few films, but all of them lasting impact on Film Art, and his Ordet occupies a privileged place, perhaps the most beautiful, simple and powerful film about the faith of the whole history of cinema.
The plot, which follows the original play closely, is quite simple: a family of landowners, the Borgen, lives a moment of existential and religious crisis. The elder Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) experiences doubts about his faith when ponder with disgust about the division of his children. The oldest son, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) proves to be a person without faith in God, although his wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) is a luminous and central presence in the house.
The middle son, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), which brought pride to the old man in the past with his theology studies, gone mad “for reading too much Kierkegaard.” The younger, Anders (Cay Kristiansen) was in love with the daughter of Peter, The Taylor (Ejner Federspiel), religious enemy of Borgen and adherent to a Puritan religious vision, which also faced the love of two young children as wrong and sinful.
The crisis worsens when Inger became seriously ill, in labor pains – at that time, the horror of death be revealed, but also forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation and the miracle (though perhaps the most terrible miracle in all history of cinema).
Filmed in restricted closed locations, the family houses, with unusual and revolutionary effects (the amazing sequence with a “rotating camera” during a dialogue between Johannes and the Mikkel’s daughter), this film that moves any audience to tears is not just a tolerance libel for the reconciliation between the many divergent views of faith and sacred, but the perfect representation of how a purified faith without prejudices acquires an ultimate meaning not strictly linked to any particular religion, but the existential essence of humanity.
2. Au Hasard Balthazar directed by Robert Bresson
Another director compulsory in lists about film and religion, the French director Robert Bresson approached the subject from different angles, including through the life of a saint (a personal, minimalist version of Joan of Arc passion).
Au Hasard Bathazar proposed a intense approach to such subject, a kind of treatise on human perversity through the eyes (and pain) of an animal – a donkey, Balthazar, the same beast that carry the Christ, passing through several owners, many vicissitudes and numerous sufferings.
It is amazing how the director managed to maintain perspective and some distance along a film that border on abstraction while maintaining the pathos in sublime limit, a persevering religious challenge in sequences of suggested violence, in which there is no single miracle evident. The suffering of Balthazar is transformed into sacrifice, the full image of the “Imitation of Christ” ideal, which was once held by the Church.
Jean-Luc Goddard, deeply impressed by the film, said the film “synthesize the world in an hour and a half.” True statement, we could specify, adding that the world of Bresson is a pure and absolute conception of the life sacredness.
1. Winter Light directed by Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman was a film director with deep spiritual and metaphysical concerns, which materialized in a subtle, tense and conflicting work. It is obvious that such concerns exploded, not infrequently, in the sphere of religion and faith. In this sense, Winter Light is perhaps one of the most tragic and less allegorical approaches made by Bergman to the topic.
Given the terrible anguish – caused by the horror provoked by the Cold War and the atomic bombing chance – the fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) seeks relief in the minister of a small rural community Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrad). But the minister Ericsson can only express his own doubts about the faith limits and truth.
This initial debate – solved by Jonas suicide – causes successive clashes around the question of faith (true or false) and even the Passion of Christ meaning in a fierce world. Shot in contrasted black and white by Sven Nykvist, which captures the subtlety of wintry light of the title, this is one of the most beautiful films about the faith crisis, the failure of all God’s belief possibilities, a distant and omnipotent that operates in mysterious ways, a vague hope contrasting with the terrible everyday humanity concerns.
Author Bio: Alcebiades Diniz Miguel is a researcher in film and literature, with many published articles about these two themes. Some of his production could be seen at the Bibliophage weblog: http://bibliophage.postach.io/.