Before the Flood: Six Great Religious Movies


The reviews for Noah are starting to come in, and it sounds pretty awesome. So much so that I’ve pretty much forgotten about that Cap movie the following week. If Aronofsky’s dream project even sorta delivers on its advance reviews it’ll be totally bonkers… and one of my favorites of the year. Speaking as a religious person, I’d much rather have a weird, ambitious movie than a safe, middle-of-the-road one.

Of course, there’s the expected stories of this or that group complaining or getting way too excited about a Bible movie hitting screens. Enough of that, though. I’d rather point out the times where six (never said I was a numerologist) religiously-themed movies turned out to be genuinely worthwhile. To warn you, I’m occasionally taking a broad view of what qualifies as “religious,” so bear with me.

Also, DESPITE the touchiness of the subject, I’m assuming our readers are gonna be their usual cool selves. Don’t let me down.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame


This isn’t the first time I’ve brought Hunchback up on this site. But here we are again. Not nearly enough people give this movie its due for the complex and thoughtful perspective it carries on matters of ethics and the church.

To anyone who takes even a casual glance at Western history, the role of the church through the eras of our past is… a little suspect. To say the least, it turns out that even nasty, power-mad people can claim piousness, and those sorts of people wind up running things a lot.

Over the course of the movie, the building Notre Dame serves as a sanctuary, a home, and a prison. It holds a roof over criminals, judges, priests, soldiers, and the deformed. It is a friend, a protector, and an enemy. It gazes up at the stars of heaven and down into the flames of hell.

This movie is freakin’ awesome, is what I’m trying to say. It clearly shows the power of acceptance and love, while simultaneously offering some really vivid examples of what Francis Spufford calls “the human potential to fuck things up.”

“God Help the Outcasts” is gorgeous, both as a song and as a sentiment. Sadly, like the rest of the movie, its power is deeply rooted in the simple truth that there will always be people that society discards. In the movie, Notre Dame is just a building. The power to shun or accept the outcasts lies with each character individually.

(Sadly, this movie — and its subsequent controversy/underperformance — marked the beginning of a downward spiral for Disney that they have yet to fully recover from.* Honesty, it seems, is not the best policy if you want a mainstream family hit in America.)

The Grey


Broken people and evil animated judges may cause their own problems, but the pursuit of truth is going to eventually face another sort of challenge: there are times where it seems to not exist at all. A certain subset of movies that deal with such matters decide to take the approach of exploring the Bergman-esque “absence of God.” We could also possibly say “absence of good.”

Bergman’s never quite been my cup of tea — I concede he’s very good at what he does — but I was rather surprised to discover that The Grey serves as a modern analogue to his work in a lot of ways. I don’t think Bergman ever made a movie with a badass Irishman punching wolves, but maybe he should have? The wolves, and their merciless approach to killing off the human cast of this movie, address one of the main challenges faced in justifying the world on any level.

Specific religions aside, even your average garden-variety optimism looks a little shaky when confronted with the world’s potential for basic shittiness. The Grey functions as a question to Christianity, sure, but it could also function as a question to a movie like Cloud Atlas that simply aims to show that everything ultimately matters.

The Grey shows just how hard such a notion can be to support at times.

Tree of Life


And now for something completely different.

Aside from its intent and attempts to answer big questions like, “Why are we here?” and “What is good?”, religion often serves as a mechanism for grappling with the feeling of awe and smallness we get when we’re confronted with the scope of things like beauty, or the universe itself. Tree of Life is about as close to a perfect distillation of that feeling as I can remember.

What I’m trying to say is that Tree of Life’s agenda is no more or less than to capture the majesty of the universe on film.

What’s more, Tree of Life articulates the point of intersection between the scientific and religious understandings of the world around us. Take note. The “history of the universe” sequence in this movie is extraordinary; it essentially aims to portray what we know of the universe we live in in about twenty minutes. Malick mixes scientifically-based images — planets, nebulae, dinosaurs — with a sense of pure spiritual awe.

I would think this is a rare sequence on film that everybody can get behind. While we may disagree on why all this stuff matters, not many of us would argue anything other than it does. Somehow.

Of course, a lot people find this part of the movie a snooze, so I guess you can’t win ‘em all.

The Fountain


Oh hey, Aronofsky’s already on here.

Pretty much every religion winds up dealing with death in some form or fashion. It’d be hard not to — it’s one of the few things all of us get to experience at some point. In terms of screen stories, The Fountain is just about the best thing that’s ever embraced the subject, especially if we rule out underrated horror television shows.

Death means many things to many people. It can be banal, tragic, violent, or transcendent. If you’ve seen the movie, you already know it goes for that last one. The Fountain is one of the few movies that manages to successfully grapple with the concept of eternity. Death, according to The Fountain, is the road to awe. Whatever that means, it’s something rather profound.

Okay, look, I don’t quite understand this movie, but I get it enough to know it’s incredible. Further, it’s not your typical art/allegory film, where the symbols and meaning are so inextricable that it’s impossible to form an emotional connection. The Fountain wears its heart on its sleeve; it faces the permanence and loss death brings head-on. Not only does it face them, it embraces and transcends them. That’s… kind of amazing.

Also, for whatever this is worth, it joins Up on the list of “movies that are a lot harder to watch now that I’m actually married.”

The Star Wars Saga


No, I’m not one of those people who puts “Jedi” in the write-in section on applications.

Rather, I think that the Star Wars movies actually manage to tap into something universal. Nerd pariah/king Lucas carries an interesting personal view of religion (he identifies as a “Buddhist Methodist”), which is basically that all of them are describing “a different part of the elephant.” Sort of a C.S. Lewis-esque interpretation. Not that all religions are equally true, exactly, but that all of them are getting at the same true idea.

For me — and apparently, for a great number of people — Lucas’s Star Wars Saga manages to successfully translate that universal idea or feeling to the big screen. By disassociating from any specific religious doctrine, and electing to operate in the world of a far-flung science fiction adventure serial, Lucas managed to hit the parts of it that speak to just about all of us. Good and evil. The search for peace. Fate. Redemption.

Star Wars is the modern Campbellian monomyth; it ostensibly speaks for all of us. No matter what your personal views are, it seems there’s something in the Star Wars mythology that strikes a chord.

Unless you’re one of those people who just can’t stand the sight of it anymore, which happens but isn’t really relevant right now.

The Last Temptation of Christ


There was some inner debate through the writing of this piece over which movies to include, and in what order, but not for a second did any movie threaten to take the “best for last” slot from The Last Temptation of Christ. This movie is simply the most powerful movie ever made about Jesus. It actually feels like some divine force is working behind the scenes on this one.

It’s also, unfortunately, one of those movies where any mention of it automatically comes with a discussion of the controversy that plagued it upon its release, and remains its lasting legacy through the present day.

In a way, it makes sense. Scorsese boldly pulls the rug out from under the traditional, stained-glass window portrayal of the Jesus narrative. Whether he’s rewording the familiar King James language, showing a tempting vision wherein Jesus sees what his life would be like with a wife, or having him furiously scream “I am the SAINT of blasphemy,” this movie is in-your-face different.**

What this is getting at, is for maybe the first time ever on film Jesus was portrayed as an actual human being… which, any meaningful reading of his story depends on that idea. And that’s why the controversy doesn’t make sense, after all.

It’s also worth noting that this was the first time I understand why people would want to kill this guy. Most depictions of Jesus leave onlookers with the totally-valid question of how anybody could brutally murder such a nice man. In Last Temptation, despite the fact that his message is still ultimately one of love and forgiveness, Jesus sounds kind of like a crazy person. He sounds like a dangerous revolutionary. He sounds like a threat.

What about you? I’m obviously coming at it from one perspective, but I’m sure there are as many others as there are people reading this. What are the movies that address those big questions for you?


*Even their recent output has been merely good, instead of great and/or challenging in the vein of classic Disney or the best movies from the ‘90s Renaissance.

**There’s also the scene where Jesus takes his own heart out of his chest, Temple of Doom-style. The mystic elements of this movie are a) creepy and b) weird as all get-out.

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  1. Is it just me, or are none of these movies (save The Last Temptation) actually religious movies? They just seem to be movies dealing with large metaphysical or personal issues.

    1. I guess it’s kind of in the eye of the beholder with a lot of these, but from where I’m sitting I see the idea of faith in every picture on this list. An interesting list too by the way.

    2. Hunchback explicitly deals with a church, priests, sin, and doctrine. Tree of Life and The Grey revolve around questioning God. Insofar as Star Wars and The Fountain are concerned… well, I did admit my use of the word was pretty broad.

      Perhaps some people would prefer I use words like “faith” or “spirituality,” and maybe I should have, but I didn’t. Definitions are tricky with such a big-yet-personal topic. These movies struggle through the same problems and subjects as (most?) religion, which is good enough for me.

  2. This is sort of its own essay, but my view on Star Wars is that the Prequels show the broken system. The Jedi Order fell because they were too caught up in rules and regulations, their abilities and perceptions. They’d tried to tame and cage the Force. Their concerns with Anakin were his midi-chlorian count and his age, not his needs, fears, personality, or whatever else.

    Yoda and Ben survive, and their teaching style changes with Luke. He’s successful because they put him back in touch with the true essence of the Force. The energy that binds us together, not this crude matter they seemed focused on in the Prequels. As Qui-Gon calls it, “the living Force.” The original trilogy sets things right. Someday I’m going to write an entire book on these movies.

    But yes, you should absolutely see Last Temptation. With due respect to classics like Ben-Hur, and Gibson’s “Passion,” it’s by a thousand miles the most fascinating, challenging, moving portrayal of Jesus on film. The saint of blasphemy line comes after the scene about the money-changers at the temple, which is one of my favorite movie scenes of all time now.

    1. That’s an interesting view on the Star Wars films and probably would have made a better arc for the prequels if they’d focused on that, but I got the impression that Lucas was trying to play off the religious aspect because of the the current political climate. Like a former Christian rock band that drops the religious stuff once they hit the charts and don’t need the boost anymore.

  3. Hmm, I guess I would take religious movies more literally – or let’s say “cosmological” movies – they deal with big questions. My list would be:

    Bruce Almighty – entertaining, if a little muddled theologically – sort of Theodicy for Dummies
    Groundhog Day – what is the meaning of life?
    Joe Versus the Volcano – a very moving story (sadly quite dated now) about how we choose to live the life we have
    Stranger than Fiction/The Truman Show – both of these deal with the idea of determinism versus free will
    The Green Mile – one of the best and most moving examples of the Suffering Christ archetype
    What Dreams May Come – interesting and imaginative perspective on the afterlife, if sometimes hokey
    And…I’ll go ahead and throw in Dogma – Kevin Smith asks the big questions in the most offensive way possible, but more honestly than most people have the guts to do.

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