Religion in Film – A List of Films for the Religious Studies Classroom

When teaching courses on basic concepts in religious studies and comparative religion, I often find myself wondering what resources the history of cinema has to offer the classroom. Simply talking about rites of passage, religious language, or variations in Buddhist dogma while scribbling lecture aids on the chalkboard works well enough. But I often wish I could step back and integrate more cinema into the learning experience.

There are a lot of lists out there for people interested generally in “religion and film” or “spirituality and film,” but many of these lists are too general to be of much use in helping people experience the finer points of different religious traditions. Day of Wrath and Winter Light, for example, are great films about faith and existence, but they aren’t necessarily films about the observable phenomena of religion. And while films like Youth Without Youth, The Last Wave, or 2001 usher us very generally into the gravity of sacred time, apocalypse, and myth, they aren’t that interested in comparative religion. Something like The Mission is certainly a religious film, but is it really a film about religion? So, that being said, what are the great films out there about the specifics of religious practice?

The first impulse is to list relevant documentaries, of which there are many. And episodes of shows like Big Love, West Wing, and Caprica certainly belong in the religious studies classroom. How great are Jed Bartlett’s prayers as discussion starters about American civil religion? But I am curious about films that we leave with a greater sense of why and how people practice the nuts of bolts of religion, which are talked about in the classroom in terms of rites of passage, ritual, doctrine, sacred time and space, etc…

So here is a starter list of films that in some way show us religion in action. Please feel free to suggest more in the comments.

1. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, 1966): This challenging film tracks a Russian Orthodox iconographer through the turbulent history of Russia, suggesting some complicated things about religion and history along the way. It is a virtual treasury of thoughts on iconography, politics, and religion.

2. The Apostle (Duvall, 1997): A frighteningly realistic portrayal of Pentecostal preaching and fellowship that embraces its ambiguous Southern Gothic take on fundamentalist Christianity.

3. Babette’s Feast (Axel, 1988): This acclaimed meditation on grace is an entrancing look at Lutheran piety, grace, and the sacrament of generosity.

4. Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947): This film was way ahead of its time. Its psychological probing of a missional convent of Anglican nuns in the Himalayas captures in one technicolor stretch a shelf full of books on colonialism and religion.

5. Brother Sun, Sister Moon (Zeffirelli, 1972): This tricky biography of St.  Francis of Assisi makes reference to American countercultural movements in the 1960s. The ideas it composes about how religion and social movements interact make for compelling conversation.

6. The Burmese Harp (Ichikawa, 1956): This story about the unexpected conversion of a Japanese soldier at the end of WW II to monastic Buddhism is as wonderfully composed as it is enlightening. It is a fine film about trauma, death, and the way religion offers ritual structures for hope and healing.

7. The Chosen (Kagan, 1981): This is one of the finest depictions of the nuances of Conservative and Orthodox Judaism during a time when Zionism threatened to redefine both. Its gentle evocation of Hasidism and Talmudic thinking in mid-century Brooklyn is timeless.

8. Close-Up (Kairostami, 1990): This memorable glimpse of Islamic judicial practice in Iran is one of the great ethnographic documents produced by the Iranian New Wave. Its reflections on mercy and justice as navigated by this Iranian court of law provide an uncommon glimpse into the rationale of certain Muslim social polities.

9. The Cup (Norbu, 1999): A charming look at Tibetan Buddhism and globalism that refers in detail to the particulars of Buddhist monasticism and their relevance to a media saturated world.

10. Devi (Ray, 1960): Ray’s acrobatic riff on Kali mythology and worship in Hinduism caused a bit of a stir, but to this day remains a classic study of the way we appropriate mythical narratives.

11. Diary of a Country Priest (Bresson, 1951): It is hard to pick just one Bresson film for such a list, but this look at asceticism, Catholic doctrine, and liturgy is an essential document of Christian piety.

12. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (Deren/Itō and Itō, 1977): So, here is the one quasi-documentary exception to the list. But the contribution of Maya Deren to ethnographic cinema on religion can’t be overlooked. This is also a seminal look at religious ritual in Haiti.

Flowers of St. Francis 13. Exils (Gatlif, 2004): This film tracks the cultural and spiritual journey of two second generation French immigrants to Algeria. It ends with an explosion of Algerian Muslim ritual and custom that causes us to think about the role of religion in the increasingly diverse EU.

14. Flowers of St. Francis (Rossellini, 1950): There are a few films like the grand documentary Into Great Silence that manage to translate the simplicity of Catholic monastic piety to the screen. This episodic masterpiece fits the bill.

15. Four Days In July (Leigh, 1985): One of the great theological legacies of the Troubles in cinema is the conversation Bobby Sands has with his Priest in Hunger. But Leigh’s film tracks the differences between Protestant and Catholic life in Northern Ireland with his characteristic offhand precision.

16. Gandhi (Attenborough, 1982): There aren’t many bearable biopics of religious figures out there, but scattered about this compelling look at Gandhi’s life are rabbit trails on religion and state issues, Hindu/Islam relations, and the way religion and class co-exist.

17. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, 1964): It would be easy to pack this list with Jesus films, but this is among the most engaging interpretations of Jesus’ life and ministry.

18. Himalaya (Valli, 1999): Tibetan Lamaism. Sky burial rites. This nicely composed film shot with non-professional Tibetans works well as a glimpse of traditional Tibetan religious practice.

19. The Joy Luck Club (Wang, 1993): This film ranges widely across immigrant narratives, forgotten rituals, and engaging historical vignettes. It is an effective meditation on the way religious identities are diffused across generations.

20. Kadosh (Gitai, 1999): This film offers a challenging glimpse into the structure of ultra-orthodox Jewish culture. Its commentary on gender, sectarianism, and what some refer to as Haredic Judaism makes The Chosen look sanguine.

Lilies of the Field 21. Kundun (Scorcese, 1997): This film may be bit affected by what Donald Richie came to call “orientalism,” but it is the most even handed and eloquent of the Dalai Lama biopics regardless.

22. Lilies of the Field (Poe, 1963): This unexpectedly nuanced interplay between boot-strapping Baptist Protestantism and German nun Catholicism is a vivid document of religion, race, and society in America.

23. The Mahabharata (Brook, 1989): This lengthy presentation of a central sacred texts digs deep into the mythology and cosmology of Hinduism.

24. Malcolm X (Lee, 1992): A controversial film, to be sure, but it is also a good introduction to the Nation of Islam and its relationship to Islam in general.

25. Mary (Ferrara, 2005): This film is a great introduction to non-canonical Christian gospel texts, and the increasing influence early Gnostic thought has had on Western spirituality. Its meditation on the lingering impact of the Historical Jesus is unparalleled in world cinema.

Monsieur Ibrahim 26. Monsieur Ibrahim (Dubeyron, 2003): An aging Muslim Turk takes an abandoned Jewish boy under his wing in an immigrant-class Paris arrondissement. Their compelling journey across the EU is peppered with little comparative religious nuggets.

27. Moolade (Sembene, 2004): This acclaimed look at the rite of female circumcision in Burkina Faso as a purity ritual is both timely and articulate.

28. Nazarin (Bunuel, 1959): Is charity a legitimate spiritual discipline? Nazarin is one of several films in which we find Bunuel interrogating some of the fundamentals of Catholic piety. It is an excellent introduction to theological analyses of institutional Christianity that even just now have become part of academic discourse.

29. Osama (Barmak, 2003): Rifling through issues related to gender and religion and just war theory, Osama is one of few films that have been able to film Taliban-era Afghanistan on location. Its casual references to many local rituals and rites of passage compliment the film’s sympathetic appeal to realism.

30. The Passion of the Christ (Gibson, 2004): This controversial film is in its very essence a religious document. It is hard to find a better contemporary access point to discussions about the sacramental nature of Catholic art and piety.

31. Peter and Paul (Day, 1981): This account of the apostles Peter and Paul in the wake of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension is a largely accurate depiction of key moments in early Christianity.

32. Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997): Spirited Away would work just as well here as a moving depiction of Kami and the Shinto worldview. There are few films that celebrate and respond to nature with the vividness of Shinto dualist reasoning as those of Miyazaki.

33. A Serious Man (Coens, 2009): This period film about mid-western, mid-century Judaism deftly navigates Jewish language, literature, and myth. It is further confounded by the mysterium tremendum of hierophany.

spring-summer-fall-winter-and-sp-1 34. The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957): Though this film tends toward that class of films that aren’t quite as helpful in the religious studies classroom because they are a bit too general, it is representative of Bergman’s post-Lutheran take on theodicy, hierophany, and the boundaries of Christian art and language.

35. Silent Light (Reygadas, 2007): This film tracks a crisis of faith in an obscure Russian Mennonite community in Mexico. While a seamlessly biblical meditation on sin, desire, and tragedy, it is filled with the ritual details of this sect’s daily routine.

36. Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, and Spring (Ki-duk Kim, 2003): This South Korean film about a Buddhist monk and his protégé cycles provocatively through life, sacred space, and the essence of Zen Buddhist thought.

37. The Sun (Sokurov, 2004): This biopic of Hirohito before the surrender of Japan to American forces in WW II is rife with rare glimpses into Shinto naturalism and the waning logic of emperor worship.

38. Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997): A man driving a taxi through Tehran argues with Kurdish, Afghani, and Persian passengers about whether he should commit suicide or not. In the meantime, we become privy to the nuances of modern Islamic thinking about life and death.

39. Walkabout (Roeg, 1971): At first glimpse, this is not necessarily a film about religion. But it is actually intensely and academically religious in the way it juxtaposes various rites of Western and Aboriginal passage.

40. Where is the Friend’s Home? (Kiarostami, 1987): This is one in a series of several Kiarostami films that show us some of the basic religious beliefs of rural Iran in guileless vignettes of duty and kindness.

Yeelen 41. Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (Bae, 1989): This Korean Buddhist film follows the lives of three Buddhist monks at different stages of their life. After passing through points of Seon Buddhist theology and ritual, it closes with a package of visual koans.

42. Yeelen (Cisse, 1987): This classic look at native Malian myth and legend is challenging and obscure, but is a wonderful exercise in the true rigors of myth.

43. Yellow Earth (Chen, 1984): It is hard to track down Chinese cinema that deals specifically with religion and ritual, but this story about a communist soldier scouring rural China for morale boosting folk songs turns towards nature and the sacred.

  • Jacques

    Gosh, M. Leary . thank you for “the weight of glory” contained in this list!

    Ostrov ( Lundgin, 2006) : a good one for a film evincing the Holy Fool “in action’ perhaps? that and the social dynamics of a small Russian Orthodox monastery.

  • http://www.film-think.com M. Leary

    Good catch, I left out the great trickster. It certainly has some nice scenes that are structured around the social dynamics of the monastery. I wasn’t able to recall many good films that deal specifically with Russian Orthodoxy.

  • http://EmethSociety Anthony DiStefano

    “Crimes & Misdemeanors” is helpful in drawing people into the “religion & morality” discussion. I have my students read the great passage about the “English blockheads” in Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, discuss or read selections about Raskolnikov’s experiment in Crime & Punishment, & watch either this film or “Matchpoint,” which updates “C & M” with a younger cast. If God is dead, then what? Are all things permissible? Why or why not? Woody Allen can get tiresome, but especially in “C & M” he takes the time to set up the debate.

  • http://www.film-think.com M. Leary

    I had a hard time deciding how to include films like Crimes and Misdemeanors, which is a great document of modern religious discourse. Even a film like Rohmer’s My Night At Maude’s addresses the way people tend to deal with religious concepts outside of religious institutions. If Tillich and Eliade have so much influence in the Religious Studies classroom, then I should have included some films that broach their concerns. Maybe Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past would fit here as well. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • http://soulfoodmovies.blogspot.com/ Ron Reed

    Pleased to see Brother Sun, Sister Moon get a nod. It’s easily dismissed, and most contemporary viewers do so, but if you can forgive it its trespasses, it has its beauties as well.

  • http://soulfoodmovies.blogspot.com/ Ron Reed

    Spending some time with your article, really appreciating it.

    “Something like The Mission is certainly a religious film, but is it really a film about religion?” Could you dig into that a little more?

  • Justin

    A glaring omission from this list: To End All Wars with Keifer Sutherland.

  • http://emethsociety.wordpress.com Anthony DiStefano

    How about “Jesus of Montreal”? It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but it seems to fit the bill. And I agree with Jacques that “Ostrov” fits here, as well. For similar reasons, what about “Into Great Silence”?

  • http://www.film-think.com M. Leary

    Sure Ron, I am thinking specifically here about films that show us people practicing world religion in ways that educate us about why and how people do religious things. Films in which we watch people practice rituals, engage specific religious texts and language, inhabit sacred spaces. It is fascinating how much we can learn about world religion just by sitting down an immersing ourselves in classic world cinema. So there is a lot of Dreyer, Bergman, Kurosawa, etc… that really is religious in scope, but they just don’t focus on the textbook details of religion.

    I haven’t seen The Mission for a very long time, so this may be an oversight on my part. I just can’t remember much specificity about Catholic piety in that film. Do I need to rewatch it?

  • http://moviegoings.wordpress.com/ Jared

    I did an independent study in “theology and film” last semester, and while not all of the films I chose are relevant to your list, here are a few that aren’t on it, but that seem worth mentioning:

    Jesus of Montreal (mentioned in the comments)
    A Man for All Seasons
    The Mission (also mentioned in comments)
    Lars and the Real Girl
    Wise Blood

    I think “The Mission” is definitely worth considering. In my response to the film a few months ago, I wrote that its purpose is to “explore the choices faced by individual Christians when their spiritual values clash with the political needs of the institutionalized Church” (also a key theme of “A Man for All Seasons”) and that it “challenges us with a vision of what the Church, for one brief moment in history, achieved when it genuinely undertook to live up to the radical teachings of the gospels.”

  • Robert Martin

    While not necessarily a “world religion” film, it does compare the “religion” of modern skeptical science versus faith. I’m talking about the movie “Contact”. Carl Sagan the agnostic makes a great argument for religious faith, even though in a little backhanded way.

    As for “The Mission”, it is less a film on Catholic piety and more a film on the interaction between the church and the state as it deals specifically with the events of the early colonial era in South America and the political struggles between Portuagal and Spain and how the Jesuit order played a part in those times.

  • http://www.film-think.com M. Leary

    Interesting call on Contact. FWIW, I have read some great reviews of Close Encounters of a Third Kind that address the film as a religious document of new age spirituality in the US, specifically in the way it poses its central figure as a sort of Moses ascending the mountain. Otherwise it is hard to really find good cinema on new religious movements, and that includes what used to be NRMs like Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, etc…

    It is also hard to find non-thrillers that deal educationally with cults.

  • http://www.film-think.com M. Leary

    I kicked around Jesus of Montreal, but couldn’t lay my finger on how it would work in a religious studies classroom. I suppose it would be a helpful example of how religious ideas and images are contextualized, as well as an excellent entry point into protestant liberal theology.

  • Darrel

    Perhaps not a great cinema as the rest of the list, but Friendly Persuasion might be considered.

  • http://www.longpauses.com/blog Darren

    What Time is It There? and Face. Both of Tsai Ming-liang’s mourning films feature beautiful examples of what I assume are Buddhist death rites. (I say “assume” because I know next to nothing about Buddhism.)

  • http://www.film-think.com M. Leary

    I have been soundly criticized elsewhere for deciding not to include Song of Bernadette on the list. I really should have.

    Ushpizin, and Le grand voyage have also been excellent recommendations.

  • Keith Waddle

    Lists like these (films for religious studies) bring to mind Madeleine L’Engle’s comment in her WALKING ON WATER that good art is Christian (or good religious) art, regardless of the beliefs of the artist. I think the same idea can be extended to films; great films are inherently religious because they speak to core human values and beliefs, regardless of whether religion is an overt subject or theme. And as a further extension of WALKING ON WATER, bad works of art–ie., bad movies–are anti-religious (I would include the laughably bathotic LEFT BEHIND in this category).

    So potentially worthwhile films for religious studies can include a rich variety of intriguing works. For example, two I’ve watched recently would prompt a number of worthwhile conversations (both informally in the classroom and formally in papers and/or presentations).

    1) Akira Kurosawa’s IKURU (To Live, 1952), about an elderly bureaucrat who discovers he has cancer and laments his wasted life. He discovers existential meaningfulness through his indomitable crusade to build a park for children. A brilliant classic by one of the greatest film makers.

    2) Carl Molinder’s LAT DEN RATTE KOMMA IN (Let the Right One In, 2009), about a lonely 12 year old boy who befriends a similarly outcast vampire. I’m not a fan of vampire chick-flicks–and this isn’t one of them. The film raises important questions about the need for life and love and the extent to which we’ll go to get them.

    I could go on with my own list of 41 other worthwhile religious movies, but you get my point. I would enjoy reading what others would include in their potential list of films for religious studies.

  • http://www.film-think.com M. Leary

    As much as I like that L’Engle quote, it applies to a different list. Those sorts of films will be well covered on the upcoming revision to the Arts and Faith Top 100 list, which is shaping up to be a phenomenal resource.

    I considered both Ikiru and Dersu Uzala, but it was hard to find a spot in Kurosawa that actually details specific religious processes. Same thing with Ozu. It seems that the religious modernization of Japan is concurrent with the development of their unique approach to cinema. There is something very Shinto in the abandonment of the salaryman routine for the construction of a park, but I may just not be sensitive enough to pick up on specific points of Japanese religious language and ritual there. Even Dersu skirts the religious differences between its two characters and simply tells us the great story about how they survived together.

  • Keith Waddle

    “rites of passage, religious language, or variations” “Those sorts of films will be well covered on the upcoming revision to the Arts and Faith Top 100 list”

    OK, I reread your article and misunderstood the intent of list (though I look forward to reading the A&F top 100). In that case, one might add to your list Tender Mercies as a benign counterpoint to The Apostle, both starring Robert Duvall. Or how about select clips of Luke Skywalker being introduced to The Force by Obi Wan and Yoda? (“I don’t believe it!” “That is why you fail.”)

    There are rumors of Martin Scorsese producing a version of Shusaku Endo’s “Silence.” If so, that one will certainly deserve consideration for your religious studies film list.

    In the category of other literary works I wish could be made into films that would be great for a religious studies class examining “rites of passage,” etc., maybe someone will write and produce intelligent screenplays of “Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr” by Miguel de Unamuno and “The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher” by Rob Stennett. The former is a poignant portrayal of a revered unbelieving priest, the latter a funny satire on the American religious scene. (You can add these to the course’s suggested readings).

  • Thom

    I am surprised that “The 400 Blows” did not make this list. There is a heavy dose of Catholicism with a smidgen of iconography in this film, especially as it relates to indoctrination and the affects of such religious practices on children. Although, this is not the overall content of the film it is a major struggle and a turning point for the main character.

    Great list by the way.

  • http://soulfoodmovies.blogspot.com/ Ron Reed

    Thanks for the clarification, Mike. I see what you’re specifically looking for now, I think. And yes, “Ushpizin” is prime. I wonder, too, about “Fiddler On The Roof” – nearly forty years since I’ve seen it, but Jewish weddings for sure. I’ll have some more Jewish films for you, I think, in the next article I post, by a Jewish film writer.

  • Andrew

    What a fantastic list! Thank you, M. Leary, for your endeavors.

    Just a couple of comments I might add:

    – Regarding Kurosawa, his late films became increasingly overt in their religious grapplings. Both ‘Ran’ and ‘Kagemusha’ have at least a degree of Buddhist religious context (the latter even has a scene that intimates at Roman Catholic efforts to introduce Christianity into Japan). Using your standards, I’d surmise that his later film ‘Rhapsody in August’ is the most religious of his films, suffused with Buddhist ideas and with a moving depiction of a devout survivor of Nagasaki participating in a memorial ceremony on the anniversary of the bombing. His final film ‘Madadayo’ significantly quotes from ‘Hojoki,’ a classic Japanese Buddhist writing from the 13th Century.

    – I think I’ve mentioned this film here previously, but Juzo Itami (of ‘Tampopo’ fame) made a fascinating film late in his life entitled ‘Daibyonin (Last Dance)’ with significant overtly Buddhist elements – I hate to say too much about it and spoil the surprises it contains.

    – There actually is a film version of Endo’s ‘Silence’ directed by Masahiro Shinoda, who co-wrote the screenplay with Endo himself. It’s available on DVD, thanks to the fine people at Masters of Cinema.

  • http://www.film-think.com M. Leary

    Great suggestions, Andrew. I haven’t seen Last Dance or Silence, and look forward to tracking them down. The suggestions here in the comments have been a very helpful contribution to the list.

    Tsai’s What Time is It There? and Face were suggested elsewhere.

  • http://emethsociety.wordpress.com Anthony DiStefano

    “Whale Rider” is an interesting film that looks at some of the cultural & religious traditions of the South Pacific islands, & how a tribal community’s identity & fidelity to those tradition is threatened by family tragedy.

  • http://www.TheMasterPlanFilm.com Aron Campisano

    I recently completed a microbudget feature called The Master Plan which is about teen evangelical Christianity in the L.A. suburbs. The limited response thus far has been all over the place, but I’ve found many people to be very passionate about the movie, and it’s been reviewing well.

    It’s NOT a Christian genre film! Streaming and iPod downloads of the entire movie are available here:

    http://www.alchemistic.com/themasterplan/

    I’d love to know what you thought of it. Personally, my favorite on the list is A Taste of Cherry, but I’m a Tarkovsky nut, too.

    – Aron

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  • Ashley

    Hello! I ran across this list while doing research for my Honors Thesis in Religious Studies. I am looking into evidence of spirituality/religiousness in contemporary film and literature – this list gave me some great ideas. I was wondering if you have any more I could look into; possibly less obvious, even antithetical options that would provide an interesting argument for my project? I would appreciate any help, from anyone with some ideas! Many thanks!

  • http://soulfoodmovies.blogspot.com/ Ron Reed
  • Laura

    “Australia” might be an interesting choice, given that it ultimately suggests that the entire story, including all the wartime events it depicts, were sung into being by the liminal (half) aboriginal boy Nullah.

    And “Avatar” could be useful from a number of angles: exploring the religion of “Deep Ecology” and the Romantic religion of Nature, or Euro-American ideas of indigenous “nature religions.”

  • http://www.film-think.com M. Leary

    As much as I don’t like the film, I heartily agree that Avatar should be on this list. I did find the film an interesting exercise in the world-building component involved with religious expression. The film in essence required a team of people to create a religion from scratch, and I think we can learn a lot about how people conceive of religion by reverse engineering that process.

    Great suggestion, thanks.

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  • Dan Shaw

    Fantastic, intriguing list.  Some of these I’ve seen, some you encourage me to see.  One of my personal favorites on this list is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, a beautifully filmed, rich and profound look at the dharma as lived.  One other suggestion for your list: “Being There” with Peter Sellers… a perfect story of a Taoist Sage.  Also, do include Fiddler on the Roof.  Thanks again for a great list. 

  • M. Leary

    Thanks, Dan. I will be looking to update this list in the next few months as it is a bit outdated. I look forward to your input when I post that call for suggestions. 

  • Kidouw

    For the womanist theology, I recommend “The Color Purple.” Also Fried Green Tomatoes is very helpful and Bonhoeffer, The Agent of Grace..

  • ich

    Thanks! You can try also “Beyond the hills” (2012) and “The Island” (“Ostrov”, 2006)

  • taiwan_man

    Master of Zen (達摩祖師傳) by Brandy Yuen.

  • Agripa

    Just two examples of other phases of the evolution of religion…If “The Ten Commandments” or “The Gospel According to Matthew” represent the third or tertiary phase, “The Bear / L’Ours” (1988) depicts primary religion remarkably well. “Contact” (1997) is a good example of secondary religion (extraterrestrials as angels–or demons).

  • http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk Tim Cawkwell

    A very interesting list. I have written not a multi-faith book but a multi-denominational (Christian) one in THE NEW FILMGOER’S GUIDE TO GOD, published 2014, digital version 6.99, paperback 12.99, in which a number of these films are discussed. Great to see ANDREI ROUBLEV at the top of your list.