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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.