The best religious films aren’t always the obvious ones, featuring either clerics or bible stories (though there are some good movies of both kinds – and an awful lot of terrible ones). Rather, some of the best capture Christianity sideways, expressing the numinous or the fundamentals of faith through a human story or through a portrait of a way of life. This being Holy Week, when we’re right in the middle of The Greatest Story Ever Told (one to watch), it’s a good time to explore how film reflects religion, straight or infused.
The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson, 2004
It’s hard to imagine how even Mel Gibson got away with a film not just not in English, but in Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin. It was controversial on the basis that it was a) very violent and b) anti-Semitic, though we should remember the events of the Passion were appallingly violent and all the protagonists bar the Romans were themselves Jewish, including Christ. Mel Gibson drew on the gospels, supplemented with other accounts, and the effect a film take on the late medieval Catholic emphasis on identification with the sufferings of Christ. One for Good Friday, but not for the squeamish. Look out for the sequel in the making – yes, The Resurrection of the Christ.
Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois, 2010
Based on a true story from 1996 when a community of Trappist monks in the monastery of Tibhurine in Algeria were (bar one) murdered by Islamists during the civil war. It is an extraordinarily moving portrait of willing martyrdom, an exploration of the meaning of authority and of the monastic vocation. There’s even humour. This is a story of another Passion. It’s stunningly beautiful.
Silence, Martin Scorsese, 2016
A most unusual Scorsese film, his homage to the novel of that name by the Japanese Shusaku Endo.