I don’t practice any particular faith, but I have a profound love for religious cinema, particularly with a Judaeo-Christian slant, because the cosmology is cool, it’s the prevailing creed of our culture and I am a good sport. All my life, I’ve kept myself up at night bothered by the many paradoxes and contradictions that come with loving and fearing the divine. And yet, films made for mainstream American audiences that sincerely tackle theological concerns are few and far between. They’re simply not a safe bet for the studio; the market is too polarized, and it’s too easy to offend.
In our current political climate, tensions between Christianity and other Abrahamic faiths have reinvigorated the debate: What does it mean to be a “true” Christian? (Or Muslim. Or Jew.) There is a spurious divide between so-called religious zealots and godless liberals, and those who dwell somewhere between are often left out, as the conversation fixes on judgment instead of mercy.
These are important questions, and I don’t know about you, but I’m starving for more films that have the courage to take a stance and explore these issues and provoke real conversation without proselytizing or condescending. Here are a few rare films that fit the criteria. Be advised that they may contain spoilers, (particularly if you don’t remember how certain bible stories end.)
The Last Temptation of Christ – Martin Scorsese, 1988
Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ polarized audiences before anyone had even seen it. While some religious leaders embraced the picture, others were incensed by rumors that the film featured Jesus Christ having sex with Mary Magdalene. (It’s true, but the context matters.) The studio slashed the film’s budget in anticipation of a costly backlash, which made it seem smaller and cheaper than what you would expect from a Scorsese period piece.
It’s one of my very favorite movies, so imagine my disappointment when people frequently confuse it with Mel Gibson’s blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, which is a beautiful and strange movie—right up until the torture begins. It’s wonderful to hear the dialog in Aramaic, a testament to Gibson’s obsessive desire for authenticity—but in the end it’s a big-budget pageant play. It starts with an agenda, not questions, and does the interpreting for you. You are only expected to experience Christ’s suffering and repent.
Scorsese never intended to anger or polarize audiences, but he wanted to go deeper than the bodily suffering and look at the war waged for the soul. Raised as a Catholic, he was always interested in the story of Christ as both man and God at the same time. The Christ we’re used to seeing in cinema is stoic, pure and omniscient: God in human form. But if that’s the case, Scorsese argued, where is the sacrifice?
With a script by Paul Schrader, inspired by Nikolas Kazantakas’s book of the same name, Scorsese aimed to retell the story of the final days leading up to the crucifixion with a Jesus who is more man than God. Willem Dafoe depicts Christ as a Jewish carpenter who makes crosses for the Romans in an attempt to quiet the angry voice of God with which he continually struggles. He is neurotic, fearful and conflicted. He struggles with chastity and a lack of faith. This Jesus isn’t all knowing: He receives God’s plan only a little at a time, and who knows if it’s really God who’s tormenting him. It might be the devil.
Harvey Keitel plays Judas Iscariot as a strong, bellicose man. He sees their struggle against the ruling theocracy as a political issue that should be fought in the streets with swords and blood. Jesus and Judas speak plainly and frankly to one another about these ideological differences, as evidenced in this interaction:
Judas: Do you want freedom for Israel?
Jesus: No. I want freedom for the soul.
Judas: No. That’s what I can’t accept. That’s not the same thing. First you free the body, then the spirit! The Romans come first. You don’t build a house from the roof down, but from the bottom up.
Jesus: The foundation is the soul.
Judas: The foundation is the body. That’s where you must begin.
Jesus: If you don’t change the spirit first, change what’s inside, then you’ll only replace the Romans with someone else, and nothing changes. Even if you’re victorious, you’ll still be filled with the poison. You’ve got to break the chain of evil.
Judas: How do you change then?
Jesus: With love.
Shot in Morocco, the film’s setting and costumes are period, but the characters speak in a modern vernacular. When the apostles converse about their religious crusade, Scorsese wanted them to sound familiar and relatable. These are men who have left their families and their livelihoods to follow a strange man in the desert. And don’t forget: Jesus wasn’t the only charismatic figure trying to spearhead a revolution. His followers didn’t know how their story would end, and the philosophical, campfire conversations reflect that uncertainty.
The table is set for Christ’s last temptation and the film takes its grand, artistic departure from the biblical story—which is what had everybody so angry. An angel in the form of a young, androgynous girl stands at the feet of Jesus on the cross. She tells him that God doesn’t need him to die after all, that he can come down from the cross and live the life of an ordinary man. In one of the most incredible third acts in all of cinema, we see Jesus wed to Mary Magdalene, make love to her and conceive a child. When Mary dies, Jesus goes on to build a life and family with another woman…and another.
On his deathbed, in the absence of sacrifice on the cross, Jerusalem is on fire and crumbling. The apostles, led by an old Judas, visit Jesus on his deathbed and furiously remind him: “Your place was on the cross. That’s where God put you. When death got too close, you got scared and you ran away. And you hid yourself in the life of some man. We did what we were supposed to do. You didn’t.”
In that moment, Christ realizes that life from the point of crucifixion on has been an hallucination, that the angel is really a devil, and that he must resist temptation and literally crawl on his hands and knees back onto the cross. To me, this is one of the most thought-provoking, profoundly religious films we have.
Noah – Darren Aronofsky, 2014
The Old Testament is replete with murderous, passionate stories; it’s a pity that more modern filmmakers aren’t willing to mine this resource. Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film Noah takes many artistic liberties in telling its story about the great flood and the building of the Ark. Christians are notoriously uncomfortable with this sort of modification, particularly when it is authored by a self-proclaimed atheist, such as Aronofsky.
Noah (Russell Crowe) lives in a barren landscape populated by the descendants of Cain—who have fallen into depravity beyond redemption—and Abel. Noah and his family are the last of the latter, and they believe must wait for instruction from the creator and fulfill his plan. (The term “the creator” was used throughout, not God—another point of controversy.) Aronofsky’s Noah is gentle—a vegetarian, even—but a formidable fighter, capable of fending off denizens of the debauched, neighboring city with Aikido-like moves. These additions give Noah a mainstream appeal, while other narrative inventions explain away the creation of the Ark in stages. Prophetic visions from the creator reveal a great flood wiping away the earth, and hallucinogens courtesy of his mystic grandfather show that he must build an ark for his family and two of every animal. (All other living things are not invited.) The lumber for the Ark comes from a lush forest generated by a magic seed, and the boat is built with the aid of gigantic fallen angels encrusted in hard rock. The animals arrive two by two by divine will and are put to sleep for the duration of the trip with magic incense.
The story gets ugly when the flood arrives and thousands of souls are left to pitifully cling to rocks and drown. Two important changes have overtaken Noah at this point in the story: First, Noah has become entirely disillusioned with humanity. He comes to believe that they are scourges and the future earth will be better off without them. Second, there are no more instructions from the creator, and Noah finds himself burdened and tortured by what he feels he must do. Faith is easy when God makes his miracles plainly known to you, but what happens when that voice goes mute, or you can never really be sure you heard it in the first place?
The films next invention brings this matter into high relief; there’s a pregnant mother on board (never mind how she got there), and Noah has already decided that God doesn’t want them to procreate. If the baby is a girl, he will have to kill her. For nine, long months, Noah’s family drifts in an endless sea, fearing the vengeful man he’s become.
The babies are twin girls: Conceivably one for each unwed brother on the boat. (that takes care of the problem of incest for one generation of repopulation.) Noah believes he has to kill them, and he tries, but ultimately his compassion outweighs his misguided sense of faith, and in that act of mercy, humanity is saved from extinction.
Christians largely disavowed the film. They were angry that Noah and his family didn’t want to eat animals, and—at the same time—they didn’t want to see Noah behave cruelly or violently, even if he’s later redeemed. Once aground, Noah spends his life agonizing over the past—a classic case of survivor guilt. Oddly enough, the scene that raised the most hackles comes near the very end, when we see a drunk Noah face down and naked on the beach. The outrage is odd, because the image comes directly from the bible.
Like The Last Temptation of Christ, Noah aims to tell a classic story with a timeless finish. Their clothing looks both old and weirdly futuristic and they speak with a vernacular that feels old-timey and made-up. The film did better than expected at box offices, perhaps because of its gorgeous, epic sense of wonder and fantasy, a la Lord of the Rings. Still, I suspect there are many non-religious people who assumed Noah was just another endless sermon and so avoided the film altogether. I’d recommend giving it a chance.
Frailty – Bill Paxton, 2001
Bill Paxton made his directorial debut with 2001’s Frailty, (written by Brent Hanley) and it remains an extraordinary, complicated and underrated film. Paxton stars as a widowed father living in Texas in the late 1970s with his two sons. He appears to be a gentle, normal man, until late one night, he receives a prophetic vision in his dreams. He wakes up his children to tell them:
“The end of the world is coming. It’s near. There are demons among us. The devils released them for the final battle. It’s being fought right now. But nobody knows it except us and others like us. We’ve been chosen by God. He will protect us. He’s given us special jobs to do. We don’t fear these demons, we destroy them. We pick them up one by one, and we pitch them out of this world. That’s God’s purpose for us.”
The younger of the sons believes his father and goes along with the plans, while the older lives in fear of what he understands to be his father’s psychotic break. Soon Dad starts bringing home the people that he believes are actual demons. He puts his hands on his victims and sees all the evil deeds they’ve done. As an audience, though, we have no way of knowing if these visions are real or a product of Dad’s psychosis.
It’s a terrifying story made more terrifying when you realize that so many real life murders are committed by people who believe they are acting out God’s will. Faith must have been easier in the times before modern science and psychology. If God spoke to anyone alive today, how could we ever possibly believe them?
Most of the film seems closely aligned with the older, doubting son, and the audience I think is inclined to believe his viewpoint. But at the end, a miraculous thing happens from an objective perspective that strongly suggests that the prophetic visions were real all along. If God is real, and he asks you to kill a demon in human clothing, do you do it? And what happens if you don’t?
Crimes and Misdemeanors – Woody Allen, 1989
One of Woody Allen’s most beloved films, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) has two parallel plots, only one of which is relevant to our conversation. Martin Landau stars as Judah Rosenthal, a married, successful ophthalmologist with a whole lot to lose. He was raised Jewish but doesn’t practice. Judah has an affair with Dolores (Angelica Houston), but eventually the affair becomes too much to handle. She wants to expose the infidelity to his wife and won’t be silenced with bribes or pleading. When Dolores threatens to tell the authorities about some of Judah’s questionable, past money laundering schemes, he slowly comes to see it as a problem with only one solution, and he has Dolores killed. In Judah, we see a man who has given himself a lot of permission in this life to sin. Perpetually, he minimizes his own culpability and shifts the blame to others. Time and again, he’s rewarded for the behavior.
After the murder, Judah becomes consumed with guilt and paranoia that he’ll be found out and caught, and he fears for his immortal soul. In one of the great theological scenes of our time, we’re treated with a flashback to Judah’s childhood, where his very Jewish family has a lively debate about the subject of faith and morality. If a man commits a crime and he doesn’t face earthly consequences, will he be punished later? If faced with a choice between God and the truth, which do you choose?
By the end of the film, enough time has passed since the deed that Judah has mostly put the guilt behind him and lives his life with the relative certainty that he’s gotten away with it. Of course, we can never know for sure.
The Rapture – Michael Tolkien, 1991
Michael Tolkien’s largely forgotten film The Rapture (1991) stars Mimi Rogers as an aimless, promiscuous woman who finds Christ, loves Him and then eventually comes to hate Him just moments before the world succumbs to God’s final judgment. The last shot finds her in a black, empty space, devoid of God, where she is doomed to remain forever.
I’ve always loved this film, and I believe it invites a literal interpretation from a thoughtful director with the courage to explore a heady question. Rogers as Sharon represents the typical born-again case study: She begins a sinner, discovers God and repents. Much like Frailty, Sharon receives a message from God that she’s either hallucinated or misinterpreted; the vision leads her to do a terrible, unforgivable thing that leaves her worse off than when we first met her. She believes in God, but rejects him, so when the Rapture comes, God rejects her into an endless darkness.
The film has a hard time finding an audience among both believers and non-believers. As is the case with Noah, Christians don’t trust a non-Christian with their story, or are offended by the sexual content, or they quibble over the biblical interpretation.
Non-religious persons, I’ve noticed, are inclined to interpret the film as some kind of hallucination or fever dream. They assume that Sharon never actually talked to God, that the four horseman of the apocalypse we see on screen must be a projection of her delusion. To me, this interpretation is needlessly complicated, and further, I don’t find any evidence for it in the film. From the very beginning, the story is told from what seems to be an objective, third person perspective and never wavers.
I don’t want to give away what happens to make Sharon fall from grace, because it’s such a thrilling cinematic moment. But in this act, The Rapture has something profound to say about faith. When Sharon assumes she knows God’s plan, she commits an irredeemable sin. Tolkien doesn’t shy away with an ambiguous ending. In the world of the movie, we have to conclude that Sharon’s been standing in the same lonely place for more than 26 years, and that’s just the beginning.