At some point in a young person’s life, a mentor gives a piece of well-established advice: Never talk politics or religion. Avoiding politics is near impossible in 2019, but it’s still a good idea to steer clear of traipsing through the theological tulips at a cocktail party. Better to stick to a topic less likely to offend: like movies.
But what about movies about religion? This can get tricky, and Netflix is about to make it trickier with the release of The Two Popes. The film, directed by Fernando Meirelles and based on Anthony McCarten’s play, suggests that, in order to “save” the Roman Catholic Church, reformer Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) must convince Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) to change with the times. This becomes an issue, though, if you consider a Pope to be infallible, as promised by Jesus to St. Peter, to whom each new Pope becomes a successor. Oh, but there I go talking about religion!
The Two Popes is a strong film and has a shot at some awards season play — it’s unlikely to win anything, but it may be in the mix. Historically, though, the Bible has often meant boffo box office. Hollywood has long had a love affair with the Good Book, and many of its characters have weaved in well as a subset of sandal epics (not every Roman movie included the Story of the Nazarene).
Nowadays, there’s a built-in market for evangelicals (see the Arizona-based mini-studio Pure Flix, which pumps out Promise Keeper-ready projects on the reg), but there are still mainstream movies that treat religion maturely, and aren’t typical Godless Communist propaganda made by libtards to turn us all into genderqueer Marxists. What follows is a very tip-of-the-iceberg look at the financially successful, the artistically successful and the sweet spot in-between where something found a deserving audience.
The False Idols: Commercially Successful, Critically Meh
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Let’s start Old School and Old Testament. This motion picture — which even if you haven’t seen, you kinda know — is terrible. I mean, it’s campy and kitschy, but it’s terrible. Other bible epics of the era are silly but at least have some pop, and we’ll get to those, but Charlton Heston and his ridiculous beard as Moses is just a slog. This version of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt is three hours and 40 minutes (still less than the typical Passover seder), and while Yul Brynner chomps it up as Pharaoh, that’s the only thing this movie had going for it — its special effects (the Red Sea parting, a staff turning to a serpent), look pretty rough today. Anne Baxter playing a character named Nefertiti is also a good example of the whacked-out racial politics pervading Hollywood until, oh, about 10 minutes ago. The good news is, if you fall asleep (and you will), the mothers wailing at the smiting of the first born ought to rouse you off the couch.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Despite controversy upon its release due to its director, Mel Gibson, leaning into anti-Semitic tropes within the movie (and not doing much to distance himself from them or from his Holocaust-denying father), the movie still made a zillion dollars — seeing it was championed by Fox News as something like a Christian visit to Mecca. (Among the many anecdotes I love from the time: a theater with randomized ticketing codes issued Passion the number 666, and there was at least one guy who demanded it changed.) But what about the film itself? It has nice cinematography! But most of it is just a slow torture porn as Jim Caviezel is arrested and slowly flayed and beaten into Hamburger Christ before dying on the cross. Many clearly found more to the movie than I did. A sequel is allegedly on its way, which sounds like a joke, but it is true.
War Room (2015)
I mentioned the upstart company Pure Flix above and I don’t really want to knock their product — it’s a niche thing for its own cultivated audience. But the success they’ve had, like with God’s Not Dead, God’s Not Dead 2 and God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (all of which I have seen!) led other companies to follow this specific gravy train, among them a little organization called Sony. War Room, which was targeted to evangelicals in such a way that they offered branded notepads, is a film that suggests, among other things, that if your husband is cheating on you it’s your fault for not praying hard enough. It’s beyond yikes.
Divine Inspiration: Critically Successful, Commercially Meh
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s one-of-a-kind Jesus movie is something like the flipside to Mel Gibson’s version. It’s shot in a naturalist, almost documentary-style: Casting amateur actors, Pasolini filmed the story of Christ using dialogue direct from the Bible in black and white and in a very spartan setting. The soundtrack is a mix of anachronistic music, including Bach and Mozart, and also blues by Blind Willie Johnson and African-American folk artist Odetta, who sings “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” It makes for a surreal and touching experience.
Wise Blood (1979)
One of John Huston’s final films, based on Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood stars Brad Dourif (a lifetime away from his role in Deadwood) as a returning veteran in a Southern town lousy with preachers who decides to create an atheistic church. The film takes a jaundiced view of organized religion (and that puts it mildly), but there’s an unexpected left turn when our lead begins his earnest path toward righteousness. The movie is far from blasphemous if you look at it the right way, and even lends itself to Christ metaphors.
A Serious Man (2009)
What would the Book of Job look like in late 1960s Middle America? That’s basically what Joel and Ethan Coen give us in A Serious Man, but also much more. You don’t need to be Jewish to get this movie, which presents its bone-deep outsider status in an impenetrable world… but it doesn’t hurt! A prologue, in Yiddish, is a confounding old wives’ tale, which then leaps to one modest man receiving one frustrating piece of bad news after another. There are side quests that seem to offer wisdom (the Goy’s Teeth!) but only add to the frustration. “What does Hashem want?” Richard Kind asks, and when Michael Stuhlbarg finally stands up to superstition, a more punishing storm approaches. Off-screen, maybe, God and the Devil are settling their bet.
Of Gods and Men (2010)
A big hit in France that few saw in the U.S., Xavier Beauvois’ film tells the story of a group of Trappist monks living among and serving a Muslim community in Algeria. They don’t proselytize: They provide medical services and sell honey. The rest of the time, they pray, they chant, they behave in a manner that can only be called holy. When political unrest comes, extremists demand that they leave, but they won’t abandon the locals who depend on them. This is based on an actual event and although — spoiler alert — it doesn’t end well, the movie is strangely beautiful as we watch these brave men who really believe meeting their fate.
The Holy Trinity: Commercially Successful, Critically Successful and Still Watchable Today
King of Kings (1961)
Earlier I mentioned the classic sandal epic that doesn’t work, The Ten Commandments, but there are plenty that do. There’s nothing quite like Ben-Hur (1959), an adventure film that dovetails with the story of Christ. There’s also George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), which is a little sleepy, but every shot is a painting. I love Anthony Quinn in Barabbas (1961), the story of the criminal that Pontius Pilate freed instead of Jesus. (Of note, Quinn also starred in the 1976 film The Message, the closest thing Islam has to a sandal epic. It’s a biopic of the Prophet Muhammed, but, as per Muslim tradition, Muhammed doesn’t actually appear in the movie.) Yet nothing tops Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings for a big, fat technicolor Jesus. Jeffrey Hunter is the Nazarene, Rip Torn is Judas Iscariot and, very importantly, Brigid Bazlen is a very seductive Salomé dancing for King Herod. This is pure Hollywood schmaltz but with lots of bright color and pizzaz. Check it out if you’ve ignored it before.
A Man For All Seasons (1966)
When The Two Popes is at its best, it reminds me of this Fred Zinnemann–Robert Bolt Best Picture winner. It’s set in 16th century England, and Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) wants to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boylen (Vanessa Redgrave). Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) is ready to petition the Vatican, but Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) stands his ground: Rules are there for a reason. It’s almost impossible to think of a modern film in which you end up rooting for a dogmatic and conservative clergyman who rails against the concept of divorce, but that’s what makes this film so brilliant. By the end, you’ll be converted.
The Mission (1986)
If A Serious Man is the most Jewish film ever made, this is the most Catholic. Robert De Niro is a Spanish slaver looking for redemption and Jeremy Irons is a Jesuit Missionary living in the Amazonian rainforest in the mid-1700s. The Treaty of Madrid cuts up colonial land between Spain and Portugal, leading to tenuous alliances within the wider Church. Irons and De Niro are told they must abandon the people they’ve been helping: The question now becomes whether they should do what the Bishops tell them to do, or what their Faith tells them. Once that’s decided, there’s the question of how that should manifest itself, and if violence is ever justified. It’s heavy stuff, all gorgeously shot on location (with another Robert Bolt script!) and set to Ennio Morricone’s legendary score.
Darren Aronofsky’s recent adaptation of the Flood Myth was a bigger success than some people realize. It did okay business in the U.S., but was huge in foreign markets. Also: It’s really terrific, something many critics didn’t realize (drown them all!). Russell Crowe plays Noah as something of maniac and the depiction of antediluvian Earth (with its fallen angel “watchers”) is more Lord of the Rings than the Judeo-Christian “Lord” seen in most movies. Also of note: The story of Noah is only a few pages in the Book of Genesis, but the theological aspects here are supposedly kosher.