Religion on Film

If you’re seeking a quick and informal education in world religions, why not turn to Hollywood, Bollywood, and the global cinema for some classic entertainment along with the expansion of your spiritual horizons? I’ve conveniently waded through the murky waters for you and selected a few of my favorites when it comes to religion and the moving picture.

You’ll probably notice a few classics missing from this list, but I won’t pretend that my selection isn’t entirely subjective or remotely comprehensive. If your favorite is missing, suggest it in the discussion section and I’ll try to find it at my local movie megapolis and provide feedback!

The Jesus of Montreal (1989) Directed by Denys Arcand

This film purports to educate the viewer about the historical figure of Christ using a story-within-a-story method. Although we do learn about the cultural and historical setting from which Jesus and his followers came, the real spiritual message of the film turns out not to be Christian at all per se, but about individual spirituality and power. The quiet style of the film makers combined with the urban beauty of Montreal creates a powerfully understated backdrop for some surprising twists

Kundun (1997) Directed by Martin Scorsese

Kundun is a classic peek into how culture, history and religion are inseparable. This film is an art in itself, with elaborate sets and attention to detail that create a feast for the eyes as well as the soul. In Kundun, the two-year old Dalai Lama captures our sympathy and, as he grows into one of the most important religious leaders on the planet, reminds us what life is all about.

Malcolm X (1992) Directed by Spike Lee

If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, be prepared to forget everything you thought you knew about Malcom X. Though some may disagree, the religious scholar in me appreciates that the power of religion for both positive and negative is explored in this film. We see people pulling themselves up with the bootstraps of religious endeavor and community, and then see some of the same people slipping down that slippery road of conformity and submission to authority.

The Dark Crystal (1982) Directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz

Don’t laugh! It may be Jim Henson, but it’s Jim Henson at his enigmatic and brilliant finest and really, this entire movie is one big metaphor for spirituality. In his quest to find the missing shard of the crystal and heal the universe, our puppet protagonist meets a host of adventures and fellow adventurers. There’s good guys and bad guys, the wise ones, and the ones devoid of all wisdom who are, of course, envious of those who have it. Many lessons are learned along the way.

Dogma (1999) Directed by Kevin Smith

The plot and characters are modern incarnations of Biblical figures, but the issues they grapple with come right down to textbook philosophy and spirituality 101. Burdened with the task of saving the world, our unlikely heroes, along with Jay and Silent Bob, question the nature of good and problem of evil, question the existence and motivation of Divinity, grapple with the problem of interpreting scripture, and give us so many laughs we don’t even realize we’re being lectured all the while.

Gandhi (1982) Directed by Richard Attenborough

The life of Ghandi, arguably one of the most influential spiritual and political leaders of our time. Nuff said.

Spring Summer Fall Winter…and Spring (2004) Directed by Ki-duk Kim

Korean film as much about experiencing life as it is religion. We meet a young boy who is being raised in the middle of nowhere by a Buddhist monk and watch as he learns life’s most bittersweet lessons. I found myself in sheer awe during a few scenes, in utter admiration of the intensity and passion portrayed. This one’s not a comedy, but its themes are universal.

Honorable Mentions:

The Life of Brian (1979) Directed by Terry Jones

Before there was Mel Gibson’s The Passion and before there was the Da Vinci Code, there was Monty Python. Ok, so it really has little to do with religion and spirituality per se (other than the Biblical setting), but we all need to be reminded sometimes to “Always look on the bright side of life.”

The Rapture (1991) Directed by Michael Tolkin

Again, before there was the Left Behind series, there was The Rapture which centers around, appropriately enough, the idea of the rapture. One woman becomes convinced that Jesus is coming to take her away. In general, I’m not a fan of happy endings, and, without saying too much, I found this ending more satisfying than specifically happy or sad.

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) Directed by Walter Salles

Don’t be fooled by my listing this movie as only an honorable mention – its a wonderful film. I can’t in good conscience list it as one of the best just because it doesn’t really have all that much to do with religion. What it does portray is how a spiritual awakening can be the product of situational experiences. A young man, seeking to leave his comfortable life for a bit of adventure, gets more than he bargained for when he becomes incredibly moved by the social injustices and economic poverty he sees. In other words, we see the true story how an average kid, motivated by a newfound abhorrence of injustice, is reborn into the controversial and successful revolutionary icon of Che Guevara.

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