Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Month: March, 2014

The Top 25 Theological Films: A Working List

A Serious Man (dir., Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)

One of the goals of this site is to locate theological motifs in every film I see. This may seem like a foolhardy task, but it is a tacit assent to Thomas Aquinas’ maxim that theology concerns not only God, but also those things that pertain to God as their origin and end. Hence, as a feature of human culture, all movies are open to theological investigation…yes, even films like Anchorman 2!

With that said, however, it is undeniable that certain films not only permit a theological reading but, in fact, demand it. Such films may ask broadly metaphysical questions, or they may directly confront a particular aspect of faith, Christian or otherwise. They are, in short, films that place theology at the heart of their narrative or, as I prefer, “theological films.”

Below is a list of twenty-five such theological films — not necessarily my favorite twenty-five but, arguably, the best twenty-five. Though tempting, I’ll refrain from putting them in a particular order, since I don’t want to give the impression that one is better than another. They are all worth seeing and pondering.

  • Babette’s Feast [Babettes gæstebud] (dir. Gabriel Axel, 1987)
  • The Thin Red Line (dir. Terrence Malick, 1998)
  • The Seventh Seal [Det sjunde inseglet] (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
  • Andrei Rublev [Андрей Рублёв] (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
  • A Serious Man (dir., Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
  • Dogville (dir. Lars von Trier, 2003)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
  • Winter Light [Nattvardsgästerna] (dir., Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
  • The Shawshank Redemption (dir. Frank Darabont, 1994)
  • The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)
  • Magnolia (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
  • The Night of the Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955)
  • The Mission (dir. Roland Joffé, 1986)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946)
  • The Gospel According to Matthew [Il Vangelo secondo Matteo] (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
  • The Word [Ordet] (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)
  • Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
  • Pan’s Labyrinth [El laberinto del fauno] (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
  • The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (dir. Tommy Lee Jones, 2005)
  • Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
  • Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins, 1995)
  • Wings of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin] (dir. Wim Wenders, 1987)
  • Of Gods and Men [Des hommes et des dieux] (dir. Xavier Beauvois, 2010)
  • The Decalogue [Dekalog] (dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1989)
  • The Apostle (dir. Robert Duvall, 1997)

Of course, as my title states, this is a working list. After all, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is now out, and who knows what will follow? Also, feel free to leave omissions in the “Comments” section. Even if I don’t change the list, it would be good to note other films (and there are many more) that bring theology and film together.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2013)

In my review of The Hunger Games — the predecessor of Catching Fire and the first of four films based on Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of novels — I mentioned my surprise at the film’s dense cultural and religious significance. It’s rare that a movie marketed at such a wide audience evokes themes found in thinkers such as Dostoevsky and Girard, not to mention the Bible. Unfortunately, however, Catching Fire does not build on this foundation and begins to resemble a typical, if well-made, Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie picks up in media res. After surviving the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return to their home district, where life under the ruthless President Snow (a pitch-perfect Donald Sutherland) remains nasty, brutish, and short. But change is on the horizon. The bond between Katniss and Peeta — which, in effect, halted the Games and so undermined Snow’s means of pacifying his populace — has given the citizens of Panem hope for a society based on love, rather than on fear. Protests break out, and Snow realizes that Peeta and, above all, Katniss have become symbols, signifying the possibility of a world beyond the present one. Thus they must be eliminated. Snow reasons that the best way to achieve this end is to call another Hunger Games, this time pitting past winners against one another. Under such circumstances, Katniss will either kill or be killed or, preferably, kill and be killed. In turn, her image will be altered from that of self-sacrificing lover to that of self-preserving murderer.

To this point, Catching Fire juxtaposes a deep skepticism regarding the Civitas Terrena with a palpable, albeit inchoate longing for the Civitas Dei. And yet, once the Games resume, the film quickly becomes formulaic. Not only are many of the same personalities and scenarios reprised, but a new theme emerges, namely, that of Katniss as a leader of a military rebellion against Snow’s regime. Whereas the first film positions love itself — peaceable, patient, and disinterested in all but the good of the other — as the answer to winner-take-all politics, the second one can’t resist the pull of an ostensibly more practical solution. Violence must be met with violence.

In the end, then, Catching Fire comes to bear a notable resemblance Star Wars: its religious motifs are put in service to a far less interesting war-cum-political story. (Remember just how bad it got in the Star Wars prequels, with all of the talk about “alliances,” “the senate,” and the “Galactic Republic”?) One might well conclude, à la St. Paul, that the New Testament’s emphasis on self-emptying love is just too foolish in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 1:18). One might also wonder if, sadly, the joke is on us.

Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne, 2013)

Alexander Payne’s latest film, Nebraska, has been called a number of things — a chronicle of economic depression in rural America; a satire of Midwestern values; an ode to the stark beauty of the Great Plains; and, perhaps above all, an ideal vehicle for veteran actor, Bruce Dern. In a sense, Nebraska is each of these things. And yet, more than anything else, it is a film about compassion.

To have “compassion” is, quite literally, to “suffer with” (com-passio) with another. Thus we say that the compassionate person does not merely feel bad for one who is suffering but actually works to assuage one’s pain. It is a stance of solidarity or, better yet, the ultimate act of togetherness. After all, it is one thing to stand with a person when things are going well, but quite another when they are not.

The compassion at the heart of Nebraska involves two main characters — Woody Grant (Dern) and his son, David (Will Forte). The movie opens with Woody, disheveled and grim, hobbling along a highway in Billings, Montana. A policeman stops him, and we soon learn that Woody is trying to walk from Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska, a distance of nearly 850 miles. It is a fool’s task, but it turns out that Woody is something of a fool. A naive yet strong-willed septuagenerian, he believes that he has won a sweepstakes prize from a Lincoln-based marketing agency. He wants to claim his million-dollar award, but no one will take him. His wife, Kate (a hilarious, foul-mouthed June Squibb), thinks he belongs in a nursing home, and his oldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), is too busy trying to become “the Tom Brokaw of Billings.” That leaves his youngest son, David, who agrees to drive him, figuring, at the very least, it will get him out of Billings for a few days. And so they head east, across the Plains, which Payne’s black-and-white lens imbues with a sense of washed-out melancholy.

It is at this point that the film’s central motif emerges. As Woody continues to prove troublesome (drinking too much, wandering off, losing his teeth), David is forced to try to understand him better. Why has he so often resorted to alcohol abuse? Why is he so sullen and taciturn? And, above all, why is he so adamant that he has won one million dollars? Through a series of events, most of which center on a pitstop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, these questions are not so much solved as contemplated. David comes to see the world through Woody’s eyes, and he realizes that his father’s personality is an outgrowth of much pain and tragedy — a point that sheds light on the old man’s quixotic quest. For Woody wants to leave behind something for his family, something they (and he) will be proud of. Thus David must finish this journey with Woody, no matter how arduous or fruitless. That, indeed, is what it means to be compassionate.

Such a conclusion might suggest that David is a kind of Christ-figure, but that is not how Forte plays him. Rather, he exudes the humble, often unsure demeanor of a disciple — that is to say, of one who knows what is good and true, but also knows the struggles of adhering to it. This sort of attitude — meek yet resolute, empathic yet committed — may help illumine a recent comment by Pope Francis regarding the Church:

“We need to come out of ourselves and head for the periphery. We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one…”.

To see from the periphery, as he puts it, is to look outward, beyond one’s own interests. It is, in other words, to treat others with compassion, to meet them where they are, even if where they are is difficult or disappointing. According to the Pope, this sort of compassion is not a weak-kneed capitulation, but a means of redemption. Nebraska agrees.

All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor, 2013)

Whether understood on a literal or an allegorical level, All Is Lost is a compelling film. Set in a lonely expanse of the Indian Ocean — “1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits” — it stars Robert Redford as an unnamed yachtsman, whose vessel has been compromised in a freak accident. Concerned yet resolute, “Our Man” (so dubbed by the credits) initially seeks to repair his boat, but a series of storms renders it unsalvageable. He is then forced to retreat to a life raft, where he can do little but wait for a rescuer. Short on rations and vulnerable to the sea’s caprice, the sailor is not only in a struggle with time but also with his own insignificance opposite the forces of nature and of men.

Yet, director J.C. Chandor wants All Is Lost to go beyond a bare survival story. After all, unlike other animals, human beings confront their mortality reflexively. That is to say, the human being views his or her peril not as a mere member of the species but, rather, as an “I” or a “thou.” Thus an early voiceover — practically the film’s only words — discloses that the sailor has loved ones and is concerned about their well-being. Moreover, in his plight, he is painfully aware that his life has fallen short of what he and others have desired. He has “tried” (as he repeatedly stresses) to do the right thing, but his efforts have led to disappointment. “I’m sorry,” he concludes.

But what is it to be “sorry”? In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Søren Kierkegaard argues that to be sorry or to recognize one’s own guilt is a qualification of immanent religiousness. In other words, it is not a quality exclusive to Christianity but, rather, belongs to every human attempt to understand life in relation to an ultimate happiness. For, over against even the possibility of an ideal existence, human beings can see that it is not something they can achieve on their own. One can try to be a perfect father or scholar or athlete — to use mundane examples that Kierkegaard, admittedly, would not prefer — but will realize soon enough that such attempts are futile. Here an abyss opens up. Human beings cannot be what they want to be. And, Kierkegaard adds, any earnest confrontation with this fact will result in sorrow, not just in a general sense, but in a personal one. Against the backdrop of our finitude, brought into sharp relief by the encroaching specter of death, we become sorry for our failures, for all that we wanted to do but didn’t.

Of course, Redford’s character is not philosophizing in this way, but his statement of apology doesn’t seem like an accident either. It is an appropriate reaction to the myriad of weaknesses that constitute human existence. Moreover, it opens up new possibilities for the film’s ending. Without giving it away, I’ll just say that another dimension of Kierkegaard’s analysis of the religious life emerges, wherein the deepening of, or the descent into, immanent religiousness makes the individual receptive to salvation — indeed, a salvation from beyond the person’s own capability. One might call it a salvation from above.