Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Category: Musings

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.

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Prolegomena

Before starting this blog in earnest, it makes sense to offer a few prefatory comments. After all, though it’s clear that I intend to write about “theology and movies,” it’s not clear how I understand the two to be related. What follows, then, is not a systematic analysis of the relation between theology and cinema–I’ll save such an endeavor for another venue–but, rather, a few presuppositions that will guide my reflections on the subject. To be sure, one might object to these premises. And yet, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, there are no presuppositionless beginnings in thinking. I might as well own up to my beliefs at the outset. So, with that in mind, I assume…

  • That both theology and cinema are human activities.
  • That cinema, in particular, is human art form, which, like all art forms, is capable of sacramental significance–that is to say, of pointing to the sacred, inexhaustible mystery of reality.
  • That theology, as a form of discourse about God, seeks to clarify the nature and goals of human life by attending to the meaning of God.
  • That insofar as theology, in attending to God, also attends to matters of ultimate concern, it is a discourse that engages “believers” and “nonbelievers” alike.
  • That cinema, insofar as it is a medium that combines both auditory and visual elements, is uniquely situated to (re)present life to us and, so, to shape the way we live.
  • That, in the above characteristics, there is notable overlap between theology and movies. Indeed, as Martin Scorsese once noted, to enter into the theater is to enter into a kind of sanctuary, where our eyes are opened, as it were, to a world that we often fail to see in our day-to-day lives.

Of course, this list could be expanded. But these convictions form the bedrock of what is to come.