Black Narcissus (1947): This film was way ahead of its
time. Its psychological probing of a missionary convent of Anglican nuns
in the Himalayas captures a shelf full of books on colonialism and
Flowers of St. Francis (1950): The film dramatizes about
a dozen vignettes from the life of St. Francis and his early followers -
starting with their return in the rain to Rivotorlo from Rome when the
Pope blessed their Rule and ending with their dispersal to preach.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951): It is hard to pick
just one Bresson film for such a list, but this looks at asceticism,
Catholic doctrine, and liturgy is an essential document of Christian
The Burmese Harp (1956): This story about the unexpected
conversion of a Japanese soldier at the end of WW II to monastic
Buddhism is as wonderfully composed as it is enlightening. It is a fine
film about trauma, death, and the way religion offers ritual structures
for hope and healing.
The Seventh Seal (1957): A man seeks answers about life,
death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim
Reaper during the Black Plague. This film is representative of Bergman’s
post-Lutheran take on theodicy, hierophany, and the boundaries of
Christian art and language.
Nazarin (1959): Is charity a legitimate spiritual
discipline? Nazarin is one of several films in which we find
Buñuel interrogating some of the fundamentals of Catholic piety. It is
an excellent introduction to theological analyses of institutional
Christianity that even just now has become part of academic discourse.
Devi (1960): Ray’s acrobatic riff on Kali mythology and
worship in Hinduism caused a bit of a stir, but to this day remains a
classic study of the way we appropriate mythical narratives.
King of Kings (1961): The
life of Jesus.
Winter Light (1963):
On a cold winter's Sunday, the pastor of a small rural church (Tomas
Ericsson) performs service for a tiny congregation; though he is
suffering from a cold and a severe crisis of faith...
Lilies of the Field (1963): This unexpectedly nuanced
interplay between boot-strapping Baptist Protestantism and German nun
Catholicism is a vivid document of religion, race, and society in
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964): The life of
Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew. Pasolini shows Christ
as a Marxist avant-la-lettre and therefore uses half of the text of
Andrei Rublev (1966): This challenging film tracks a
Russian Orthodox iconographer through the turbulent history of Russia,
suggesting some complicated things about religion and history along the
way. It is a virtual treasury of thoughts on iconography, politics, and
Walkabout (1971): Two young children are stranded in the
Australian outback and are forced to cope on their own. They meet an
Aborigine on "walkabout": a ritualistic separation from his tribe. This
is an intensely and academically religious film in the way it juxtaposes
various rites of Western and Aboriginal passage.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972): This tricky biography
of St. Francis of Assisi makes reference to American countercultural
movements in the 1960s. The ideas it composes about how religion and
social movements interact make for compelling conversation.
Faith, Hope, and Charity (1973): This Mexican film compiles three
stories. The film shows different aspects of the human nature in its
relationship with religion. The first part, "Fe" (faith), is the story
of a woman who travels to a distant town seeking a miracle to save her
husband from disease. The second story, "Esperanza" (Hope), concerns a
man who consents to be nailed to a cross as part of "Jesus Christ" freak
show, hoping to help his mother. The final story, "Caridad" (Charity) a
humble woman faces a lack of charity from those in authority.
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1977): The
contribution of Maya Deren to ethnographic cinema on religion can’t be
overlooked. This is a seminal look at religious ritual in Haiti.
The Last Wave (1977): A Sydney lawyer defends five
Aborigines in a ritualized taboo murder and in the process learns
disturbing things about himself.
The Chosen (1981): This is one of the finest depictions
of the nuances of Conservative and Orthodox Judaism during a time when
Zionism threatened to redefine both. Its gentle evocation of Hasidism
and Talmudic thinking in mid-century Brooklyn is timeless.
Peter and Paul (1981): This account of the apostles
Peter and Paul in the wake of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension
is a largely accurate depiction of key moments in early Christianity.
Gandhi (1982): There aren’t many bearable biopics of
religious figures out there, but scattered about this compelling look at
Gandhi’s life are rabbit trails on religion and state issues,
Hindu/Islam relations, and the way religion and class co-exist.
Yellow Earth (1984): It is hard to track down Chinese
cinema that deals specifically with religion and ritual, but this story
about a communist soldier scouring rural China for morale boosting folk
songs turns towards nature and the sacred.
Agnes of God (1985):
When a naive novice nun is discovered with a dead newborn in her
convent quarters, a court appointed psychiatrist investigates her case.
Four Days In July (1985): A catholic and a protestant
couple in Northern Ireland have amazing parallels in their lives,
despite being either side of the divide.
. The Mission (1986): 18th century Spanish Jesuits try
to protect a remote South American Indian tribe in danger of falling
under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.
Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987): This is one in a
series of several Kiarostami films that show us some of the basic
religious beliefs of rural Iran in guileless vignettes of duty and
Yeelen (1987): This classic look at native Malian myth
and legend is challenging and obscure, but is a wonderful exercise in
the true rigors of myth.
Babette’s Feast (1988): This acclaimed meditation on
grace is an entrancing look at Lutheran piety, grace, and the sacrament
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988): An anthropologist goes
to Haiti after hearing rumors about a drug used by black magic
practitioners to turn people into zombies.
The Mahabharata (1989): This lengthy presentation of a
central sacred texts digs deep into the mythology and cosmology of
Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989): This
Korean Buddhist film follows the lives of three Buddhist monks at
different stages of their life. After passing through points of Seon
Buddhist theology and ritual, it closes with a package of visual koans.
Close-Up (1990): This memorable glimpse of Islamic
judicial practice in Iran is one of the great ethnographic documents
produced by the Iranian New Wave. Its reflections on mercy and justice
as navigated by this Iranian court of law provide an uncommon glimpse
into the rationale of certain Muslim social policies.
The Rapture (1991): A telephone operator living an
empty, amoral life finds God and loses him again. The problem of evil.
Malcolm X (1992): A controversial film, to be sure, but
it is also a good introduction to the Nation of Islam and its
relationship to Islam in general.
City of Joy (1992): Max, a
young, disillusioned physician, goes to India on a personal quest for
meaning. He finds appalling poverty and caste system prejudice.
The Joy Luck Club (1993): The life histories of four
Asian women and their daughters reflect and guide each other. This film
ranges widely across immigrant narratives, forgotten rituals, and
engaging historical vignettes. It is an effective meditation on the way
religious identities are diffused across generations.
Little Buddha (1994): Lama Norbu comes to Seattle in
search of the reincarnation of his dead teacher, Lama Dorje. Story about
the life of Buddha.
Powder (1995): A young bald albino boy with unique
powers shakes up the rural community he lives in. Messages: Everything
is connected, God’s purpose, death.
The Apostle (1997): A frighteningly realistic portrayal
of Pentecostal preaching and fellowship that embraces its ambiguous
Southern Gothic take on fundamentalist Christianity.
Kundun (1997): This film may be bit affected by what
Donald Richie came to call “orientalism,” but it is the most even handed
and eloquent of the Dalai Lama biopics regardless.
Taste of Cherry (1997): A man driving a taxi through
Tehran argues with Kurdish, Afghani, and Persian passengers about
whether he should commit suicide or not. In the meantime, we become
privy to the nuances of modern Islamic thinking about life and death.
Princess Mononoke (1997): On a journey to find the cure
for a Tatarigami's curse, Ashitaka finds himself in the middle of a war
between the forest gods and Tatara, a mining colony. In this quest he
also meets San, the Mononoke Hime. This is a moving depiction of Kami
and the Shinto worldview.
The Book of Life (1998): The end of the millenium has
taken on a certain significance in modern day prophecies. What happens
if Jesus Christ has second thoughts about the Apocalypse?
The Cup (1999): A charming look at Tibetan Buddhism and
globalism that refers in detail to the particulars of Buddhist
monasticism and their relevance to a media saturated world.
Himalaya (1999): Tibetan Lamaism. Sky burial rites. This
nicely composed film shot with non-professional Tibetans works well as a
glimpse of traditional Tibetan religious practice.
Stigmata (1999) A young Jesuit priest, whose degree in chemistry makes
him a sort of priest / detective, investigates weeping Mary and the like
around the world. Meanwhile, Frankie, a rave-generation Pittsburgher, is
afflicted with the stigmata--holes that appear in her wrists, resembling
the wounds of Christ. The young woman's symptoms filter back to the
Vatican and Father Kiernan is assigned to the case.
Kadosh (1999): This film offers a challenging glimpse
into the structure of ultra-orthodox Jewish culture. Its commentary on
gender, sectarianism, and what some refer to as Haredic Judaism makes
The Chosen look sanguine.
The Third Miracle (1999): The Vatican sends a priest to
verify some miracles, performed by a woman who has been nominated for
Islam: Empire of Faith (2000): PBS documentary
about the history of Islam.
The Body (2001): A crucified body dated back to the 1st
century A.D is uncovered at an ancient cave in Jerusalem. Trouble ensues
as word spreads.
A Question of Faith (2001): What would you do if you
came face to face with a miracle? In the heart of California wine
country lies a monastery where centuries-old traditions of ritual,
discipline and solitude create a timeless serenity--until one dazzling
moment changes everything. A member of the order experiences a
miraculous encounter with implications that are both stunning and
uplifting. As the community struggles with the ramifications,
long-buried conflicts begin to surface. Soon, the Brothers are forced to
grapple with the fundamental tension between faith and reason, but their
lives will never be the same again.
Devil’s Playground (2002): Amish teenagers experience
and embrace the modern world as a rite-of-passage before deciding which
life they will choose.
Luther (2003): During the early 16th Century idealistic
German monk Martin Luther, disgusted by the materialism in the church,
begins the dialogue that will lead to the Protestant Reformation.
Osama (2003): Rifling through issues related to gender
and religion and just war theory, Osama is one of few films that have
been able to film Taliban-era Afghanistan on location. Its casual
references to many local rituals and rites of passage compliment the
film’s sympathetic appeal to realism.
Monsieur Ibrahim (2003): An aging Muslim Turk takes an
abandoned Jewish boy under his wing in an immigrant-class Paris
arrondissement. Their compelling journey across the EU is peppered with
little comparative religious nuggets.
Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, and Spring (2003): This
South Korean film about a Buddhist monk and his protégé cycles
provocatively through life, sacred space, and the essence of Zen
Exiles (2004): This film tracks the cultural and
spiritual journey of two second generation French immigrants to Algeria.
It ends with an explosion of Algerian Muslim ritual and custom that
causes us to think about the role of religion in the increasingly
Moolade (2004): This acclaimed look at the rite of
female circumcision in Burkina Faso as a purity ritual is both timely
The Passion of the Christ (2004): This controversial
film is in its very essence a religious document. It is hard to find a
better contemporary access point to discussions about the sacramental
nature of Catholic art and piety.
Mary (2005): This film is a great introduction to
non-canonical Christian gospel texts, and the increasing influence early
Gnostic thought has had on Western spirituality. Its meditation on the
lingering impact of the Historical Jesus is unparalleled in world
Into Great Silence (2005): An examination of life inside
the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the reclusive Carthusian
Order in France.
Silent Light (2007): This film tracks a crisis of faith
in an obscure Russian Mennonite community in Mexico. While a seamlessly
biblical meditation on sin, desire, and tragedy, it is filled with the
ritual details of this sect’s daily routine.
Youth Without Youth (2007): A love story wrapped in a
mystery. Set in Europe before WWII, a timid professor is changed by a
cataclysmic event and explores the mysteries of life.
This show makes a pilgrimage across the globe with political
humorist and author Bill Maher as he opens our mind to the ultimate
taboo: questioning religion. Known for his astute analytical skills,
irreverent wit and commitment to never pulling a punch, Maher brings his
characteristic honesty and skepticism to an unusual religious journey.
A Serious Man (2009): This period film about
mid-western, mid-century Judaism deftly navigates Jewish language,
literature, and myth. It is further confounded by the mysterium
tremendum of hierophany.
Agora (2009): A historical drama set in Roman Egypt,
concerning a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the
hopes of pursuing freedom while also falling in love with his master,
the famous female philosophy and mathematics professor Hypatia of
The Pillars of the Earth (2010): The Catholic church of
the Middle Ages, the first cathedrals. Set against a backdrop of war,
religious strife and power struggles which tears lives and families