As a severely asthmatic child, there were two places where a young Martin Scorsese was able to find a true sense of peace and respite: the church and the cinema. At first, the connection between these two places might seem somewhat tendentious but, as Scorsese has said, both are spaces where people come together to share a common experience: for cinema, too, is a ritualised act of faith in which one surrenders oneself to the impossible.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that so many filmmakers have turned to Christianity for inspiration. Drawing upon centuries of Christian art and iconography, their work has rendered miracles on screen and humanised saints in a way no other medium could manage.
In his teenage years, Scorsese planned to enter the priesthood, but, after a year in a junior seminary, his love for women, music and movies pulled his life in a different direction. Despite this, spirituality continued to preoccupy him, and Christian themes have permeated his work ever since.
His most recent film, Silence, is a case in point. A long cherished personal project, the story concerns the exploits of two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) travelling through a hostile 17th-century Japan in which Christianity is outlawed, hoping to find their former mentor (Liam Neeson). Based on a novel by Shusaku Endo, the film is Scorsese’s most stylistically restrained work to date and one of his most richly textured pieces yet.
The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906)
Director Alice Guy
Although it may be considered short by today’s standards, for audiences of 1906 Alice Guy’s 33-minute retelling of Christ’s life would have been something of an epic – proving that, even since the earliest days of cinema, Christianity has provided fertile ground for ambitious extravaganzas.
Comprised of 25 predominantly fixed-tableaux vignettes, the film was inspired by the Bible illustrations of artist James Tissot. Each episode is beautifully staged in depth, coming across almost like an incarnated panel from a church fresco cycle, with the painterly nature of the decor and costumes lending the film a similar kind of reverent beauty. Such a comparison is strengthened by the fact that each scene is presented without any contextual information, beyond the intertitles naming the episodes. Seen today, the film’s age and simplicity lend it a genuine sense of pious grace.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer
Justly famous for its sustained use of close-ups, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film about the Maid of Orléans avoids the action spectacle of Joan’s military campaigns in favour of focusing on her trial and execution. Basing his film upon the transcripts of Joan’s real trial, Dreyer – always the most humanist of directors – presents Joan as a persecuted young woman struggling to survive against the constant assaults inflicted by her devious persecutors.
Indeed, every aspect of the film – from the penetrating close shots to the stylised set design to the use of camera movement and framing – seems to conspire against Joan and evokes audience identification. But Dreyer’s abstract use of film grammar and sparse decor also work to take the focus away from the physical world and point it instead towards Joan’s spiritual interior, rendering the piece, in Dreyer’s words, “a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life”.
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Director Michael Curtiz
A fine example of a movie that proves that not all great Christian films equate to cinematic hagiography, Angels with Dirty Faces concerns a group of young wannabe hoodlums (The Dead End Kids) who fall in with a local gangster, William ‘Rocky’ Sullivan (James Cagney), after his release from prison. As a child, Rocky’s partner in crime was Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien). However, in the years that followed, Connolly turned his back on his reckless youth and became a man of the cloth. Father Connolly now hopes to encourage The Dead End Kids to follow in his footsteps, but, as he says, it’s hard to teach them honesty when the streets continually show them that dishonesty pays better.
Christianity, then, is shown here as the helping hand ready to give deprived teenagers an alternative path to the one offered by the criminal underworld – in a different era, it would have been perfect material for Scorsese.
Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950)
Director Roberto Rossellini
A humble film about the most humble of Christian saints, Francesco, giullare di Dio is made up of 10 disconnected scenes from the life of Saint Francis and his followers. The structure was inspired by two anonymous 14th-century texts that take the same approach: The Little Flowers of St Francis (now attributed to Ugolino Brunforte) and The Life of Brother Juniper.
Beginning shortly after Francis has been granted permission to preach by Pope Innocent III, the film eschews many of the more famous moments in Francis’s life in order to focus on light-hearted episodes that illustrate the sheer joy and simplistic innocence of the early Franciscan experience. The merry tone is a far cry from the solemnity often encountered in Christian works, and the use of real monks to play the brothers lends the film a sense of authenticity familiar from Rossellini’s earlier neorealist work.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
Directors Robert Bresson
Based on a novel of the same name by Georges Bernanos, Robert Bresson’s film tells the story of a young priest serving at his first parish. A sickly man, the priest leads an ascetic and unhealthy lifestyle, and his parishioners do little to welcome or comfort him. But that doesn’t stop him from attempting to help them, and he soon becomes embroiled in the lives of a local count and his family.
The priest notes his encounters and exploits in his diary, and Bresson frequently shows us the actions that we hear the priest recounting in his diary through voiceover. This doubling of sound and image seeks to make the external world internal, and to give the action a ‘spiritual colouration’. In other words, the film’s events are viewed through the prism of the priest’s internal thoughts, allowing Bresson to present us with the inner workings of the priest’s life.
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer
Centring on a family in crisis, Ordet contains a multi-layered narrative in which each character represents a contrasting approach towards faith. There is the old, Lutheran patriarch Morten Borgen and his three sons: agnostic Mikkel and his pious wife Inger; mad Johannes, who believes he is Jesus; and young Anders, madly in love with the daughter of the leader of a fundamentalist Christian sect. As the characters clash and argue, the dogmas of organised religion come under critique, while the film’s miraculous conclusion seems to favour a simpler, more natural faith – and one based as much on corporeal love as on spiritual devotion.
It’s been said that Dreyer made Ordet as preparation for his unrealised film on the life of Jesus, hoping to discover if he could make an on-screen miracle believable. Whether this is true or not, it’s certainly the case that every element in Ordet builds pointedly towards its shattering conclusion – and that no other film has ever rendered a miracle on screen so powerfully or so perfectly.
Winter Light (1963)
Director Ingmar Bergman
The second of three films sometimes labelled – unofficially – as Bergman’s ‘trilogy of faith’, Winter Light picks up where its predecessor, Through a Glass Darkly (1961), leaves off: with the question of whether God is love, and love is God. Specifically, Bergman questions whether such an idea can be maintained when faced with the deteriorating state of the world, represented here by fear of the atomic bomb. Indeed, the film’s tortured protagonist, pastor Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand), tells one member of his dwindling congregation that life would be easier to understand without God, because then we wouldn’t feel the need to explain human suffering.
It’s hardly the most reassuring of messages for a pastor to offer a parishioner in need, but how can Tomas help others when he himself is in crisis? Through its ambiguous ending, Winter Light illustrates the necessity of ritualised faith, even while quietly suggesting that the ritual may be empty.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Director Martin Scorsese
Hugely controversial upon release, The Last Temptation of Christ seeks to humanise the son of God, avoiding beauteous pageantry in favour of gritty realism. The central thesis of the film, and the Vatican-blacklisted book by Nikos Kazantzakis on which it is based, is that Jesus was both divine and human, and therefore prone to the same temptations as the rest of mankind, including those of the flesh. In fact, the argument goes, it is precisely because Jesus is able to overcome these temptations that his crucifixion has significance: without temptation, there is no sacrifice.
Nevertheless, many Christians took offence at the film, specifically its depiction of the eponymous temptation itself, in which Jesus descends from the cross to marry and raise a family. But, contentious though it may be, Scorsese’s film offers perhaps the most human and relatable version of Jesus yet committed to celluloid, rendering his work easy to identify with by believers and non-believers alike.
Director Christopher Newby
Something of an oddity in the history of British cinema, Chris Newby’s unique film takes its inspiration from the real-life story of Christine Carpenter, a 14th-century anchoress in the small village of Shere, Surrey – an anchorite being a person who, for religious reasons, voluntarily chooses to have themselves permanently enclosed in a small cell, usually within a church.
Here, a vulnerable Christine (Natalie Morse) is talked into becoming an anchoress by a hypocritical, self-serving priest (Christopher Eccleston) after she has a vision of the Virgin Mary. Religion is consistently aligned with male patriarchy, and Christine’s choice to renounce life on earth is shown as being, at least in part, down to the limited choices available to a 14th-century female peasant. Full of strikingly tactile, black-and-white images, the film’s style owes more to the work of Dreyer and Bergman than it does to the lineage of British cinema.
Director Jessica Hausner
Featuring a superb performance from Sylvie Testud as Christine, a woman with severe multiple sclerosis, Lourdes details a pilgrimage to the eponymous city, the site of a miraculous healing spring. The leader of the pilgrimage talks about wanting to bring a feeling of happiness and relief to the sick, and the trip is presented as one of the few ways that the lonely, predominantly disabled pilgrims can find company.
Hausner undercuts the piety, however, by populating her humorous film with randy helpers and repeated references to the crass commercialisation of the town – without ever letting her film be swallowed by cynicism. If anything, when a possibly miraculous healing occurs, it would seem to be a strong affirmation of faith. Lourdes, then, simultaneously confirms and undermines faith, making it a deeply mysterious work. It’s a kind of Rorschach test, in which viewers can find whatever they need.