Religious filmmakers explore — and cross-examine — faith

SDG Original source: Crux

If atheist and agnostic filmmakers have been responsible for many of the most movingly positive cinematic treatments of religious themes and characters, what about filmmakers of faith?

Golden Age Hollywood, of course, is rife with popular pious films, many from filmmakers with some sort of religious identity. A number of the period’s greatest filmmakers, including Frank Capra, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, were Catholics, and much has been written about how their religious milieu informed their sensibilities and use of imagery and theme. (See AfterImage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers by Richard A. Blake, S.J.)

When it came to overtly religious themes, though, the general tidiness of Production Code–era Hollywood tended to discourage the ambiguity that often comes with the most spiritually searching art. Many religious films of the period, such as Leo McCarey’s Going My Way, are dated today; some, such as Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette, still retain considerable power. (Part of the enduring power of The Song of Bernadette surely reflects the source novel by Franz Werfel, a Jewish atheist.)

Even John Ford, perhaps the Golden Age’s most poetic director, adapting one of the 20th century’s greatest Catholic novels, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, couldn’t begin to do justice to his source — though the film, The Fugitive (1947) starring Henry Fonda, is among Ford’s most poetic films, and one of the better religious films of the period. (Greene’s protagonist, a frail, fallible whisky priest who has fathered an illegitimate child, was an unthinkable character under the Production Code.)

No filmmaker is more associated with Hollywood religion than Cecil B. DeMille (a not very devout Episcopalian). Best known for his last religious production, The Ten Commandments (1956) starring Charlton Heston, DeMille’s most artistically and spiritually inspired work, perhaps his masterpiece, was made nearly 30 years earlier, at the climax of the silent era: The King of Kings (1927) starring H.B. Warner as Jesus Christ.

Another silent film released the following year in Europe ranks among the greatest films ever made: The Passion of Joan of Arc by the Danish master Carl Dreyer. Dreyer is one of a handful of cinematic giants, including the French Catholic Robert Bresson and the Russian Orthodox Christian Andrei Tarkovsky, who address transcendent themes as believers. (See Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, edited by Ken Morefield, for more.)

Dreyer’s films after Joan include Day of Wrath (1943), a haunting tale about 17th-century witch hunting that takes seriously the possibility of witchcraft, and Ordet (1955), a ponderous religious drama that takes seriously the possibility of a divine miracle. (Dreyer identified as a Christian at least by the time he made Ordet, a film perhaps intended as a prelude to a long-planned film about Jesus that, alas, was never realized.)

Spiritual themes in the films of Bresson and Tarkovsky are often subtext rather than text, but each has at least one sublime film centrally concerned with religious themes, featuring a clerical protagonist who struggles with his vocation in the face of great difficulty: Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), based on the novel by Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), nominally focused on the celebrated 14th-century Russian iconographer.

Strikingly, where the religious films of nonbelievers often feature idealized religious characters more or less certain in their faith, films by believers often put their religious characters’ faith to a more existential test.

Dom Christian in Of Gods and Men, the titular heroine of Sophie Scholl: The Final Days and Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons never waver in their basic confidence of the right path (even when that path, for Christian, turns out to be Spend some time as a community discerning God’s will).

Tarkovsky’s Andrei, by contrast, faces a serious crisis of vocation if not of faith, leaving his religious community and becoming unable to paint or even speak. Then there’s his deeply unsettling encounter with a nude pagan woman named Marfa, who kisses him sensuously while he is bound before setting him free. The next day Andrei is forced to watch mutely as she swims for her life to escape pursuing soldiers.

Andrei has no response to Marfa — something that could never be said of Sophie Scholl or Thomas More. Bresson’s young country priest is even more easily reduced to demoralized silence by a schoolgirl’s impudent flirting. Even Dreyer’s Joan stumbles, briefly acquiescing to a false confession.

Obviously, this brief survey is necessarily impressionistic, not even approximately complete. There are any number of notable filmmakers, from Rohmer to Malick, I haven’t touched on.

What the examples above suggest, I think, is that the most honest and moving art is often that in which artists of all persuasions challenge their own dispositions rather than indulging them. Good art is a struggle in which the artist seeks to transcend himself. When an atheist filmmaker celebrates a protagonist’s faith, or when a believing filmmaker cross-examines faith, then something may emerge with the power to speak to viewers of varying persuasions.

Religious Themes


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Do atheists and agnostics make the best religious films?

One of the noblest functions of art is the invitation to empathy: an invitation extended not only to the audience, but also to the artist.