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Essential Films for Theologians: The “Director’s Cut”? (Best of Codex)

22nd February 2011

[With the Oscars quickly approaching, I figured I could highlight some of my previous reflections on film. This was originally Posted 15th February 2006. As far as this year is concerned, I would give top honours to The King's Speech, though True Grit and Inception were also great films]

Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology had asked me to contribute an entry on film to his “Essential… for Theologians” series. I was honoured to be asked and have spent some time formulating my list. My original list may be viewed on Ben’s blog here.

In the grand film tradition of producing a “Director’s cut”, I decided to expand my original list by both adding four additional films and including a number of “runners up.” I also explained a bit of my rationale for selecting the films I did.

I published my list with some trepidation knowing that I omitted a number of significant religious films — particularly a number of older classics that many such top ten lists include (see, for instance, Ken Ristau’s recent list of “Essential Movies for Theologians.” For an extensive list, see the Arts & Faith Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films here.

In my list, I tried to be representative of different film genres and included some “art house” and foreign films, as well as more popular films. I wasn’t too concerned with a film’s box office success, though there are some successful films in my list. And, of course, I readily admit to including some of my personal favourites.

Update: You may also want to check out my “Essential Films of 2005 for Theologians – Extended Editionhere.

Top Ten Fourteen Essential Films for Theologians

(Listed in alphabetical order)

The Apostle (Robert Duvall, 1997; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Robert Duvall’s sympathetic portrayal of Euliss “Sonny” Dewey, a southern Pentecostal preacher, is masterful. While this movie may hit too close to home for some Christians, it reveals the conflict within the life of faith as Sonny, a deeply religious person, struggles with his rage and sensuality.

Balthazar (Au hasard Balthazar; Robert Bresson, 1966; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). The film follows the life of a humble donkey named Balthazar through a series of masters, paralleled by the life of a young woman, Marie. The cinematography and score are both magnificent. The film has a sparse and evocative feel to it. It’s the type of film that you could view repeatedly and ponder endlessly (as the critics appear to do). I’m not sure if Bresson meant it to be understood typologically or allegorically, but such a reading would certainly fit with Balthazar portrayed as an unassuming Christ figure. At the very least it narrates the life of a simple beast of burden who humbly accepts the cruelty of his masters. The simple grace in this movie reminds me of another classic, Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (Babettes gæstebud; 1987).

The Big Kahuna (John Swanbeck, 1999; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This unassuming film about three lubricant salesmen, one of whom is an evangelical Christian, contains some of the most compelling dialogue around matters of faith, integrity, and manipulation I have seen.

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This classic science fiction film explores what it means to be human as Deckard, a “blade runner” played by Harrison Ford, has to track down and terminate four replicants that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Based on the short book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip Dick, the dark look and feel of this film inspired innumerable science fiction films. While the DVD transfer of the Director’s cut is not that great (it was one of the first DVDs made), rumour has it that a multi-disc special edition is set to be released in time for its 25th anniversary in 2007. Other science fiction films that are worthy of mention include Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Matrix (1999) by the Wachowski brothers (the first is by far the best), and Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998).

(Of course, I also have to give honourable mention to the original Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and the original trilogy (I have not been impressed with any of the prequels). I have to confess that I saw the original Star Wars around 17 times in the theatre when it first was released. I also had made myself a light sabre (a painted dowel; not like one of the fancy ones available now), dressed up as a Jedi knight, and had virtually every Star Wars model available. Truth be told, not much has changed. I have been able to watch Star Wars with my kids and my four-year-old son and I frequently have light sabre battles in the living room (a painted dowel no longer have I). In sum: I still like it after all of these years even if some parts are a bit cheesy (And I still think Princess Leah looks hot in her “Jabba the Hutt” golden bikini). I have included this film on my extended list not only because it has profoundly shaped popular culture, but because its a parable of the epic struggle between good and evil.)

The Decalogue (Dekalog; Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This ten-part series of films was originally aired on Polish TV in the 1980s. Each episode narrates a story, set in the same apartment block, that is loosely tied to one of the Ten Commandments (as enumerated in the Catholic tradition; see my blog entry here for other enumerations).

For 6,000 years, these rules have been unquestionably right. And yet we break them every day. People feel that something is wrong in life. There is some kind of atmosphere that makes people now turn to other values. They want to contemplate the basic questions of life, and that is probably the real reason for wanting to tell these stories. – Krzysztof Kieslowski on The Decalogue.

Each episode is well done and thought-provoking, though I found 2, 5, 6, and 7 particularly meaningful. Kieslowski’s more popular and widely distributed Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, and Red (Trois couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge; 1993-4) are also worthy of mention.

Jesus of Montreal (Jésus De Montréal; Denys Arcand, 1989; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This Canadian production tells the story of a troupe of actors who stage a passion play in Montreal — so controversial that the Catholic Church wants to shut it down. As the pressure to stop production mounts, the personal lives of the individual cast members begin to take on the persona of the characters in the play — especially for Daniel (played wonderfully by Lothaire Bluteau) who plays the role of Jesus. Other Jesus films that deserve mention here are The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo; Pier Pablo Passolini, 1964), The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), and The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004). I also am fascinated by Gareth Davies’s Son of Man (1969), though I have not been able to locate a full copy and consequently have not viewed the entire film.

Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is perhaps my favourite film. It is a thought-provoking exploration of “the sins of the fathers,” forgiveness, and redemption as the lives of nine individuals interconnect one day in San Fernando Valley, California (its title is from one of the San Fernando Valley’s principal thoroughfares, Magnolia Boulevard). The ensemble cast is marvellous, the direction and cinematography superb, and the soundtrack by Aimee Mann moving. And what can I say about the frogs?! If I was going to number this list, I would have to put this as film number 8.2!

The Mission (Roland Joffre, 1986; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This film is an absolutely beautiful yet troubling exploration of the question of grace and redemption, love and hate, and what it means to lay down your life for your faith and friends. Its cinematography and musical score are moving and deservedly won awards. Set in 18th century South America, this film raises questions — and provides no easy answers — about the Christian mission, war, and slavery. Simply superb. Other films that have similar themes and garner special mention include Black Robe (Bruce Beresford, 1991), Romero (John Duigan, 1989), and At Play in the Fields of the Lord (Hector Babenco, 1991).

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). If we can’t laugh at ourselves, then something is wrong. Eric Idle himself is reported as saying, “If anything can survive the probe of humour it is clearly of value, and conversely all groups who claim immunity from laughter are claiming special privileges which should not be granted” (hmmm… do you think this quote is relevant to a current international news story?). But this film is not all laughs — it actually presents aspects of the time of Jesus somewhat accurately, such as the ubiquitous messiahs and prophets during that period as well as the sheer diversity with Judaism at that time. In the humour/satire category I would also include Dogma (Kevin Smith, 1999), Saved! (Brian Dannelly, 2004), and Keeping the Faith (Edward Norton, 2000).

Wings of Desire (Der Himmel uber Berlin; Wim Wenders, 1987; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I was first introduced to the German director Wim Wenders through the music video for U2′s song “Stay (Far Away, So Close).” This films explores what it means to be human from the perspective of angels as it follows the lives of two angels as they comfort and help lost souls in Berlin, one of whom decides he wants to become human. While Hollywood has remade the story as City of Angels (Brad Silberling, 1998), the original is superior on all accounts. I should also mention Wim Wender’s collaboration with U2′s frontman Bono on The Million Dollar Hotel (Wim Wenders, 2000). While this film has its flaws, Jeremy Davies’s portrayal of Tom Tom is one of the best Christ figures in recent film.

Late Additions

I figured my original list was lacking in four genres: war films, westerns, gangster films, and fantasy. Most films in these genres explore the myth of redemptive violence, and as such are worthy of theological reflection. Other excellent films that explore this theme include Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) and In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001).

The Godfather Saga (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, 1974, and 1990; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Don Corleone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I had to add this trilogy to my list. The first two in the series are superior, and I think the first is the best. One of my favourite scenes is at the end of the first film when you have the juxtaposition of Michael Corleone renouncing “Satan and all his works” at the baptism of his nephew and the executions of the heads of the other mob families. On the soundtrack, Bach’s organ music is punctuated by gunfire. Other mobster films that deserve mention include Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) and The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987).

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2000, 2001, and 2002; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I am a huge Tolkien fan and I loved Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings. That isn’t to say that I agreed with all of Jackson’s modifications; in fact, I think Jackson and the screenwriter Fran Walsh are both Hollywood sell outs! Since when do Ents make rash decisions?! If there were any more unnecessary dramatic turns added, I would have sued for whip-lash! At any rate, these are ground breaking films that are surely worthy of mention!

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I have watched this film about the conflict at Guadalcanal during World War II many times and find its juxtaposition of war and (seeming) paradise haunting. It is visually beautiful and the writing is superb. The ensemble cast is excellent — especially the roles played by James Caviezel, Nick Nolte, and most notably Elias Koteas. Other great war films include Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), The Deerhunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), as well as the less know, though theologically relevant, films A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992) and To End All Wars (David L. Cunningham, 2001).

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). What’s a list without a western? While there are many “shoot ‘em up” westerns that are perhaps entertaining, Unforgiven is unique in that it deconstructs the typical western. The (anti)hero is unlovable, the gun fights are devoid of romanticism, and nothing is really settled at the end when the cowboy rides off into the sunset. “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he has, and all he’s ever gonna have,” says Will. The Kid stammers, “I guess he had it comin’.” Will almost whispers: “We’ve all got it comin’, Kid.”

Last Thoughts

OK, I need to wrap this up. There are many more films which are worthy to be mentioned, such as Breaking the Waves, Chinatown, Contact, Dead Man Walking, Lawrence of Arabia, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pulp Fiction, Shadowlands, Slingblade, The Shawshank Redemption, etc., etc., ad nauseum, but this list has to end!

What films do you feel are essential for theologians?


6 Responses to “Essential Films for Theologians: The “Director’s Cut”? (Best of Codex)”

  1. Daniel Wingfoot Says:

    Every person’s list will vary of course, depending on his or her understanding of theology. I tend to think we are in an “end-of-days” time period, so I look to see how movies are shaping thoughts and perceptions and what messages are being projected subliminally. Thus, some of my most important movies for theologians in the past few dacades are such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind with its obvious allusion to the Second Coming or Exodus with its focus on the recall of Israel to the Holy Land. Perhaps it’s simply my overactive imagination (and hope for the coming Kingdom), but I see a world being prepared for Biblical things. God seems to be shouting to get our attention in many ways, not just in church.

  2. sean gallagher Says:

    Hey Tyler,
    I’ve long trumpeted Abel Ferrara’s work as having some profound theological grappling. Two films from the 90′s,in particular: Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction (if anyone wants to view his entire corpus there was a porn film early on, and he lost me after x-mas in this decade).
    Bad Lieutenant has to be seen in its NC-17 version, a blockbuster-version was cut but shouldn’t have been. A cop in the midst of a downward spiral of addiction, gambling debt, abuse and corruption lands on the case of a nun’s brutal rape. She refuses to name her attacker, but talks of forgiveness and redemption, and the very bad catholic cop struggles with the strangeness & offense of what forgiveness means.

    The Addiction is a vampire film. A NYU philosophy grad student who is working on evil ends up getting bitten. But in this world, vampires are not monsters broken away from humanity, but are in continuity with us. They ask their victims to say no, but no one does. It is not because of their charisma, but because of utter affinity. There is a disturbing kind of possession scene at the end that is kind of amazing.

    I showed The Addiction to a graduate IVCF group, and some were pretty disturbed. The Bad Lieutenant is truly disgusting, in really essential ways. I recommend them both.

  3. Tyler Hamilton Says:

    Hello Prof. Williams,

    Now I am not a Theologian(yet heh heh)but here is a few which fits. I am surprised no Bergman on this list.
    -The Seventh Seal
    -Wild Strawberries
    -The Virgin Spring
    And for others:
    -Ikiru
    -Interiors
    -Crimes and Misdemeanors
    -September(Most of Woody Allen’s films)
    -Cannibal Holocaust (If you can stomach it)
    -Men Behind the Sun
    -A Serious Man
    -The Adventures of Mark Twain
    -The Bird with the Crystal Plummage

    Since you mentioned Unforgiven
    -The Great Silence (Cult Spaghetti Western, rare but with an unconventional thoughtful ending you will not forget.)
    -Keoma (another great one)
    I could go on but yeah there are some to explore if your interested. I second Abel Ferrara’s work.
    -Tyler Hamilton

  4. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Hey Sean,

    I agree Bad Lieutenant is a great film about forgiveness and redemption; Keitel is fantastic (and the Cage remake is horrible!). The Addiction I haven’t seen; I’ll have to put it on my list.

    Hey Tyler, I thought long and hard about putting a Bergman on the list, but wanted to make it more accessible (if I did add one, it would have been The Seventh Seal). I would seriously consider the Jobian A Serious Man — I love the Coen brothers. I haven’t seen some of the others… Cannibal Holocaust sounds intriguing, though I’m not sure it would make my list even if I managed to get through it…

  5. Eric Robert Wilkinson Says:

    Well, I’m teaching a course called FAITH & CINEMA as part of Portland State University’s Chiron Studies program (Student-taught courses) in Spring 2011 and this is my syllabus:
    1. WISE BLOOD (John Huston, 1979)
    2. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (Woody Allen, 1989)
    3. BAD LIEUTENANT (Abel Ferrara, 1992)
    4. HOUSEHOLD SAINTS (Nancy Savoca, 1993)
    5. DEAD MAN WALKING (Tim Robbins, 1995)
    6. THE APOSTLE (Robert Duvall, 1997)
    7. FRAILTY (Bill Paxton, 2002)
    8. Tbd
    9. THE RAPTURE (Michael Tolkin, 1991)
    10. ANTICHRIST (Lars von Trier, 2009)
    11. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)

    I had a plan for Week 8 but I’m altering it and still haven’t figured out what to replace it with…

  6. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Great list Eric, though I couldn’t get away with that list in the context I teach… especially something like Antichrist! (I have shown Frailty as part of a faith and film club).

    Are you following a particular theme through your course?

    Perhaps something like Dogma would add some levity to your list! :-)