The ten best religious films

DCP blessing2

A man goes into a butcher shop and says, “Give me your best piece of meat.” And the butcher replies, “Everything in my shop is the best.” (Zen story)

Top ten lists are inherently fraudulent. By what authority do I declare what is best? And by what criteria? And which religion? But if I had titled this post, “Ten compelling films which engage religious questions from a [mostly] western Christian perspective,” it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. We love rankings, if for no other reason than the pleasure of argument.

My list is totally subjective of course, and infinitely revisable, depending on the day, or where I am in my life (although Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest has topped my list every since I first saw it in Ann Arbor 45 years ago and subsequently had to wander around for a couple of hours on a rainy night until I was capable of returning to ordinary life).

I have restricted myself to one film per director (or else Bresson would take up about six places, and Tarkovsky a few more, etc.). I have also stuck to the western Christian tradition, with the Russian orthodoxy of Tarkovsky the one exception.

And while there are many films with spiritual subjects or theological themes, I have focused primarily on examples of what Paul Schrader calls “transcendental style” – films which are not just about religious experience, but themselves create religious experience in the viewer, through cinematic form and language as much as story. Icon writers know this well. There’s a lot to say about transcendental style, but for now let me simply cite Susan Sontag’s remark about Robert Bresson: “His form does not merely perfectly express what he wants to say. It is what he wants to say.”

All these films are available on DVD or Blu-ray, and I hope you will be encouraged to explore them. But I must warn you that not all these films are equally accessible. Most of them refuse the usual manipulations and excitements of mass cinema, and demand a contemplative mind. Transcendental style can be as rigorous as prayer. But as Iranian director Abbas Kiorastami has said, “I would rather see a film that might even bore me in the act of watching but that later I can’t stop thinking about, than a film that keeps me on the edge of my seat and then is immediately forgotten.”

Here is my list, in alphabetical order.

1) Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland 1988)   This extraordinary cycle of short films explores various lives within a single apartment block, whose grey concrete bleakness exudes the alienation and melancholy felt by many of its residents. It is the world after the Fall, when instinct and intuition no longer suffice to guide human living. Each film is roughly based on one of the Ten Commandments, but the imperatives of each situation are far from clear. Choices matter intensely (it is not such a godless world that one can do anything one wishes), but most of the characters are bewildered and beset by the questions before them. And yet – grace happens, people connect, souls find mercy. Not every time, but enough to keep alive the hope that God – embodied by a mysterious figure who always seems to be around at key moments – has not abandoned us.

2) Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, France 1950)   Bresson pares away everything inessential to show the story of a soul. The miracle of his “transcendental style” is that he shows us not so much what people do as who they are – not through explaining them psychologically, but by letting their mystery be. As with iconography, a kind of inexpressiveness on the surface allows hidden depths to shine through. As the priest walks his own Stations of the Cross, the sorrowful way becomes a revelation of grace. This is not a film about religious experience – it is religious experience.

3) Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland 2013)   Is the religious life purely a product of environment, or is it indelibly inscribed on the heart? In 1962, a young novice, raised as an orphan in her convent, is sent into the world to visit her only living relative, just prior to taking her final vows. Will her vocation survive outside the cloister? The people she encounters, the discoveries she makes about her past, the suddenly viable prospect of a life in the outside world – all present her with new options for her life and vocation. One of the many beauties of this film is that neither the convent nor the outer world are judged. Both are viewed with sympathy and respect. Until she decides her future, Ida is shown off center, at the edge or bottom of the frame. But in the film’s final shot, she is perfectly centered at last.

4) Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning, Germany 2005)   The director spent 6 months in residence at a Carthusian monastery in the Alps, filming monastic life and worship. Using only natural light, he shows us a numinous world of shadows pierced by the radiance of windows and candles. Dwelling in this world of prayer and silence for nearly three hours, we slow ourselves to the monastic rhythm, and emerge refreshed and centered, and thankful for those who give their lives to providing, as Dan Berrigan once put it, “large reserves of available sanity.”

5) Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA 1999)   Is the world only a confusion of chance and arbitrary choice, or do providence and purpose exist? Is the universe a matter of chaos or love? Anderson explores the possibility of connection, pattern and grace in the intersecting lives of many different characters, all of whom are in some way broken, wounded or lost, casualties of a city (Los Angeles) which, like the biblical Egypt, has produced countless captives and victims. In one unforgettable scene, nine of the characters are shown, each in their particular condition of need and supplication, singing along with the soundtrack, Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” (“It’s not going to stop till you wise up”). Their capacity to exit the prison of the self just enough to partake of the soundtrack’s “common prayer” is both ritual transcendence and the tentative praxis of real liberation. As if in answer, a biblical rain of frogs falls from heaven.

6) The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland 2011)   In a windmill perched high above a broad plain teeming with figures, God is a miller grinding the terrors of history into something better, even as the Christ is being dragged to the cross. This strange, haunting and difficult film immerses us within the complex world of a single painting, Pieter Brueghel’s “The Way to Calvary,” where the Passion of Christ is relocated to the painter’s own 16th century world. Through a visually stunning use of computer imaging, we dwell within the painting’s fantastic landscape and mingle at close range with its numerous characters. The effect is astonishing, as if we are dreaming with a premodern mind. The human suffering is arduous and heartbreaking, but it does not have the last word. In the end, the dance goes on.

7) Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky, Russia 1983)   All of Tarkovsky’s films practice what he called “sculpting in time,” using a contemplative camera and lengthy shots to register a deeper flow and presence than films that hurry from one incident to the next. For western Christians, the image is usually about something. For an orthodox Christian like Tarkovsky, the image is something. The viewer becomes less a spectator than a supplicant. “The aim of art,” said Tarkovsky, “is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow the soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.” Nostalghia is more poetry than narrative, rhyming fire and water, dream and memory, ritual and redemption, to counter the malaise of materialism.

8) Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, France 2010)   Based on a true story of a monastic community facing martyrdom in 1990’s Algeria, this is a profoundly moving story of self-offering and radical forgiveness. Structured around the liturgical hours and seasons, its unhurried scenes of prayers and chants allow us to worship along with the monks. But they are asked to sacrifice more than praise, and their faithful willingness to take up the cross poses serious questions for our own discipleship.

9) Ordet (Carl Dreyer, Denmark 1955)   Like the parables of Jesus, Ordet (“The Word”) employs the forms and situations of the everyday world only to break open the frame of that world with the startling intrusion of an alternate reality. Dreyer’s film, like its “holy fool” Johannes, presents us with divine impossibility in perpetual tension with the way we expect things to go. It uses material means – faces, architecture, landscape, language, light – to show us the immaterial, but in the end we are led not away from corporeal existence, but rather more deeply into it.

10) To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, USA 2012)   “Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” This line from The Tree of Life (drawn from Dostoevsky) is the theme of every Malick film. While his work has always reflected a deep interest in philosophy and religion, his most recent films have been theologically explicit to a degree unique in American cinema. The Tree of Life covers the biblical span from Creation to Apocalypse, while To the Wonder narrows its focus to the Song of Songs’ analogy between human relationships and divine-human love. Unlike the plot-driven narratives of most films, To the Wonder unfolds in hints, glimpses, ellipses and temporal leaps. We can’t always be sure whether we are seeing events, memories or thoughts. As with Bresson, there is no psychological explaining of characters. They retain the open-endedness of their essential mystery. It’s not so much a film in the usual sense as it is a dance, a poem, even a prayer. The viewers aren’t simply invited to watch the ecstatic images, but to become ecstatic themselves.

Seventy times seven

Jacopo da Pontormo, Deposition (1525-26), Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence

Jacopo da Pontormo, Deposition (1525-26), Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence

A homily on Matthew 18:21-35 for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (and 9/11)

So Peter comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, forgiveness is really hard work. When do I get to quit?”

And Jesus says, “Peter, sometimes you’re as dumb as a rock. If you want to stay with me, you can never stop forgiving.”

“But Lord, you don’t expect me to forgive everyone, do you?”

“Yes, Peter. Everyone.”

          The Gospel of the Lord.

I once led a workshop exercise based on the Flood story. We all wrote on cards the types of people we thought the world would be better off without – drug dealers, terrorists, polluters, tax collectors and sinners, etc. – and we put our cards in a pile in the center of our circle. Each person had to pick a card, becoming the character they drew. Then they each had to make a case for themselves, to persuade us to let them come aboard the ark rather than be left to die in the flood. Most of us had at least one or two people we didn’t want to sail with, but some of the women – though none of the men – voted to forgive everyone.

How would you vote? Saved, or drowned?

The driver who cut you off on the freeway?
The neighbor who won’t quiet her barking dogs?
The priest who failed to visit you when you were sick?

How would you vote?

The colleague who stabbed you in the back?
The friend who let you down?
The spouse who betrayed you?

How would you vote?

The football player who knocked out his fiancé in an elevator?
The fanatics who flew the planes into the towers?
The lawyers and politicians who made torture a national policy?
The men who beheaded American journalists on YouTube?

Let’s be clear. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning or tolerating wicked acts. It doesn’t mean a wife should stay with an abusive husband, or that we can’t feel shock and outrage when we witness hateful instances of oppression or racism or brutality.

What forgiveness does mean is that
we don’t let those things have the last word.

We all know about this on a personal level. You may never forget a wounding encounter, but you know you can’t let it fester inside forever, you can’t give it power over you forever. At some point, you have to let it go.

Tell the truth about it, to the offender if possible, and to yourself. Don’t minimize the damage. But don’t hold on to the hurt. Don’t make your life about the hurt.

Forgiveness means leaving resentment behind. It means letting go of the reactive desire for punishment. There was a POW who said he could never forgive his captors. So a friend told him, “Then they’ve still got you in their prison.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner told a woman who was betrayed and abandoned by her husband: “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable… I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman…. you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment. You’re hurting yourself.”

That’s all true as far as it goes. We can be bigger than our hurts. We can live in the present, not the past. But when Jesus told us to forgive, he wasn’t just talking about our personal well-being.

He was talking about a radical revolution in human relations.
He was telling us to exit the endless cycle of violence and retribution.
He was telling us to choose life, not death.

Those terrorists who committed atrocities on YouTube,
they want our rage, they welcome our hate,
because it means we are consenting to play their game of death,
adding our own tributaries of anger to their river of violence.

So we are presented with a clear choice:
Either forgive them,
or become them.

Jesus is asking something very hard of us.
Yes, maybe we can forgive the ordinary hurts of daily life.
But how can we forgive those monsters on YouTube?
That goes against human nature. That seems impossible.

Maybe it was impossible once. But Jesus, who died forgiving his own killers, has redefined what is possible. Jesus has opened the door to redemption for even the worst of sinners.

They may not always go through that door – some may choose to remain in the godless hell of their own self-will, but we are not allowed to close the door on them. We are not allowed to deny anyone the possibility of redemption, the possibility of reconciliation and healing.

God wants to do something new with this world, and as long as we perpetuate the cycle of violence and vengeance, that new thing cannot happen.

If we say that there are some people who cannot be saved, we are limiting the power and grace of God, and we are refusing our own vocation to be God’s agents of grace and forgiveness not only for the people we know, but for the stranger and the enemy as well.

We can do this, Jesus assures us. We can forgive – not because we are saints with extraordinary powers, but because we are sinners who have ourselves been forgiven.

Just ask St. Paul, who reminds us this morning not to judge one another, who asks us to remember that since we all belong to God, we also belong to one another. These are the words of the man who held the coats for Stephen’s murderers while they stoned the first Christian martyr.

If that stoning had been on YouTube, we might still be holding that horrifying image in our minds, still hating Paul as a monster instead of reading his words as Scripture. Paul knew what it meant to be forgiven, and that’s why he could be so eloquent about grace.

“We all stand before the judgment seat of God,” he says.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

When Peter asked his question about forgiveness, Jesus told him a story.

A slave who owes his master a gazillion dollars is forgiven this unpayable debt, but then he goes right out and finds a fellow slave who happens to owe him fifty cents. He grabs him by the throat.
“Pay me now!” he says.
“Have mercy!” the man cries. “I cannot pay you.”
“That’s not my problem,” he says, and throws the man into a dungeon until he can pay what he owes.

It’s one of Jesus’ craziest stories, and it’s meant to be. The absurdity of the parable puts a spotlight on our own absurdity when we who have been forgiven so much refuse to pass that forgiveness on to others.

If we say we have no sin, we are only deceiving ourselves. It’s not just a matter of how we act as individuals. We must also acknowledge our inescapable participation, conscious or unconscious, voluntary or involuntary, in all the systemic processes that negate the flourishing of life on earth. Just by functioning within the habitual realities and practices of a fallen and imperfect world, we become complicit in the things that fall short of God’s intention, the things that disappoint God’s hope for us.

And still, God loves us.
And still, God forgives us.
And still, God keeps heaven’s door open
and leaves the light on for us.

Perhaps you saw the extraordinary film, Of Gods and Men, which came out a few years ago. It tells the true story of eight French Catholic monks who lived in the mountains of Algeria during a time of civil war and terrorist violence in the 1990’s. Their monastery was at the edge of a poor Muslim village, where they lived in harmony with their neighbors, providing the village’s only accessible health care.

As the surrounding political violence escalated, the monks were warned by the government to leave the country. As Catholics in a Muslim country, they would be suspected of trying to make converts. Their very presence was an offense to the religious extremists. But the monks felt called to remain among the people they served, despite the high probability of martyrdom. Despite their own fears.

“If something happens to us, although I do not wish it to,” wrote Brother Michael, one of the monks, “we want to live it here in solidarity with all the Algerians, men and women, who have already paid with their lives, and in union with all unknown innocent victims.”

As for the armed rebels and the armed soldiers who were fighting all around them, the monks called them “our brothers of the mountains and our brothers of the plains.”

Their abbot, Dom Christian, wrote a letter to his family in Advent, 1993, two and a half years before he and his brother monks were beheaded by terrorists. Anticipating his own martyrdom, he insists that he is not exceptional, since so many others in that land were also at risk.

“My life,” he wrote, “is not worth more than any other — not less, not more. Nor am I an innocent child. I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me. If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon … and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity him who would attack me…”

What an extraordinary thing to say: Here is a good and humble and holy man confessing his own complicity in the evils of the world. And what does he hope for? He hopes for the presence of mind, in the very moment of being murdered, to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness not only for himself, but for his killer as well. As he had once said of his monastic community, “we should openly be on the side of love, forgiveness and communion, against hate, vengeance and violence.”

The last part of Christian’s letter is addressed not to his family, his loved ones, but to the unknown violent stranger who will one day kill him, the stranger whom he calls “my friend of the last moment.”

He calls his killer friend, refusing the way of violence and vengeance and hate, and by so doing he plants the kingdom of forgiveness in the very place where his own blood would be spilled by his assassin’s sword.

He commends that assassin not to hell, not to eternal punishment, but to God. A-dieu, he tells him. A-dieu: “to God.” And then he imagines a future that may seem impossible to us, but is the only future which God desires.

Listen to what he says. This is how Christian ends his letter; this is what he wants to tell the stranger who will one day cut off his head:

“And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this Merci, this “A-Dieu,” because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.”