Being a Christian in the 21st century is difficult at the best of times. Even without Mel Gibson constantly putting his foot in it, or Westboro Baptist Church spitting venom at the very people they are supposed to be helping, we have to contend with a media backlash whenever a seemingly ‘Christian’ film is released.
The problem seems to be that people don’t mind Christianity per se: if people are Bible-bashing in the streets, they can ignore them or talk back. What they resent, or appear to resent, are films with Christian undertones – allegories or parables which introduce Christian beliefs or ideas in a supposedly secular context. When The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe came out in 2005, The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee accused it of “invad[ing] children’s minds with Christian iconography… heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism.” Ouch.
What Toynbee and others fail to realise is that Christianity runs deeper through cinema than the obvious allegories of Narnia, The Matrix and The Green Mile. Quite apart from the dozens of films made each year that are set around religion in some way, a select number of superficially secular or humanist films have Christian imagery or ideas coursing through their veins. Crucially, most if not all of them manage to convey these ideas or images without alienating non-Christian viewers.
The 50 films contained on this list are all intriguing for Christians and non-Christians alike, for one reason or another. Some wear their heart on their sleeve, others keep it hidden beneath several other layers – and precious few of them would turn up on a recommended viewing list for cosy Christian Union socials. I love God, and I love film – and I don’t believe the two are in contradiction.
A Canterbury Tale (1944)
We start with a gentle oldie from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, best known for The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus (see below). While doing away with the more raunchy aspects of Geoffrey Chaucer’s unfinished epic, the film manages to explore the notion of pilgrimage as a process of self-discovery and spiritual fulfilment. As this hapless and eccentric bunch of characters arrive in Canterbury, they gain a new sense of purpose bound up in the spiritual or fantastical connotations of both the location and the occasion it marks.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick may have been an atheist, but several of his films entertain elements of Christianity. Much of his masterpiece is satirical towards Christianity, whether it’s the prisoners being forced to sing hymns, or Alex imagining himself as a Roman soldier, beating Christ on the road to Golgotha. But in his last scene, the chaplain stands up for the condemned men, arguing for their right to choose between right and wrong, even if it leads them to choose wrongly. The film both indicts organised religion and suggests that faith, or at least belief in a higher ideal, can have a purpose.
Alien 3 (1992)
Before David Fincher was hired to direct, Alien 3 was going to be helmed by Vincent Ward. He pitched the film to 20th Century Fox as “The Name of the Rose in space”, with Ripley coming to the aid of monks on a wooden planet. Although a little messy in either of its versions, much of Ward’s vision survives, and is complimented by Fincher’s direction. Ripley is the Christ figure who falls from the heavens to help the prisoners, and at first they do not accept their Messiah. The final shot of Ripley falling into the molten steel with her arms out cements her symbolic position.
Angel Heart (1987)
Alan Parker’s stylish and suspenseful noir takes Faust, mixes with Raymond Chandler and elements of The Wicker Man, and serves the whole mixture up via outstanding visuals and very graphic violence. Mickey Rourke is terrific as the fallen angel whom, it transpires, is a lot closer to hell than even he may realise… The film is worth seeing for a creepy-as-sin scene where Robert De Niro talks about the human soul while peeling a hard-boiled egg with his long fingernails.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Abel Ferrara’s most audacious work is a Catholic redemption tale dressed in enough sex, violence, nudity and drug abuse to make Requiem for a Dream look tame by comparison. Harvey Keitel is outstanding as the nameless lieutenant whose morality has been eroded by too many years on the beat. When assigned to a rape case involving a nun, he sees a vision of Christ in the church where the events took place, and crawls along the floor begging to understand how anyone could forgive such a horrendous act. A powerful film which proves that no-one is beyond redemption.
We are currently seeking Film contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Film contributor, click here.