The 19 best movies about religious innovators, saints, and members of religious orders

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Sep 19, 2005 (Updated Jun 16, 2007)


The Bottom Line See also my second list of movies about pathological religiosi.

Ten-best lists are very subjective, so when I don't agree with someone else's choices, I am driven to make my own... And then my memory kicks up such a mix of apples and cellphones that I feel the need to split into two or more lists (as between romantic films in which the lovers are together at the end and those in which they are still alive but not together). In regard to "religious films," I felt the need to split my list between pro and con films (The second list is at http://www.epinions.com/content_4520517764). For a while, I thought I was splitting between movies that treat organized religion(s) positively and movies that treat organized religion(s) negatively, but I soon noticed that most of the "pro" movies portrayed individual innovators (saints more than prophets) in a positive light while frequently showing not just skepticism but fierce resistance from religious authorities. Others show conflict with secular authorities (the distinction between the two is particularly difficult to draw in the case of Joan of Arc.)

It has been too long since I saw "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" (1958, directed by Ronald Neame) even to be sure if it is a "religious movie" (it is definitely about a missionary, played by Ingrid Bergman, saving children during the Japanese invasion of China). Ditto for "The Chosen" (1981, directed by Jeremy Kagan) with its Orthodox and Reform Jewish boys (and fathers Rod Steiger and Maxmillian Schell).

One of these days I may get around to watching the DVD of both of them that I have, and the tape I have of "The Keys of the Kingdom" (1944, directed by John M. Stahl, which made a star of Gregory Peck playing a Catholic missionary in China). The one movie I really could not decide on which list to include is Pasolini's "Teorema." Eventually, I decided to consign it to the other, less-crowded list.

I am keenly aware that all but one of the movies on this list concern either Buddhist or Catholic religiosi. I have not seen any good movies about Jewish, or Muslim saints or religious entrepreneurs. (Maybe "Gandhi," though, beyond Ben Kingsley's great performance, that is not a very good movie) Suggestions of what I may have forgotten or missed that might fill these gaps (chasms) are welcome!.

I decided not to try to include animist/shamanistic traditions (I wanted to include "Whale Rider" and "Smoke Signals" but that would open floodgates...Maybe a third list some time?) (BTW, I enjoy "The Ten Commandments," and it significantly influenced my sexuality before I knew that sexuality existed, but I do not consider it a great movie and am not sure it is a "religious movie." I am sure that John Huston's The Bible is not a great movie.)

I am beginning the list with two movies about Hindu charlatans whose role as spiritual advisor (guru) transformed them into what they started out as counterfeiting (for gain),

(19) The Bollywood extravaganza "The Guide" adapted and co-directed by Vijay Anand from my favorite novel by R. K. Narayan has a brilliant performance of role engulfment as Raju (Dev Anand) becomes the saint that he has been mistaken for by the devout. The many songs in it are not translated on the DVD, making the production numbers seem even more an interruption than they might if I understood them, but the central performances of Anand and Waheeda Rehman and Fali Mistry's cinematography make this a milestone in Indian cinema. (For an appreciation of the movie by someone who understands the song lyrics, see ram_cv's review at http://www.epinions.com/content_203291594372.)

(18) I like the 2001 movie The Mystic Masseur, directed by Ismail Merchant from Caryl Phillips's adaptation of one of my two favorite V. S. Naipaul novels more than others seemed to. The color cinematography by Ernest Vincze is superb, whether of the shabby Trinidad village or the resplendent colonial government buildings. Although slow-starting, the movie is carried by the considerable charm of Aasif Mandvi, Ayesha Dharker, Jimi Mistry, and the very hammy Om Puri.

(17) Monsieur Vincent (1947, directed by Maurice Cloche from a screenplay by Jean Anouilh (et al.) with Pierre Fresnay (Grand Illusion) as (St.) Vincent de Paul (158-1660) attempting to alleviate suffering and organize charity during the Black Death (plague) epidemics of the early 17th century (after Vincent's spell as a slave after being captured by Barbary pirates) and through the Thirty Years' War. Much controversial stuff is left out in this reverential biopic. B&W Cinematography by Claude Renoir. Out-of-print but available used on VHS, not released on DVD. See the review by Metalluk at http://www.epinions.com/content_141514542724.

(16) The title character in the biopic Beautiful Boxer 2003, written and directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham), nicknamed Nong Toom (superlatively played by Asanee Suwan), does not have a religious vocation (but has another deeply felt conviction that leads to being persecuted for). As a boy he is placed in a monastery (pretty much all Theravada Buddhist boys in Southeast Asia put in some time as a monk). He then accompanies a wandering mendicant who has a religious vocation and eventually tells his follower to pursue his own vision. That's the end for "religious" in the usual sense, though in the catch-all "spiritual" sense Jan used, keeps faith and is certainly transfigured! See my review at
(I was tempted to include Sam Fuller's gritty Korean War melodrama "The Steel Helmet" (1951) for the faith "Short Round" (William Chun) evidences. Moreover, most of it takes place in a temple with a large Buddha. Certainly, my favorite movie about young Buddhist monks is "The Tin Cup," but unless soccer is a religion, I don't see how I could work it into the list except parenthetically here.)

(15) Luis Buñuel was legendarily anti-clerical. His parody of the desert saint in "Simon del desierto" (Simon of the Desert, 1965) is only 40-45 minutes long, but is a tedious, one-joke movie. A far more interesting Bu˝uel movie about a humble parish priest, Nazarín (1959), has the true Christian, Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal) expelled by the hierarchy and considered by the peasants a saint (more than a little Christ-like a one). See Third-Man's review of it at http://www.epinions.com/content_18665344644. Two years later, Bu˝uel travestied helping the poor(and da Vinci's imagining of The Last Supper) in "Virdiana."

(14) Many people condescend to Franco Zeffirelli's gorgeously photographed 1968"Fratello sole, sorella luna (Brother Sun Sister Moon. Insofar as this is based on the Donovan songs, I can understand it, and the movie has a very hippie era feel of antimaterialism—counterpoised with scenes of what is supposed to be the pre-Bernini Vatican for which the magnificent cathedral of Monreale above Palermo were used. For all the pomp and sumptuousness of the princes of the church, the pope himself. marvelously played by Sir Alec Guiness, is able to see the purity of Francis of Assisi (Graham Faulkner) and approves the founding of the Franciscan order. It's too long, but quite beautiful and quite fervent. (I have not had any chance to see Roberto Rosselini's movie about Saint Francis, alas.)

(13) The Nun's Story (1959, directed by Fred Zinnemann, adapted by Robert Anderson from Kathryn Hulme's book) is long (149 minutes) but has a great performances by Audrey Hepburn in the lead, as Sister Luke), plus excellent ones by Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Dean Jagger, and Peter Finch (as Dr. Fortunati) and an effective (but certainly not subtle!) musical score by Franz Waxman. The acceptance of the colonialists' view of the heathen black folk and implicit support for the particularly heinous Belgian administration of its king's private colony and the slow pace keep the movie from being as great as Audrey Hepburn's performance in it is.

(12) Elmer Gantry is a charlatan with oratorical skills and an ease with quoting scriptures and playing to the know-nothing fundamentalists of the Midwest. In the movie, Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons) is delusional, which is to say that she believes her act. Her manager (Dean Jagger) may also, though he does not seem to, and Elmer (Burt Lancaster) manipulates her self image to get a cut of the holly-roller action. However, in the end he proves to have scruples, moral courage, and consideration for others, caritas in short, after the conflagration in which Sister Sharon and her tabernacle are destroyed. Like "Lilies of the Field," "Elmer Gantry shows a leap of grace (at least it does in my interpretation of it). [Some may wish to switch this for Dreyer's "Day of Wrath" on my other list!]

(11) Roberto Rossellini, at the height of an international scandal, made three movies about humility. Ingrid Bergman learned it on the trembling slope of the active volcano that made the island of Stromboli (1949). She played a woman who transcended her sense of self after her child died in "Europa '51" (1951) and tried to devote herself to helping those in need in mid-20th-century Italy. Between these star turns, Rossellini made an anti-dramatic, episodic movie about St. Francis of Assisi and his band of early, simple followers, Francis's stamping out his own pride, and Brother Genapro's simplicity calming a barbarian invader. The movie's look foreshadowed the band of disciples portrayed in my top pic on this list. The 2005 Criterion DVD of The Flowers of Saint Francis helps understand what Rossellini was doing in this 1950 movie that was a complete commercial flop at the time, but had French champions.

(10) Jennifer Jones in her Oscar-winning turn as Bernadette Soubirous (Saint Bernadette of Lourdes) in the adaptation of Franz Werfel's Song of Bernadette (1943, directed by Henry King) was subdued but steadfast about the truth of her celestial visit(ation) presumed by those who believed her to be by the Virgin Mary despite the challenges of Vincent Price and Gladys Cooper, somewhat mediated by the gruff Charles Bickford). It does not show the guardians of "the true faith" in a very favorable light, the nun played by Gladys Cooper is particularly bitter and vicious. Aside from outstanding performances, the movie has an outstanding score composed by Alfred Newman and admirable high-contrast black-and-white cinematography by Arthur C. Miller . (There is no epinion reviews I recommend, and the screenplay by future director George Seaton does not flow very well and the movie runs on too long: 156 minutes.)

(9) Martin Scorcese's 1988 film (based on Paul Shrader's adaptation) of Nikos Kazantzakis's very interesting novel The Last Temptation of Christ has the premise that this temptation was to live an ordinary life (married to Maria Magdalene, who was played by Barbara Hershey) rather than be crucified to redeem the sins of the world. Those picketing the screening I went to seemed as ignorant of the Bible as they were of what the movie was about (the struggle between the spirit and the flesh in a Savior who was incarnated as a human being, and by extension the spiritual struggle of human beings to do what is right at high cost of pain, including slow death). It seems to me that the story presupposes the divinity of Christ. The temptation to opt out otherwise makes no sense. The Christ of the Gospels at one point asks that he not have to undergo his fate/mission, but like martyred saints, Kazantzakis's Christ fulfills his mission/embraces his fate. Willem Dafoe enacted the conflicted title role superbly, as Harvey Keitel does the role of Judas who, alone of the disciples, understands what Jesus has to do. Peter Gabriel's music score is an interesting East/West fusion and Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography deserves praise. See Grouch's review at http://www.epinions.com/content_39064669828.

(8) I consider Lilies of the Field, (1963, directed by Ralph Nelson) a small masterpiece (one of a string Nelson made). The small group of East German nuns who have landed in the Arizona desert believe that "The Lord will provide." That "the Lord moves in mysterious ways" is a surprise to handyman Homer Smith, who was played with great charm by Sidney Poitier, who was rewarded with an Oscar. As Mother Maria, Lilia Skalia was also excellent, and the movie continues to charm audiences able to appreciate films in black and white. (Ernest Haller's crisp cinematography received an Oscar nomination.)

(7) With considerable advice (beyond the screenplay adaptation of a novel by a Japanese veteran who had never been to Burma, Kon Ichikawa made a somewhat sentimental but visually stunning films about Buddhist compassion, The Burmese Harp. Showing a Japanese company before and after surrender in 1945 (and another one insistent on not surrendering even after the nation of Japan had), some consider it a war movie, POW subgenre, but the central figure in it, Mizushima (a soldier who has been the unit's scout, rank unspecified, played by Yasui Shoji) fails in one (impossible) mission, poses as an itinerant Buddhist monk to get back to his comrades, but in seeing unburied Japanese soldiers en route decides to become a Buddhist monk, to stay behind, burying and praying for the fallen countrymen.

(6) Robert Bresson's austere masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest(1951) is based on Georges Beranos's widely revered novel of the same title (Journal d'un curé de campagne in French). See the review by Metalluk at http://www.epinions.com//content_152194223748, who characterizes it as succeeding far better as art than philosophy: "Clearly this film is about religious faith but what exactly it is conveying about the values or problems relating to faith is far less certain. Viewers can derive a sense of support for their own views from this film almost regardless of what those views might be." (No wonder I had nothing to add when I watched the movie again last year!) I'm also unsure what Bresson thought about Joan of Arc, whose trial he filmed in a very stripped-down manner in "Le proces de Jeanne d'Arc" in 1962. The sickly and unconvivial country priest (played by Claude Laydu) is not a saint, but suffers calumnies much like Joan/Jeanne while maintaining his faith in divine grace (justice is not of this world for either of them)..

(5) Richard Burton as a saint? A very reluctant one: St. Thomas à Becket, a Saxon commoner who did not want to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by his carousing (Norman) friend King Henry II (Peter O'Toole). The king miscalculated the extent to which the sacred role would engulf the heretofore philanderer, who is martyred in the Canterbury Cathedral (from which relics were extirpated by a later Henry) defending "the honor of God." The excellent 1964 screen adaptation of Jean Anouilh's hit play Becket (considerably earthier than T. E. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral"), also has a glorious performance by John Gielgud as a pragmatic French king. The actresses cast in the female roles do not shine, as MKP51 noted in his review at http://www.epinions.com/content_23998336644.

(4) The conflict between King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) and his chancellor, Sir (later Saint) Thomas More (Paul Scofield) who refuses to countenance the king's divorce makes A Man for All Seasons (1965, directed by Fred Zinnemann) a memorable drama. In supporting roles it has Wendy Hiller, Orson Welles, Leo McKern, and (in a wordless turn as Anne Boleyn) Vanessa Redgrave. There are many excellent Epinions reviews of this, including the one by George_Chabot at http://www.epinions.com/content_32967200388.

(3) Kundun (1997, directed by Martin Scorcese) is IMNSHO a great movie. The story of the fourteenth (current) incarnation of the Dalai Lama being found and raised and confronted with the invasion by the People's Republic of China was shot in Morocco. It has one of my favorite Philip Glass scores, gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins (Mountains of the Moon, Fargo), and used Tibetans rather than making the movie about a western observer (as in "Seven Years in Tibet"—which was shot in Argentina, BTW). See Bill-Chambers's review at http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-C54-10AB7D9C-393DE067-prod1
(The 2003 documentary Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion also deserves to be better known. Directed by Tom Piozet, it is a heartbreaking movie about Chinese cruelty that is all too real. It tells the story of the brutal repression of Tibetan culture/religion since the 1949 invasion by the nascent PRC. It gives time to PRC spokesmen, who are considerably less convincing than the testimony of those tortured in PRC prisons. It includes description of tortures by former prisoners.)

(2) La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc" (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928, written and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer) has the justly legendary super-intense performance of Maria Falconetti as the heretic "Maid of Orleans" later judged to have been a saint. It also contains Antonin Artaud and many demonstrations of John Ford's dictum about the human face being the most interesting of landscapes. There are many excellent Epinion reviews of this, including Chris_Jarmick's at http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-5A8C-25CC2E3-39ABBC8B-prod1.

(1) "Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew 1964, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini) is the most realistic and moving film focused on the life of Christ as reported by the Gospels (in this case, Matthew's) that I have seen. Actually, that is fairly faint praise. It is a very moving film, particularly the sorrow of the Madonna (as played by Pasolini's own mother) at the Crucifixion. Enrique Irazoqui, a student who was of Basque and Jewish parentage (not the blond WASP of Sunday School illustrations incarnated onscreen by Jeffrey Hunter) played Christ. The rest of the cast was also nonactors, not glamorous or glamorized. The soundtrack is very eclectic, including some music from the Miss Lubba, the Alexander Nevsky cantata, and some Webern. As with most of the movies on this list, it is a bit overlong (136 minutes). There are no longer any Epinions of the movie, though there was a 5-star one by someone at some time.

© 2005, 2006, 2007 Stephen O. Murray


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