Welcome to the first real post about my new top 100 movies list! It’s very exciting, at least to me. The first grouping will be, as the title suggests, movies about God(s). As a not-religious person my interest here is not to affirm my own point of view or force it upon you, but to see how movies about god(s) and religion raise questions that matter deeply to us as humans. How does the presence or lack of a god inform our lives? How do we cope when we try to approach something beyond our understanding? Who do we blame when something goes wrong, or praise when something goes right? Religion has been a large part of our cultural heritage and movies are no different. Without further ado, here are, in alphabetical order, the movies from my top 100 list that are, in some way, about God(s).
Ok, have you voted? That’s a poll, go vote on it! Pick one that is your favorite. Do it!
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk a little. First, movies about playing God. We have within us a deep desire to create and specifically to create life. That is often seen as the territory of God or Gods, depending on the creation myth you like best. Through movies we’ve come up with some fantastic creation myths of our own, none better than Jurassic Park. Here’s an example of creating life gone wrong, bringing back what should have been left dead, or at least should have been created with a little more care and foresight. “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.” This pretty accurately describes the thought process up to the beginning of the movie as wryly stated by the one and only Jeff Goldblum. Laura Dern counters with the potential plot of the rest of the film, “Dinosaurs eat man … woman inherits the earth.” But Jurassic Park isn’t the only movie about humans trying to reach god-like status as creators of life. Blade Runner, too, concerns itself with the perils of trying to re-create humans and improve upon them. At what point does that creation turn on its creators for being imperfect as some would argue we have done with God? Roy Batty is perhaps the most human character in the film as he struggles with this question, though beneath his synthetic skin an artificial heart beats and a computer thinks. The Truman Show goes on a bit of a different path as a tv producer creates not life but a life for the titular character. Everything is controlled and broadcast for all to see and though it may seem idyllic initially, soon the curated life becomes a prison, which leads the viewer to ask whether or not the same would be the case if we were to know with certainty that our lives are curated in a similar respect.
Some movies warn of the perils of religion and religious thinking. Doubt, for example, presents some obvious issues with the concept of certainty when it comes to things that are immensely complex, whether it be belief in God or the relationship between a man and a boy. That film does a wonderful job of not answering any of the factual questions we have as that would not accurately reflect the situation the characters find themselves in. Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages is an early documentary that explores the way religion has treated anybody that isn’t normal in the society of the time. Even in 1922 the movie is smart enough to link this bad behavior to the treatment of mental illness in “modern” times, a situation that hasn’t improved as much as it should. In The Wicker Man a Christian detective is brought to an island of pagans to investigate a missing girl. It’s a clash of religious ideas that is as loopy as it is unsettling, with its nude ritual scenes and creepy costumes. Fanny and Alexander is a movie in which an artistic family is subjected to the strict religious rules thanks to a mother’s second marriage. The bishop she marries is one of the greatest screen villains precisely because he is almost always certain he is doing the right thing. The Night of the Hunter has a similar father figure, and though his evil is even more apparent, it is no less scary.
It’s not always so obvious, though, the insidious implications of religion. The Long Day Closes shows a boy struggling with his sexual identity in the face of religious doctrine which states that he is ill-formed. The Seventh Seal demonstrates that life during the Black Plague was a nasty one, and religions reflected and enhanced that nastiness with their own misguided beliefs. In A Serious Man, the Job story from the bible is reinterpreted for the 60’s as a Jewish man’s life is ripped apart in any way possible while his religious leaders offer little comfort. And finally, in There Will Be Blood, capitalism is set against harsh Christianity as two ideals enter and both lose. There is very little up side to either as the deep-seated flaws are laid out in the forms of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday. Metropolis, too, shows us that economics are nothing to be worshiped.
Of course, God and religion are really just one way of trying to understand things that are bigger than ourselves and beyond our current understandings. As our scientific knowledge grows we answer questions with facts that we had once answered with gods, though new questions always appear in relation to even crazier things that happen in the natural world. Sunshine shows us a man who has lived so close to the sun for so long that he has gone crazy, believing that the sun is God incarnate and that he is an angel sent to destroy humanity. Cloud Atlas has, in one of its stories, a woman who becomes a god-figure thanks to her deeply human act of freeing millions of slaves. How one person can be so good is deified through countless retellings of a story. The Devil’s Backbone shows young orphans as they try to comprehend the insane violence of the Spanish Civil War through an unexploded bomb in the middle of their orphanage and tales of a ghostly kid who will exact revenge. Melancholia is a planet that appears out of nowhere and is on a collision course with the earth. As it nears us, a young woman deals with depression and the pressures of life. The Tree of Life and The Fountain are twins of a sort, both of which examine the role of God in our day to day lives, however mundane or grand they may be.
We also have, in movies, a great way of exploring whether or not God even exists. The Seventh Seal and Doubt ask the question early and often, while movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fantasia, The Exorcist, and Contact answer the question with a resounding yes, and that God is kinda scary. Fantasia and Throne of Blood explore non-christian religions through sometimes creepy and sometimes glorious imagery. Haxan, too, has a terrifyingly beautiful vision of hell, while Contact‘s heaven might be some distant planet. Holy Motors posits that movies are our new religion where we can make our own heavens and hells and realities. That’s the one that appeals to me most, I think. Cameras and projectors as instruments of revelation. That’s my kind of religion.
That’s enough for this subject, I think. I hope you voted. I’ve compiled this list on Letterboxd as well, so you can check off what you’ve seen. If you have any thoughts on what I’ve shared here, or a movie you think might fit this topic that you love, or anything at all, please leave a comment below! Tune in soon for a new topic of consideration.