In addition to seeking novels that explore spiritual ideas in interesting ways, I’m always on the lookout for a good film that explores religious ideas. While my previous post focused on novels written by people who considered themselves orthodox Christians, this one includes a variety of people. Some of these filmmakers were Christians, some were working out their spiritual beliefs, and some left the faith as adults but may not have ever fully divorced themselves from it.
I’ve also tried to avoid the obvious choices that tend to show up on these lists. Conventional inspirational Christian dramas will not appear on this list, and I’ve already talked elsewhere about historical dramas featured religious people like Chariots of Fire. A variety of scholars have talked about Andrei Tarkovsky, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Terrence Malick as filmmakers fascinated by spirituality. I recommend checking out books by Roy Anker (or Jeffrey Overstreet’s Through A Screen Darkly) if you want good introductions to those filmmakers.
The End of the Affair (1955) directed by Edward Dmytryk
Graham Greene’s Catholic novels continue to provoke discussion for their compelling descriptions of faith found in the oddest places, what might be called dark night of the soul narratives. Various people have talked about the 1999 adaptation, which emphasized the sexual angle much more and muddled the religious elements near the end.
This lesser-known version tells the same basic story, with the illicit elements implied. Much of this was probably due to stricter censorship limits, but it actually doesn’t limit the story that much. Partly that’s because there wasn’t that much racy detail in the book, partly it’s because the story is just as much about emotional journeys and subterfuge as it is about scandal. This means you can substitute veiled references for most of the sexual content and the story still works. This film even works in some interesting dialogue not seen in the book, comparing the act of faith to the act of love. It’s a compelling mix of drama, unexpected romantic theology and paradox. I also loved the fact it includes a rare nice guy performance by Peter Cushing, better-known for playing villains and in Star Wars and various Hammer projects with Terence Fisher.
The Ninth Configuration (1980) directed by William Peter Blatty
I’ve spoken in various other blog posts about William Peter Blatty and how his novel The Exorcist has spiritual themes many people have overlooked. This movie’s story began as a comedy novel Blatty published in the 1960s, which he rewrote in 1978, renaming one character to make him the astronaut who appears at a party in The Exorcist. So, this movie is technically an Exorcist spinoff, the second or third part in what fans have called Blatty’s “trilogy of faith” (along with The Exorcist‘s direct sequel, Legion).
The movie opens like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Catch-22. A military psychiatrist, Vincent Kane, takes over an experimental asylum for Vietnam-era personnel who’ve had nervous breakdowns (but could be faking it). Kane bonds with the patients’ ringleader, a conflicted Catholic who no longer believes in human goodness. Their conversations about the problem of evil, God’s existence and where human depravity really comes from take center stage as the narrative goes along, taking it from insane asylum comedy (written by someone who’d written an unused adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to quirky religious drama. Not only does this movie explore fascinating questions in a compelling way, it’s a rare example of a religious comedy that manages to be provocative without being tasteless, entertaining without being shallow.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999) directed by Martin Scorsese
This film was the fourth collaboration with director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, both known for their abiding interest in spiritual questions even as they’ve both gone back and forth about their relationships with church. Schrader said in an interview with Kevin Jackson that he was a bit tired of being “tarred with a religious brush” at the time he wrote this film, so he omitted much of the Catholic imagery from Joe Connolly’s novel. Oddly, this movie still has a distinctly spiritual/paranormal aura to it, and the core themes seem to be essentially spiritual.
Frank Pierce is a paramedic and ambulance driver working the night shift in what was then one of the New York City’s worst neighborhoods. He’s deeply motivated to save people, but haunted by someone he couldn’t save. Frank sees dead people as he drives along his route (the people he couldn’t save), which pairs with his interior monologue about how perhaps his job is really to be “a grief mop,” offering his presence to people and taking away their pain. Both saving people and taking on their burdens are things which Christ does, and on that level Frank’s story is him learning he can’t literally be Christ. This religious element is highlighted by the fact that while the stylized lighting and the “seeing the dead” imagery give New York City a very supernatural feeling. The setting seems less like the New York we know, more like its spiritual underlayer (like the ghostly London in Charles Williams’ novel All Hallows Eve). There’s also a lot of dark humor mixed with the very bleak setting, which combined with its paradoxical Catholic themes, makes it a bit like a Flannery O’Connor story.
Light Sleeper (1992) directed by Paul Schrader
Schrader has written that he’s drawn to writing about characters who “drifts on the edge of urban society, always peeping, looking into the lives of others. He’d like to have a life of his own, but isn’t sure how to get one.” This character appears prominently in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, which follows a lonely man trying to find answers but looking in the wrong places until he reaches the end of himself. By his own admission, Schrader has used that character arc for multiple films he’s written or directed, particularly Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, The Walker and First Reformed. Light Sleeper takes this same arc and some of the same plot points from American Gigolo, but with a more overt spiritual focus.
The movie opens with John LeTour, an aging New York City drug dealer, being driven around town by his chauffer to meet a client. The soundtrack plays a song by Michael Been with the prominent line, “I trust my life to providence, I trust my soul to grace.” Providence will become deeply important as the story goes on, because John has a problem: he’s forty years old in a trade that eats up those who can’t keep up, and his supplier is switching careers. Everyone in the story has some belief in something paranormal – his colleagues talk about numerology, John visits a psychic, and there’s a great deal of talk about having good luck or bad luck. Given Schrader’s Calvinist background and theology training, plus the fact Michael Been’s music specifically written for the movie is filled with Biblical imagery, it seems all this talk about luck and special help is really about providence and special grace.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) directed by Wes Craven
Not many people know that Wes Craven came from a strict Baptist background (he described it as “fundamentalist” in at least one interview) and he graduated from Wheaton College. The Chicago Tribune’s obituary on him was titled “Wheaton College’s most influential filmmaker,” probably not the alumni board’s first choice. Like many Baby Boomers raised in fundamentalism, Craven seems to have gotten fed up with legalism and dropped his faith after college (he describes the turning point as sneaking off Wheaton to see To Kill A Mockingbird, knowing he’d be expelled if he was caught). Despite this, Nightmare on Elm Street has a distinctly Old Testament feel to it, like a movie made by an ex-fundamentalist who hasn’t exorcised the moral code.
The story sets up a conflict between the kids trying to figure out what’s attacking them, and the parents who are strangely uninvolved. Some parents are totally absent, some seem more interested in their cliché ideas of how to handle kids than in actually engaging with their kids. As the killings continue and the hero finds out more, we realize the parents may be trying to avoid a terrible truth they don’t want to believe: something they did in the past has come back with deadly consequences. Or, to put it another way, the sins of the fathers will be revisited in the lives of their children. Nightmare on Elm Street is not just an effective horror film, but a clever look at the Biblical idea that sin and revenge create cycles that affect multiple generations, a clear example of Stephen King’s point that horror often takes the Ten Commandment and “blows them up to tabloid size.”
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