THE FIRST PROBLEM when creating a list of religious films is, of course, defining what a religious film is. A film might promote values that viewers would want to share passionately, but contain no explicit reference to faith or creed. Its plot might be read as an allegory that invites comparisons with religious themes, but only to some of its viewers. In the end, though, a list that included such films as these would be no more than a countdown of favourites.
We were looking for something more distinctive. So we included only cinema that either dealt with religion in an overt way or tackled the matter of faith directly. This might have led to a preponderance of films on biblical themes, or which contain priests or nuns, but there are enough pictures here that buck that trend. Films were included when one of our panel persuaded the rest of us that we could break our rules, and that their metaphorical nature was clear enough. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an obvious example.
The panel of four included people we knew to relish both film and faith, and had studied the relationship between the two: Nev Pierce, editor of Total Film magazine; Gareth Higgins, author of How Movies Saved My Soul; James Abbott, jurist at several international film festivals; and Shan Stephens, a documentary film-maker. We asked them to rank their favourites and allocated each position a score.
Art is a subjective business, and there was inevitable disagreement, but also a surprising amount of accord. Most of our top ten received good marks from every panel member. Further down the list, more individual choices stuck out, and we have included some comments from a couple of the selectors to reflect the thinking involved. Also look out for the favourite films of our two Archbishops.
As might be expected, the biblical epics of the 1950s (seven films) and ’60s (eight films) are well represented; but the chronological spread was more even than might have been predicted — except in one regard. The ’70s and ’90s each produced five films each for our list, and there are already four from our present decade. But, surprisingly for an era often categorised as greedy and secular, the 1980s produced 14 of our films.
Out of that 14 comes our top film, The Mission, a tale about the part played by the Church in the exploitation of Latin America, and its relationship to the indigenous people. Our scoring was conducted before last week’s commemoration of the end of the slave trade; so it has not been selected for its currency. What this suggests is that the best of religious films are always pertinent, discussing as they do the way in which we act morally inside the world — and how a commitment to faith must also contain a commitment to our neighbour. Whatever artistic arguments may ensue about religious cinema, this is worth remembering.
1 The Mission
2 The Gospel According to St Matthew
3 It’s a Wonderful Life
4 The Last Temptation of Christ
5 On the Waterfront
6 Babette’s Feast
8 The Apostle
9 The Passion of the Christ
10 The Crucible
11 A Man for All Seasons
13 Ben Hur
14 Chariots of Fire
15 Jesus of Montreal
17 The Sound of Music
19 The Name of the Rose
20 A Christmas Carol
21 The Cross and the Switchblade