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Getting Religion: The Ten Best Films on Faith

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Is religion indeed the opiate of the masses? Judging by the number of movies made on the subject, you'd be tempted to think so.

Regardless of whether you believe in a higher power, it is impossible to deny the pervasive influence of organized religion through history, and need I add, not always for the good.

There are those who claim that religion has been responsible for losing as many lives as it's saved. Certainly devastating wars have been launched, and forces of prejudice and intolerance harbored, in its name.

It has also done an enormous amount of good, at the very least giving countless people hope who had no tangible basis to feel any.

I suppose that in the final analysis, religion is what we humans have made of it, good and bad. Perhaps that's what makes it such a fascinating subject for film.

Here then are my candidates for the top ten films dealing with faith and spirituality:

The Passion of Joan of Arc
(1928)- Imprisoned by her many accusers, religious mystic Joan of Arc (Maria Falconetti) faces a gauntlet of interrogators, including powerful Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Eugene Silvain). After numerous threats and recriminations, with her fate decided, Joan is given one last opportunity to recant. Carl Theodor Dreyer's sensational, groundbreaking depiction of the trial of 15th-century Christian martyr St. Joan of Arc was one of the first on-screen realizations of the principle that film is "the seventh art." Though Dreyer's print was lost for 50 years, its eventual recovery and restoration guaranteed that others would finally be able to appreciate its sublime, expressionistic qualities. Mobile camerawork, unconventional angles, and inspired direction of the entire cast are its legacy, as are haunting close-ups of Falconetti's noble visage. Suffering never looked this good.

Black Narcissus (1947)- When young Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is asked to open a convent-hospital in a former brothel perched high above a small village in India, she readily agrees, despite knowing hardships lie ahead. Once there, she's greeted by a sardonic Englishman, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), who takes great delight in ruffling Sister Clodagh's habit. But it's jealous, unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) who eventually succumbs to the dark allure of the exotic, windswept setting. Another great success for the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Narcissus shines as an absorbing, sensitively acted melodrama about the secular problems facing a new mother superior in an unfamiliar, potentially hostile new environment. The directors even stirred controversy by developing a subtle yet wholly credible sexual tension between the luminous Kerr and handsome Farrar. Jack Cardiff's Oscar-winning Technicolor photography and Alfred Junge's hand-crafted art design give this film exceptional production values to boot. And Kathleen Byron's celebrated turn as the unhinged Sister Ruth climaxes in a suspenseful sequence that's hard to forget.

Diary of A Country Priest (1951)- Arriving in the small community of Ambricourt, a novice parish priest (Claude Laydu) has trouble connecting to the people he is meant to serve, especially after a local Count (Jean Riveyre) warns him to wield his moral authority lightly. Devout but awkward, the young priest is further hampered by ill health, which forces him to adopt an austere diet of bread and wine. Isolated and unsure of his ultimate purpose, the ailing curate eventually experiences a crushing crisis of faith. Robert Bresson's exquisite, affecting study of a young priest's spiritual travails endures as a major achievement in world cinema. Priest is minimalist in style, with Laydu's restrained performance eliciting our empathy and subtly attuning us to his character's inner struggles. Bresson handles the details brilliantly, his unadorned elegance and intensity permeating the mood, set design, and action. "Priest" is a sublime film that will reward attentive viewers with a profound meditation on life, faith, and purpose.

The Nun's Story (1959)- Devout, kindhearted Belgian girl Gabrielle (Audrey Hepburn) takes vows and becomes Sister Luke, a nun who achieves her dream of working in the Belgian Congo and ministering to the infirm, yet not without difficulties of conscience. Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), a gifted surgeon who senses Luke's inner struggle to meet her spiritual commitment, becomes a challenging presence. But the outbreak of war presents Sister Luke with an even bigger crisis of faith. Fred Zinnemann's first-rate but largely overlooked feature showcases the luminous Hepburn in her prime, as in her transformation, she contemplates hardship, devotion, and a very special kind of self-realization. A literate, nuanced drama with size, scope and color, the film boasts superb location photography and uniformly fine performances, both from the young leads and two English Dames: Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft, as senior nuns who guide Sister Luke along her often thorny path. Story is an affecting, heartfelt epic of inner struggle.

A Man For All Seasons (1966)- When the Pope refuses King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) an annulment of his marriage to a barren wife, Henry declares a break with Rome, nominates himself spiritual regent of the newly christened Church of England, and demands that his Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), recognize him. With his allegiance divided between the throne and the Catholic Church, More demurs, until circumstances force him to make a choice. An outstanding adaptation of Robert Bolt's play by Nun's Story director Fred Zinnemann, Seasons revisits the ill-fated conflict between Henry VIII and More, building upon the film's central ethical issue: Whether More will sacrifice his life in defense of moral truth. Scofield won an Oscar for his shaded portrayal of Thomas, Shaw is magnificent playing a fiery Henry, and cameos by Orson Welles, Susannah York, and Leo McKern round out a sterling cast. A box-office hit, Seasons will resonate with anyone who's ever had a crisis of conscience.

Jesus Of Nazareth
(1977)- This landmark six-hour mini-series tells the story of Jesus Christ (Robert Powell), from birth in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mary (Olivia Hussey) to death on the cross at Golgotha by order of Pontius Pilate (Rod Steiger), and its effect on his twelve apostles. Franco Zeffirelli's international all-star production is no Last Temptation of Christ -- nor a grotesque death march a la Passion of the Christ. Reverent, enthralling, and faithful to the Gospels, this solemn, sensitive film is epic in scope, yet unfolds at a contemplative pace. With elaborate staging, desert locations, and a haunting score, this film etches into memory with iconic power. And that cast: Michael York, James Earl Jones, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, and many other big names fill out supporting roles, while crystal-eyed Powell manages to embody both the majesty and mystery of the Biblical Son of God.

Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left For The East?
(1989)- At a remote mountaintop retreat, an aged, ailing Zen master shares his spiritual wisdom with a young monk and an orphan boy he has taken in out of kindness. The days pass slowly, but bit by bit, through an ascetic regimen that honors the inevitable cycle of life, death, and rebirth, the two acolytes are guided along the path of enlightenment. Bae Yong-Kyun, a painter by trade from South Korea, spent years laboring over this profound film, a kind of tone poem that attempts to express what is ultimately inexpressible: the spiritual sublime. In place of dialogue and narrative action, he gives us rich life lessons and spellbinding images of nature. Whether you think of it as a Buddhist riddle (termed a "koan"), a mystical allegory, or an inner-world travelogue; if you're in the right frame of mind, you will surely be fascinated by Bae's highly intelligent, visually arresting film.

Jesus Of Montreal (1990)- Wanting to modernize a long-running Passion Play in his Montreal parish so it will be relevant to a wider audience, Catholic priest Father Le Clerc (Gilles Pelletier) hires Daniel (Lothai Bluteau), an intense young actor, to mount a new production. Daniel researches his role as Christ, gathers a motley cast of veteran players, and mounts a daring and provocative re-telling of the Biblical tale that horrifies Le Clerc but becomes a smash hit in Quebec. Here, French Canadian director Denys Arcand broaches a controversial subject-the historical accuracy of Christ's crucifixion and the true message of his teachings-with flair and fearlessness. This wholly unique feature offers much more than a backstage drama: Daniel's quest to find his actors mirrors that of Jesus finding his disciples, and life imitates religious art in many thought-provoking ways throughout Montreal. Arcand finds plenty of opportunities to critique modern life, too, while staging "the greatest story ever told."

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (2003)- At a floating monastery on a placid lake, an older monk teaches the Buddhist way of life to a young boy, whose maturation is reflected in the passing of the seasons, and the different life stages which accompany each. Years later, after a sojourn in the outside world clouded by lust and violence, the boy -- now a jaded young man -- returns seeking shelter from the law, only to find unexpected redemption. A film that evokes a striking visual and spiritual purity, Korean director Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer is ideal for those seeking a profound, contemplative movie experience. Yet the film is by no means heavy-going; in fact, its simplicity and spare beauty create a soothing, entrancing effect. On a deeper level, we sense universal forces at work in this tale, with the passage of time reflecting a continual cycle of pre-destined occurrences that traverse good and evil, innocence and cruelty. Arresting and unusual, Kim's Spring is a cinematic balm for the soul and senses.

Into Great Silence (2005)- In this intimate doc, we get a never-before-seen glimpse of the daily lives and rituals of the Grande Chartreuse, an 11th-century monastery inhabited by modern-day Carthusian monks, whose vows of silence and poverty guide them to states of profound inner holiness. Whether tending the grounds, feeding the cats, or barbering each other after morning prayers, the Carthusians live a life of beautiful simplicity and austerity, untouched by the cares and demands of the outside world. Philip Groning waited 16 years for permission to film these pious men, and then spent six months in their wordless company, filming alone and only with available light. Shunning music and voiceover narration, Groning's observational style is as pure as the monks' lifestyle of work and prayer, seducing us into appreciating their very singular and private mode of worship.

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