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A brief history of Christian films

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

A brief history of Christian films

From classical Hollywood through World cinema to modern-day religious epics, James Oliver delves into the vast world of Christian films. 

The various Christian churches have not always been exactly well disposed towards the cinema, admittedly with good reason: “the movies” built their congregations by temptation, offering celebrants forbidden fruits like glamour, sensation and the promise of sex.


They even erected graven images for fans to worship, those ethereal beings known as “movie stars”. No wonder clerical establishments fulminated against the medium; they knew a challenge to their authority when they saw it.

The reverse, though, is not the case. Cinema has always embraced Christianity, even if it’s not always for the purest spiritual motives: there are an awful lot of Christians in the world, after all, and they buy tickets too.

Bruce Almighty (2003). Image via shortlist 


Hollywood and the Holy Book 

As so often, Hollywood led the way. The American movie industry may have been established by Jews, but they built their business by knowing what the folks in Middle America wanted. Most of the time, that was the same stuff everyone else wanted (glamour, sensation, etc.) but just occasionally, they wanted an acknowledgement and affirmation of their beliefs too.

Cecil B DeMille. Image via ultimatemovierankings

No filmmaker has ever known better how to satisfy all this than Cecil B DeMille, the greatest showman Hollywood has ever known. “Give me any couple of pages of the Bible,” he once declared “and I’ll give you a picture”. He was true to his word, sometimes tackling the New Testament (King of Kings), sometimes the Old (Samson and Delilah, The Ten Commandments).

Samson and Delilah (1949). Image via imdb

These were no acts of devotion, however. DeMille was a colossal humbug—it’s one of his most endearing features—and he realised that Biblical stories gave him an excellent excuse to fill the screen with semi-naked slave-girls and smiting galore: sex ‘n’ violence, basically, but redeemed by the subject matter.


The Passion of the Christ 

But at least DeMille’s cheerful cynicism is entertaining. Better that than a true believer like Mel Gibson. Mad Mel cast his own bread upon the water to finance The Passion of the Christ, a carefully crafted document of the various cruelties meted out to Jesus between Gethsemane and Golgotha. It’s a horrible film that ignores Christian teaching (you know, all the stuff about humility and charity) in favour of venerating suffering and—yes!—blaming the Jews.

And it was a huge success, especially with more conservative-minded Evangelicals. This led to a mini-boom in “Christian” movies. Oddly enough, most of these were independently made; it appears Evangelicals have always distrusted the degenerates of Hollywood. They preferred movies made by people who understood their culture more intimately.

These films (which include Fireproof and Courageous) very much preach to the converted (or rather the Born Again), which makes them bizarre experiences for outsiders.


World cinema 

Christianity has inspired filmmakers as it has inspired artists in every field of human creativity and, at its best, it has resulted in art that’s the equal of the best of Michelangelo, Milton or Mozart.

No list of religious art could ignore The Passion of Joan of Arc. Directed by the Danish Carl Dreyer, a Lutheran, it is a distinctly Protestant take on the Catholic saint, which annoyed the Magisterium no end. More objective viewers took it as a masterpiece, and so it is.

Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc 

Quite apart from anything else, it features one of the finest pieces of acting ever burnt on to film; Maria Falconetti makes us feel every lash of Joan’s ordeal, but also her ultimate transcendence. Decades later, Dreyer filmed another miracle in Ordet; there are no special effects yet it’s more spectacular than any DeMille blockbuster.

Mention should be made, too, of Robert Bresson. He dealt directly with spiritual themes in Diary of a Country Priest and more obliquely in films like A Man Escaped and, most brilliantly, Au Hasard Balthasar.

A Man Escaped (1956). Image via fromthefrontrow 

Bresson was a vast influence on Andrei Tarkovsky—he worked in an officially atheist state (the USSR) but he was a God-fearing man and his work is preoccupied with the sacred, most obviously in Andrei Rublev. Set in an especially vile vision of the middle ages, the film asks if it’s possible for anyone in such a fallen world to believe in God—then answers the question ringingly in the affirmative.

And there are others—oh, how there are others! The South African film Son of Man relocates the life of Christ to modern Africa, telling it with a simplicity, beauty and appealing faith.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s told the same story in The Gospel of Matthew, in which the Marxist non-believer the radical Jesus.

Francesco giullare di Dio (The Flowers of St. Francis), directed by Robert Rossellini is a beautiful, almost unworldly film about Francis of Assisi that might be the best on-screen depiction of a life lit up by a love for God.

Mention, too, should be made of Ingmar Bergman; although, ultimately, he was an atheist, Bergman was as concerned with religion as only the son of a Bishop can be, mourning the absence of faith in Winter Light and The Silence.

The Silence


Scorsese and beyond

Most recently, these exulted films have been joined by a film that posterity will record as a classic, Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Scorsese, a one-time altarboy and would-be seminarian, had previously made The Last Temptation of Christ, one of the more theologically intriguing Christian films (a point missed by the modern Pharisees who booed it).

Silence is a greater work still. It’s set in Feudal Japan, where Christianity is outlawed. Two Jesuits who travel there to minister to the flock, are hunted by the Japanese authorities and are confronted by their own arrogance. What’s interesting is how Scorsese challenges the machismo of the missionaries, who initially regard suffering as a badge of honour. However—and Mel Gibson might want to pay attention here—there’s no glory in masochistic endurance and the film shows there are other ways to godliness.


But one does not need to be a believer to appreciate Silence. The value of Christian films—the good ones, at any rate—is the same as any religious art, the profound moral seriousness and contemplation of the more mysterious dimensions of this, our temporal life.

We live in secular times in which religion is at best an unfashionable subject. If anything, though, that makes religious art more important; as the purest, and most direct, expression of faith, the best religious art offers a more compelling description of belief than any doctrine or dogma.

This is especially true of film: how ironic that the medium which the church felt was so subversive back in the day should prove such an ally to Christianity today.


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