Disclaimer: By no means has the beloved editor asked me to do this piece as he believes me to be the most qualified person… not at all. Religion and spirituality is a human experience that all of mankind can reflect and think upon, so everyone has the right to weigh in. However, I think it’s because in all the time I have known him, I have never shut up about God and religion. It’s the university lifestyle, I promise. Maybe he thinks this little opinion piece may get the subject out of my system and effectively put a sock in it, but in truth I can’t help it. I’m sure this goes for anyone of faith, but when you are into it so far, you can’t help but see God and the spiritual world everywhere. Art in particular is quite potent in this regard, especially for me with my romantic fancies: Art is the mirror of the soul, and what more immersive art form is there than film? In my brief existence upon this world, some of my most earth-shattering realisations (no not quite the right word, more like mere glimpses into the workings of the cosmos; God) have happened to me while watching a movie. They have physically contributed to my development in my faith. This is probably why I absolutely love movies – they have helped me to feel closer to God and have a more substantial faith. To be frank… movies can be life-changing.
So, in this piece, I will be exploring the films that have stuck in my mind as being profound religious and spiritual experiences. Some of these movies may have not been trying to draw parallels to religion or faith at all. However, this is a very personal piece and is not representative at all of anyone’s opinions besides my own. You can take anything you want from art despite what anyone else says, and that is what I have done with these movies. A lot of these films you may already have an idea of what I think about them as I have written about some of them before. Also, what I write here will be coming through the very narrow perception of the Catholic faith and my own personal beliefs so no offence is intended towards anyone of any other faith or none. I actually hope this piece may spark conversation for I honestly truly love these very emotional encounters with movies and I hope I have many more in the future.
As I can barely shut up, I’ll be delivering my exploration in pieces. So, in no particular order, here it goes.
It goes without saying, but to give you all a fair warning – Spoiler Alert!!!
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Out of the films on this list, I think this is the best one to start on as it seems the most obvious choice. Not only is it a ground-breaking animated movie in its own right, but is also possibly one of the greatest religious films of all time. Its focus is on the “Exodus” story… a part of the story of Moses which is one of the major foundations of the major mono-theistic religions of the world, with many aspects being keystones in their central dogma and major celebrations (e.g. The Passover, Easter). The top-notch screenplay, animation, soundtrack and voice performances make it a very watchable movie for kids and such films can significantly aid a child’s understanding of religion as it is such a dynamic and tangible medium, compared to the dryness of scripture-readings and sermons. However, as I have gotten older, “The Prince of Egypt” has continued to offer enlightenment.
Before this turns into a theological essay, let’s focus on how this movie is so transforming.
Pharaoh treats the Israelites in his land as slaves. In fear of them growing in number and uprising, he gives the command to kill all Israelite male infants. Moses, a baby at the time, is spared this fate by being set adrift in the Nile – he floats into the Royal Palace and is discovered by Pharaoh’s queen who decides to raise him along with her own son and the heir to Egypt: Ramases. Moses is raised as Egyptian royalty, with a strong and fierce friendship with his older brother, but a total indifference towards the suffering around him; a spoilt prince. In a chance encounter Moses learns his true heritage. At first he is in denial, but after time he cannot help but to accept who he really is. He can then no longer turn a blind-eye to the suffering of his enslaved brethren that surround him: he disowns his “father” and ends up killing a cruel slave-driver in a fit of passion. Guilty and in anguish, he runs away from Egypt as a distraught Rameses calls back for him. He does not meet death but finds peace in his new life as a nomadic herder for his father-in-law. One day, after many years have passed, he encounters a bush engulfed in fire, but is not burnt up by the flames. After an initial curiosity, Moses is seized by fear and awe as the voice of the God of the Israelites emanates from the bush. It commands Moses to return to Egypt to answer the prayers of his people and free them from bondage. Moses refuses, believing he is totally inadequate for such a task; God is angered by his reply and fiercely reminds Moses of his divinity as creator of all. He then quickly turns to comfort Moses, granting his divine powers to Moses’ disposal in aid of freeing the Israelites.
This movie has made such an impact me on as an adult for when I matured beyond the supposed black and white simplicity of morality I found in childhood, the film stirred up great empathy and sobriety towards the plight of Moses. The great love between Moses and Rameses is immeasurable; they stay the firmest of friends throughout all of their misadventures and always seem to reconcile with each other even when they have deeply hurt one another. Therefore, the pain they feel when Moses returns and reveals it’s not to join his brother’s side (who is now Pharaoh) but is instead to take away his slaves, must have been astronomical. Moses simply can no longer live with himself as his race continues to suffer under his beloved brother’s foot, yet he knows how much it will stab Rameses in the back as such an act completely undermines his rule, something Rameses is incredibly proud and inevitably paranoid about. Rameses’ stubbornness incurs terrible plagues from God upon the Egyptians in an effort to turn his hand; something that eventually leads to the death of innocents. Moses was determined in his cause and remained obedient to God but ended up completely crushed by the guilt of causing tragedy to those same people that surrounded him.
The movie illustrates the solemn truth that on the path of righteousness and justice you may end up hurting those whom you hold dearest, even inspiring hatred towards yourself. Following what you believe is right will always create enemies for yourself, and your journey in faith can therefore be incredibly lonely and isolating – Moses and Rameses after a lifetime of love and brotherhood never see each other again, for example. It is a hard lesson to learn but one you must accept if you are to take your faith seriously; for what is right must be done. The movie does console you with the comfort that those who work for justice will have God with them, in Moses’ plight to free the Hebrews, God’s power constantly comes too his aide.
Not only does this movie refuse to pull its punches in illustrating the responsibilities of those of faith, but it also does a masterful job of depicting the complex and eternally confusing entity that is God. This is nothing short of amazing: God is eternal, a concept totally and utterly incomprehensible to the puny human mind, yet there he is in both simplicity and in complex depth. He is gentle, physically embracing Moses in encouragement and comfort, and he fiercely protects and fights for his people with an unending love. Yet, in this compassion, he just as easily brings down death and destruction upon the enemies of his people by the mere passing of his hands. The Lord brings both life and death at his will and the film-makers sure didn’t sugar-coat God for children. The aspects of his total authority will always be a source of confusion in mankind, even for the greatest theological minds that have existed upon Earth; for a God who readily presents his authority and can easily bring death and tear down all that is man-made is simply terrifying. However, the movie does not for one minute try to explain God’s nature, it simply does its best to leave you in wonder and humble you at the sight of the source of all creation who gives his power unto those who do right. It leaves me in comfort and complete adoration every time.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
This movie has left me in greater wonder of God than many outwardly religious movies. My absolute favourite kind of movie are those sci-fi’s that leave your mind completely blown through their totally mad affronts on existentialism, and; is there a more famous existential crisis-inducing sci-fi movie than this? What I love about what happened to me whilst watching this movie is that this was the first time I felt like I could physically see God. As a Catholic this is a bit unusual as surely depictions of Jesus Christ (God in human form) would be far more tangible for me, and it is. However, this film felt like it revealed the nature of God beyond the outline of the human form (true as it may or may not be) but as that which is entirely ethereal. It presents a far more universal depiction of God as an indescribable mystical higher being beyond the preached doctrines of any organised religion, but I still feel like I can relate it to my own personal view and relationship with God.
This does tickle me, as I very much feel like this film was making a definite effort to distance their presentation of God far away from those preached in Judeo-Christian ideologies. Despite these efforts (with the only religious reference being to the ancient faith of Zoroastrianism) I cannot help but to see the benevolence of Christ, who I feel I do know on a deep personal level throughout the entire film. I mean, he’s not even trying to hide – he’s bloody sprawled out on the couch drinking my beer.
The plot itself is an actual representation of my own personal faith journey, but also the saga of humanity’s quest to find God and the meaning of life. The story begins at the very dawn of man, with the ancestors of humans shown as scavenging ape-like creatures of little consequence and significance, no different or better than the other beasts that roam the plain. However, after a strange encounter with a mysterious black monolith that has appeared from nowhere, something has awoken in these ape-like creatures. It’s a sort of realisation and awareness, a one that lets them utilise the objects around them as tools – most significantly tools to kill, to let them dominate over all other creatures and effectively rule the Earth. Millions of years have passed, and humans are now technologically advanced, beyond what we are currently capable of, with ordinary people regularly commuting into outer space to work. A group of men are sent to an expedition to the moon after unusual scans are detected on the surface – another one of those mysterious monoliths have appeared and this one relays a transmission from the bowels of space. Another jump in time and another group of scientists are on a manned expedition to Jupiter, to the source of the transmission that was relayed to the Moon. The mystery and the endless possibilities of what will be found when they reach the source makes all involved absolutely determined towards this goal, even arousing a brutal savagery in the ship’s AI, HAL 9000, who murders the ship’s crew one by one so as to completely eliminate any chance of human error which could destroy the mission. After a terrifying struggle in which HAL is “disconnected”, it is Dr Dave Bowman who arrives at source: another monolith that opens up a star-gate which Dave passes into. On the other side Dave finds a set of rooms and at the complete surprise of the audience we see him age in a matter of minutes, decades roll by over seconds. Dave Bowman is now finally a frail old man awaiting death, and as the moment comes the monolith returns to him. Dave reaches out yearning. In his reaching and touching of the Monolith, he is transformed. Death is not the end, it is a door. Dave is at the beginning again – he rises above the Earth in foetal form, now a child of the stars.
I do apologise for this synopsis as it does not capture the absolute majesty of this movie, but it really does bring me joy and wonder even to describe it as I have. There is a catholic concept known as “ensoulment” and it is concerned with God’s divine intervention to bestow a soul upon a living thing. But what is a soul? What does that mean? Well, it’s my firm belief that we are made in the image of God, e.g. which in one way means we have knowledge of right and wrong, for that awareness of yourself is needed. The Monolith’s first appearance to the ape-men in my eyes represented the moment of ensoulment in mankind, the enabling of us to develop into beings of enhanced consciousness and sentience. This leaves me in such a state of adoration because it is a beautiful embodiment of the nature of God. A being that instills purpose into us and then continually nourishes us – drawing him toward himself so that when death comes he can pull us into a higher plain of existence, so that we can be with him for eternity. And I for one know that I am not the only one who sees this in this movie. In early showings, a young man rose out of his chair at the appearance of the Monolith and cried “It’s God, It’s God!” before running into the screen.
All credit due to Stanley Kubrick, even if he had no inclination to re-affirm my faith in the first-place. He is my favourite director as his talent is unbeatable. It’s in the way cathedrals and other beautiful buildings of worship are made for the Glory of God, physically offering your talents and services praises God – the incredible production of this movie can do nothing but obviously sing the praises of God. It is one of the highest forms of art as it leaves you so inspired that you actually do want to run into the monolith and be joined with whatever it leads you to. Disregarding the plot entirely, the use of the most beautiful and moving classical music pieces, the stylised vision of the future, the attention to details (including instructions for using an Anti-gravity toilet), and the perfect ballet of all visual elements of the film, this movie is proof that God is present in Art, for you cannot help to think that God himself used the hands of Stanley Kubrick to make such an exquisite movie.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
In comparison to some of the other movies I have written about in this piece, this movie may seem a bit underwhelming in comparison; it’s certainly not like being struck with lightning as many of the other films are, yet the effect it had on me is just as profound. It does not try to proclaim the wonders of God or anything like that, but it glorifies the power of love (as cheesy as that may seem). This is actually my favourite movie of all time, because it is nothing like any movie I have ever seen or that I probably will ever see as it has such a unique premise. It’s also incredibly wholesome whilst simultaneously being the work of visionaries. It always consoles me for it always reaffirms my hopeful beliefs in love and the future of the human race, but it’s also simply a thumping good romance! I love this film so much that I’m hesitant to spoil it for anyone interested in giving it a watch, but I will have to so as to sing its praises. If you haven’t seen it but want to enjoy it completely, do yourselves a favour and stop reading now.
Originally intended as a piece of propaganda to promote Anglo-American relations after WW2, the story and the production completely transcends this original purpose. On the 2nd of May 1945, June, an American radio operator working on the south English coast, attempts to contact a badly damaged Lancaster bomber. She gets through to Squadron Leader Peter Carter who reveals that his fate is sealed: the plane is burning up, the rest of his crew has bailed but his parachute has been ripped to shreds. Instead of burning up in his plane, he tells June that he is going to jump. In the heat and awful tragedy of the moment they cannot help but fall in love with each other’s voices and then Peter jumps. To his and every audience members’ surprise, he washes up on the beach relatively unharmed the next day. Peter’s heavenly conductor missed him in the fog and failed to report the incident. The powers that be are not too happy, especially that in the extra time Peter was given he of course takes the opportunity to find June, and after the encounter they had they cannot help but fall head over heels in love with her, and vice-versa (of course). Heavenly Conductor 77 tries to convince Peter to follow him to eternity but Peter has none of it, as it was due to heaven’s negligence that he did not die and ended up finding June. He demands an appeal which is agreed on, but the encounter leaves Peter with an awful headache and a gnawing worry for June as Peter is now apparently hallucinating. Enlisting the help of a doctor friend, it is found that Peter has an old head injury which is causing him to hallucinate – with each vision, Peter gets worse. He is descending into a state of insanity, growing anxious in the preparation of his supposed trial of appeal. The whole ordeal makes him grow weaker – the day of his trial he is left barely clinging to life. As he is rushed into surgery, the powers of heaven assemble above to determine his fate of whether he lives or dies.
During the trial, there is much argument over nationality (with the prosecuting counsel being Abraham Farlan – the first man killed by a British Bullet in the American War of Independence) and what it implies about Peter’s character. But what beats all this hot air is the selfless act of the couple themselves. June offers her life instead of Peter’s to balance the books and as a consequence breaks the universe:
“Nothing is stronger than the law in the universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love.”
This is a sentiment I can just truly and whole-heartedly believe in: June’s love for Peter smashes all of the petty prejudices and bureaucracy of heaven. In reality, hate and discord can only be destroyed if the seeds of love are sown. It is the love of our fellow man that drives us to fight for the cause of right and justice – they are not achieved by simple selfish ulterior motives. When the struggle seems pointless, when I can’t tear away from my own prejudices or I become weary of all the sorrow in this world, this film – every time I watch it – reminds me that love will eventually win the day. It spurs me on to continue making small acts of love everyday whenever I can for it is only love that can make this world better. It always leaves me to remember that:
“The rights of the uncommon man must always be respected.”