The site Film Snobbery has published a list of the 50 Most Important Religion Films of All Time, thus paying tribute to “the union of the sacred and cinematic” in celebration of Epiphany (Jan. 6), the final day of the Christmas holiday season.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is not the #1 film on the list. Instead, that position belongs to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, in which Charlton Heston (above) turns down Anne Baxter so he can go flush the waters of the Red Sea.
Rounding out Film Snobbery’s top 10 religion movies are Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof (1971), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (1959), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999).
All of the aforementioned films have a Judeo-Christian – mostly Christian – theme, which says something about both those responsible for selecting the films and the movies they’ve been exposed to.
Among Film Snobbery’s top ten religion (though definitely not religious) movies, three curious choices immediately stand out: The Exorcist, about a demon-possessed pre-teen (Linda Blair, right) who vomits green bile and (by way of Mercedes McCambridge’s voice) says stuff like “Let Jesus fuck you, let Jesus fuck you. Let him fuck you” while masturbating with a cross; Life of Brian, a satire on the life of Jesus whose grand finale offers the martyr/faux Savior Brian (Graham Chapman) and his fellow crucified pals singing “Look on the Bright Side of Life”; and Dogma, in which the hero is an abortion clinic worker (Linda Fiorentino) fighting two renegade angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) intent on negating the existence of humankind so they can reenter Heaven.
In some quarters, Friedkin, Smith, and the Monty Python troupe were lambasted for their “sacrilegious” efforts, but they’re lucky that their movies took on Christianity, not Islam. Else, things could have gotten much, much worse.
I should add that Film Snobbery praises DeMille’s The Ten Commandments for its “wild mix of special effects, sex appeal, an all-star ensemble and even a wicked dance number around the Golden Calf,” noting that more than a half-century after its premiere, “the film still resonates as brilliantly over-the-top entertainment.”
I fully agree with the above statement, though I’m willing to bet that more people became atheists after watching The Ten Commandments and DeMille’s other biblical epics (e.g., a 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, The Sign of the Cross, Samson and Delilah) than after watching The Exorcist, Life of Brian, or Dogma. After all, DeMille was a master at making religion and spirituality seem as phony as his film’s sets.
The first film on the Film Snobbery list not featuring Judeo-Christian issues is, at #14, Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960), which deals with “the tragic implications of religious obsession in this dark drama of a man who believes his young daughter is an incarnation of a Hindu goddess.” Among the few “other religion” films on the list are Parvez Sharma’s A Jihad for Love (2007), about the obstacles gays face in Islamic countries; Kon Ichikawa’s anti-war drama The Burmese Harp (1955), in which a World War II Japanese soldier adopts the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk (we should have more such soldiers in real life); and Conrad Rooks’ Siddartha (1972), based on Hermann Hesse’s goosebump-inducing novel about the early life of Buddha.
Now, my favorite “religion movie” of all time? Probably Maurice Cloche’s Monsieur Vincent, which is not on the Film Snobbery list. (You guys!) In this 1947 French drama, Pierre Fresnay creates a beautiful portrayal of St. Vincent De Paul, a man whose holiness has nothing to do with talking bushes or the ability to water-ski without ski pads. Instead, Fresnay’s Vincent is a “saint” merely because of his inner goodness, which thrives despite all the human evil surrounding him. Monsieur Vincent deservedly won a special Oscar as the best foreign language film shown in the United States in 1948.
Here are three others: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946), about hot & bothered nuns (Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, right, with David Farrar) in the Himalayas; Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), about religious intolerance and witch-burning in a 17th-century Danish village; and Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), in which a young parish priest (Claude Laydu) and we, the audience, discover that, despite the evil and ugliness in the world, “All Is Grace” – as long as you’re a person of rock-solid faith or as long as you’re an unquestioning, brainwashed fanatic. Bresson leaves that up to us. Only Black Narcissus, at #15, is on the Film Snobbery list.
Of course, the really devout will never consider anything but their own outrage whenever their religious beliefs are questioned or challenged. And that reminds me: How come Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (above, with Willem Dafoe) is nowhere to be found on the list, but The Blues Brothers is #11?
That may translate into a long stay in purgatory for the listmakers.