Christians in the movies: the good, the bad and the ugly

This is the third in a three-part series of posts exploring Christianity and mainstream cinema. In the first post I looked at how Jesus has been depicted in film, suggesting he hasn’t been treated terribly well as a cinematic hero. In the second post I looked a Christ-figures, non-religious characters whose lives have mirrored Christ’s in some way.

In this post I want to look a some of the best examples of overtly Christian characters in film.

The religiously pious aren’t always depicted in the most positive light. Hollywood movies are full of religious nuts.

There’s a whole sub-genre of films about mad evangelists like Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and his counterpoint, the tongues-speaking, Max Cady (Robert De Niro) in Cape Fear (1991). Then there’s obsessive fundamentalists, like the albino priest, Silas (Paul Bettany) in The Da Vinci Code (2006), and the Bible-thumping Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in There Will Be Blood (2007).

Similarly, there’s been a regular parade of somewhat unhinged nuns in film, like Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) in Black Narcissus (1947), Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) in Agnes of God (1985), and the crusading Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) in Doubt (2008).

But it’s not all bad news. Mainstream cinema has presented us with some powerful, complex, and authentic depictions of devout Christians. Two recent dramas depict Christian pacifists caught up in a time of war — in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) a Seventh Day Adventist army medic refuses carry or use a weapon or firearm of any kind, and in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019) a conscientious objector refuses to fight for the Third Reich on the basis of his Christian faith.

And even when they’re not in necessarily deep films, they can still be very affecting. I find Bruce Nolan’s simple, uncluttered faith in God in Bruce Almighty (2003) quite touching. Likewise, with Jake and Elroy’s unshakeable commitment to their “mission from God” in the midst of the insanity of The Blues Brothers (1980).

So, here are some of the most interesting depictions of Christian faith I’ve seen on film.

The priest of Ambricourt, in Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Claude Laydu plays the unnamed priest appointed to serve the country parish of Ambricourt, France. A less grateful, more vile town you’re unlikely to find.

Even though the villagers pour scorn on him, insult him, and make up rumors about him, he remains single-minded in his dedication to them, refusing even to defend himself against their opprobrium. Director Robert Bresson has made a film about an ordinary parish priest who shoulders his calling as if it was the most important task in the world.

And it is heartbreaking to watch.

As he continues to carry on his pastoral duties, absorbing his parishioners’ attacks, and subsisting on a meagre diet, he grows thin and weak. We see the priest coughing up blood. Later, he grows faint in the house of one of his church members. Then, one night he falls in the mud and cannot get up. Clearly, his days are numbered. He is literally serving his parish to death.

The Diary of a Country Priest is the story of a man in the process of offering himself as a sacrifice to God, in the service of others. And there aren’t many films like that.

Sister Sharon Falconer, in Elmer Gantry (1960)

Confidence trickster, Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is a cross between a fast-talking traveling salesman and revivalist preacher. It’s not clear what he believes in (if anything), other than having a laser-focus on hard drinking and seducing innocent young women.

Then he meets revivalist preacher, the saintly Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) and, being the religious fraudster he is, Gantry can recognize the genuine article when he sees it.

Sister Sharon is a gifted preacher and healer, but Gantry thinks her routine needs honing. He decides her supernatural gifts need his natural abilities at running a profitable evangelism circus. Commerce meets Christianity, and the unholy alliance of faith, corruption, sex and money is unleashed. Of course it is all destined for tragedy. A young woman, who was seduced by Gantry when she was a teenager and turned to a life of sex work, comes looking for revenge.

Gantry is a despicable character and Burt Lancaster obviously loves playing him. But as Sister Sharon, Simmons has the more challenging role. Her motives and her actions can appear ambiguous at times. She goes along with Gantry’s dog-and-pony show because she appears to believe it will give her access to more souls to save. But even after Gantry is exposed and publicly humiliated as charlatan, Sister Sharon still believes that she and Elmer were brought together by God to do His work.

In the end, Sister Sharon makes the ultimate sacrifice and we are left wondering whether she’s gullible or if it was an act of extraordinary faith.

E F Dewey, in The Apostle (1997)

Robert Duvall plays fundamentalist evangelist Euliss F. “Sonny” Dewey whose life has begun to unravel.

His wife Jessie is having an affair with the youth minister, Horace, and together they conspire to have Sonny voted out of their church. Then in a tragic moment of fury and frustration, Sonny kills Horace.

Instead of turning himself in, Sonny destroys all evidence of his past, re-baptizes himself as “The Apostle E F”, and hightails it out of Texas. He ends up in the bayous of Louisiana, where he sets about rebuilding his ministry and starting a new church.

The thing is, I think I’ve met people just like Sonny Dewey. He loves Jesus, he wants people to be saved, and he’ll stop at nothing to share Christ with them. Early in the film he happens upon a car wreck, and while bystanders wait for the paramedics to arrive, Sonny scrambles down the embankment, shares the four spiritual laws with the dying driver, coaxing the sinner’s prayer from him before he breathes his last.

He so thoroughly believes in instantaneous conversions that he thinks he can have one himself, despite being a killer on the run.

Ultimately, the law catches up with The Apostle E F, but not before Duvall can depict one of the most richly authentic portrayals of fundamentalist Pentecostal faith I’ve ever seen on film.

Monsignor Desmond Spellacy, in True Confessions (1981) 

Robert De Niro plays Catholic monsignor, Des Spellacy, a rising star in the Diocese of Los Angeles. His brother Tom, a homicide detective with the L.A. police department, is played by Robert Duvall.

They aren’t close. One has chosen detachment from the grubby, corrupt world of 1940s LA. The other is immersed in its filthy underbelly.

When a young woman is found brutally murdered, her body cut in two in a vacant lot, Tom is put in charge of the case, which leads him into a dark labyrinth of crooked property developers, corrupt local city councillors, and the porn industry. And at the center of it all stands construction mogul Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning), a lay Catholic who uses his ties to the church to whitewash his nefarious activities.

As Tom becomes obsessed with bringing Amsterdam to justice, Des starts to realize how much cover the church is providing the mogul and he has to decide whether to continue to enjoy Amsterdam’s generous patronage, which in some measure paves the way for his elevation to the cardinal’s palace, or whether to join his brother in exposing his crimes.

Eventually, Des can no longer remain detached from the sins of the city. But to expose them will mean his own dramatic fall from grace.

Boyd, in Leap of Faith (1992)

Leap of Faith is a Steve Martin vehicle about a dodgy revivalist and faith healer, not unlike Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry. Jonas Nightengale (Martin) rolls into a small town in Kansas with his entourage of fellow con-artists, including Debra Winger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Meatloaf, primed and ready to fleece the unsuspecting of their cash. The behind-the-scenes look at the tricks of the phoney revivalist trade are actually pretty funny.

But the local sheriff (Liam Neeson) and a waitress, Marva (Lolita Davidovich) aren’t buying it. When Marva meets Nightengale, she smells a rat, but her little brother, Boyd (Lukas Haas) is a true believer.

Boyd walks awkwardly with crutches following a car accident in which both their parents died, and inexplicably he comes to believe that Jonas will heal him.

Since we all know that Jonas is a fraud, Boyd’s faith seems poorly placed. But that night at the revival meeting, the boy goes forward to receive his healing, and despite Jonas ignoring him at the foot of the altar, Boyd is miraculously and unexpectedly healed. And with that everything changes.

In a cast full of cynical, faithless adults, it’s the little child who leads them.

The monks, in Of Gods and Men (2011)

French director Xavier Beauvois’s incredible film depicts the kidnapping and murder of Cistercian monks in Algeria by Mujahideen in 1996. But more than a simple narrative of the persecution and martyrdom of faithful men, Of Gods and Men is a film about faith itself.

From the use of hymns and religious music, to the austerity of the monastery, to the spacious silences to which the monks have devoted themselves, this movie is in fact saturated with faith and belief. We are invited into their claustrophobic, and increasingly tenuous existence, as they pray and fast and debate whether to escape or remain and face certain death.

As the abbot, French actor Lambert Wilson is the image of serenity and fidelity, leading his small order as they face insurmountable odds. But every monk is beautifully portrayed — some fearful, some faithful, all of them deeply devoted to each other.

I found Of Gods and Men thrillingly audacious, moving and all-too-real.

Ida, in Ida (2013)

I loved this film. Set in Poland in 1962, it tells the story of Anna, a young novice nun on the verge of taking her vows. Because Anna was raised as an orphan in the same convent she now wishes to join, the prioress insists she experience something of life outside the order before she takes her vows. She suggests that Anna travel to Krakow to visit her aunt, Wanda Gruz, who is her only surviving relative.

At first I thought this was going to be the typical convent-girl-experiences-the-swinging-60s story. And it appears to start that way. Wanda is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous, atheist judge who reveals that Anna’s actual name is Ida Lebenstein. They are Jews, not Catholics.

Wanda tells Ida that she should try some worldly sins and pleasures before becoming a nun and seems to relish the opportunity to induct her into that world. Ida changes into Wanda’s stilettos and evening gown. She tries smoking and drinking. She goes to a jazz bar and learns to dance. She meets a boy and they sleep together.

But through it all, Ida seems only slightly enamored of this new life. Wanda’s depression, the horrors of the Holocaust, the meaningless of post-war Polish society, all weigh upon her. She cannot cast her faith or her calling aside so easily.

I did not see her final decision coming, but I was delighted by it.

Father James, in Calvary (2014)

Father James (Brendon Gleeson), is a recovering alcoholic with a suicidal adult daughter. He’s serving in a depressing parish in Sligo on Ireland’s west coast. His parishioners include a violent butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a supercilious squire (Dylan Moran), a hostile publican (Pat Shortt), and an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) — all of them stereotypes, running on rails, reading from a script, prickling with malice, mired in misery.

The drama begins when a shadowy figure speaks to Father James from the darkness of the confession box, and tells him that he was abused by a priest as a child and is hellbent on revenge. Father James, as a representative of the church, has been selected to take the fall.

The confessor tells James that he will be executed the following Sunday, just down on the beach. The priest now has a week to put his own house in order.

At first this film feels like a whodunnit, or more accurately, a who’s-gonna-do- it. But as it unfolds, you get less interested in who the culprit is, and more drawn to the dignity and humanity of Father James. He’s the good priest called to carry the cross for all the other bad ones. And Gleeson is so good in the lead. He plays God’s servant as a recovering alcoholic with an impossible task, variously fired by rage, reason and sadness.

Here, at least, is a true Christian we can relate to.

Sebastião Rodrigues, in Silence (2016)

This film was Martin Scorsese’s biggest flop to date. Audiences weren’t interested in the story of two 17th-century Portuguese missionaries, Father Sebastian (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco (Adam Driver), on a perilous journey to Japan to find their missing mentor (Liam Neeson).

Once in Japan, the two Jesuits minister to the Christian villagers who worship in secret. If they are caught by feudal lords or ruling samurai, they must renounce their faith or face a prolonged and agonizing death. Some of the martyrdom scenes are difficult to watch. 

I can understand why Silence failed to find much of an audience. The monk’s religious duty and the Japanese Christians’ dreadful suffering isn’t the usual stuff of mainstream cinema. In fact, Silence is a gruelling experience.

As Father Rodrigues, Garfield’s look evokes beatific images of Christ. At one point he even sees a vision of Jesus when gazing at his own reflection in a stream. It’s his impossible burden to not only look like Christ, but to represent him in this terrifying land, a burden he cannot shun lightly. .

When Rodrigues whispers to God, “The weight of your silence is terrible,” that weight feels real and tangible. This is a truly astonishing film. And the end will leave you guessing.

Reverend Ernst Toller, in First Reformed (2017)

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York. And he’s not in a good space.

Toller is an alcoholic, grieving the death of his son in the Iraq War. His congregation has dwindled to trickle of attenders and he’s torn between finding spiritual refreshment in Catholic mysticism or the evangelical megachurch nearby. To make matters worse, an unhinged eco-terrorist named Michael and his wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) have joined his church, and his encounter with them tips the already fragile Toller into a profound spiritual and psychological crisis.

Sensing that he might be unravelling, Toller’s church superior tries to coax him out of his depression by enlisting him to help planning the church’s 250th anniversary celebration. One of the other members of the church anniversary committee is a bullying local right-wing polluter and Toller finds himself unable to throw himself into internal ecclesiastical duties when the world is dying.

Ernst Toller is a churchman through and through, albeit a not very successful one. Michael and Mary force him out of church, into a world on the brink of ecological disaster. Although wholly inadequate for the task, he decides to take on Michael’s insane mission after the eco-terrorist dies.

As a devout man, wracked by a thousand questions, Ethan Hawke is fantastic. You won’t agree with the decisions Toller makes, but you won’t doubt his genuine quest for love and absolution.

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14 thoughts on “Christians in the movies: the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. Great selection – haven’t seen many of those films, but there are some amazing actors in there. Thanks for the list Mike.

  2. Thanks for your observations about these movies, Mike. Another one you might want to look at is Mass Appeal, a 1984 movie starring Jack Lemmon as a disengaged priest who is challenged by an intern priest.

    1. Great suggestion.

  3. I’ve been getting some great suggestions on my socials, including:
    * Ingmar Bergman’s Faith Trilogy;
    * De Niro and/or Irons in The Mission;
    * Karl Malden’s Father Barry in On The Waterfront;
    * Peter O’Toole In Beckett;
    * Brother Son Sister Moon;
    * Bob Hoskins in A Prayer for the Dying;
    * Black Snake Moan;
    * The priest in My Year Without Sex;
    * Ray McKinnon in Come Early Morning;
    * Javier Bardem in To the Wonder.

  4. Keeping Mum is an English comedy. In it the bumbling country parish priest, Walter Goodfellow, played by Rowan Atkinson, gives an address ‘God’s Mysterious Ways’. His last line is a crack up and something we too often forget.

  5. I love the 1956 movie Friendly Persuasion. The story focuses on a Quaker family, and the mum of the family, played by Dorothy McGuire, is the minister of the church. It’s not a deep movie, but the Christians are depicted as sincere, amiable, and relatable people.

  6. Not a film but you have the UK series REV about a London inner city Anglican minister, its a sort of comedy drama but it has profound moments and any pastor will have some knowing smiles at what happens

  7. Have you ever seen the movie Dead Man Walking? It’s been so many years since I’ve seen it but I remember being so struck by it that I couldn’t talk for hours afterwards. It’s about a nun depicted by Susan Sarandon trying to bring Christ’s love to an inmate on death row. Her faith was depicted as a beautiful part of who she was. Sean Penn is also dazzling in it.

  8. Have you seen the film Bad Lieutenant (1992)? It is very unique among portrayals of Christianity in American films, and in my opinion truly captures the Christian spirit. Very powerful. I’d like to know what you think of it.

    Also, what are your thoughts on the spiritual themes in Blade Runner (1982?)

  9. The BBC series “Rev”, has for my money one of the best portrayals of a parish priest engaged in parish ministry. Very funny, deeply moving and mostly spot on.

  10. Thank you for posting this thought-provoking list. Another suggestion: I have appreciated the nuance and ultimate goodwill in the depiction of the parish priest in Grantchester.

  11. “Babette’s Feast” is a favourite of mine – a beautiful portrayal of grace in action.

  12. Not a movie, but Call the Midwife. Those nuns and their tireless work to stand by the mothers and babies of East London helped revive my own flagging faith. They have their bias (the introduction of easier access to birth control episode was an interesting one) and yet at times their compassion and understanding towards their patients’ circumstances outweighs that of their secular employed midwives. All the while they maintain the rituals of religious life in the background of their midwifery and nursing duties. A beautiful and sensitive depiction of women who have chosen a life of faith.

  13. Thanks for the list. I’ve not seen most of these and will be looking for them. I’m curious about your thoughts on “A River Runs through It” and the portrayal of the father and his sons. The father being the local pastor raising his two sons in Montana and how they each respond to life through their worldviews.
    Sister Falconer in Elmer Gantry reminds me of the Aimee Semple MacPhearson story.

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