Remember that line in Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi, when the protagonist tells his visitor, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” Can stories really do that? And if they can, shouldn’t film have even more chance to convey belief in God, given the visceral impact they can have?
So, which films would you recommend as those most likely to make someone believe in God?
My mind went immediately to films about people struggling with their faith, like Black Narcissus (1947) or Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), all masterpieces of religious-themed cinema. But in each of these cases, the viewer is invited to observe the characters’ tenuous hold on faith. Would they make someone believe in God?
Any film that could evoke a sense of God’s presence would have to be extremely challenging one, the kind of visual experience that demands much of the viewer. I mean, God is worthy of our undivided attention, right? We’re not talking about Bruce Almighty (2003) or The Shack (2011) here.
So, here are three admittedly extremely challenging films that I think could at least help you believe in God.
TREE OF LIFE (2011)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick, Tree of Life is a film like no other. It opens with a quotation from Job 38:4, 7: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
In this passage Yahweh condemns Job for daring to question him and fires off a barrage of unanswerable questions for the feeble Job to ponder. That’s pretty much what we get for the more than two hours this film lasts – questions from God. How can we explain the power of the sun, the relentless of the rolling surf, the fury of the volcano, the vastness of the solar system, the majesty of the deepest ocean?
And in the middle of all this, how can we explain the way nature and grace wrestle within each human heart?
Tree of Life includes all the hallmarks of the Malick oeuvre – multiple voiceovers full of existential questioning; sweeping shots of nature (especially his much-loved fields of tall grass); stunning use of light and shadows; and a glacially slow meandering narrative. But it’s what else Tree of Life includes that is so striking, taking this film to a whole new and astonishing level: scenes from outer space, the dawn of time, and dream sequences that appear to be set in heaven.
Malick has filmed extraordinary patterns in nature and architecture as well as scenes of unspeakable physical beauty to depict the omnipresent way of grace. But he has also included images of devastating volcanoes, crashing meteors, and unpredictable sun flares. Nature and grace are everywhere, even in creation itself.
Grand, ostentatious, and breathtaking, Tree of Life is a staggering meditation on the meaning of life, the presence of God, the character of human nature, and the perpetual longing for grace.
INTO GREAT SILENCE (2005)
With no artificial lighting or film crew, German filmmaker Philip Gröning spent six months with the Carthusian order at their monastery nestled deep in the stunning French Alps. He filmed their daily prayers, their menial tasks, their ancient rituals and their occasional outdoor excursions. The result – Into Great Silence – isn’t so much a documentary as it is a transcendent experience. The viewer enters the monastery as Gröning dissolves the border between screen and audience with a total immersion into the hush of monastic life.
Internet Monk website said, “Into Great Silence is not a film one watches, it is an experience into which one enters. It is an immersion in the contemplative life.”
And reviewer Philip French wrote, “The movie captures the feeling of silence, of timelessness, of contemplation, of spiritual discipline, of communion with God and the rejection of the material world.”
Not everyone will enjoy a 164-minute meditation on the lives of men who have taken vows of poverty, prayer and solitude. But if you let it work its power on you, you might just meet God.
ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)
Full disclosure: Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece is 205 minutes long (in its fullest version), it’s in Russian, and filmed in black and white. It’s a challenging film. But like both our previous films, the plot of Andrei Rublev doesn’t to be understood or interpreted, just experienced.
Unlike Into Great Silence where nothing much happens, Tarkovsky’s film is teeming with life and action. There are violent Tartar raids, bizarre pagan rituals, and plenty of human suffering. And horses. Lots of horses. Gamboling in fields, charging into battle, swimming in a river, tumbling down stairs, dragging men out of churches. Tarkovsky loved horses.
Film critic Steve Rose writes, “At times the screen resembles a vast Brueghel painting come to life, or a medieval tapestry unrolling. We experience life on every scale, from raindrops falling on a river to armies ransacking a town, often within the same, unbroken shot. Acts of creation are mirrored by acts of destruction, there are themes of flight, of vision, of presence and absence; the more you look, the more you see.”
Andrei Rublev was a 15th century icon painter. He’s a Russian national hero and his icons are world famous, especially his work Trinity (also called The Hospitality of Abraham).
Even though we never see him actually painting in this film, his icons make a powerful and literally breathtaking appearance in the final act. After all the sound of fury of Andrei Rublev, when we are feeling overwhelmed and confused by what we’ve witnessed, the screen suddenly bursts into colour and we’re shown Rublev’s paintings in extreme close-up, the camera lingering over the details of his paintings.
The sheer beauty might reduce you to tears (it did me) because you know what misery Rublev endured and yet what transcendence he was capable of depicting. The triune God is very present, and compared to the darkness of this world, utterly sublime.
All three of these films are visually gorgeous, intellectually intriguing, and emotionally unsettling. They are spellbinding, but only if you’re willing to allow their spell to work. Take the time to sit still and enter into the astonishing experience each of these filmmakers is inviting you to have.
And remember, as Read Mercer Schuchardt says,
“Like religion, a good movie really does answer the only three questions worth asking in life – who you are, where you come from, and what you should do.”
[Cover photo: A still from Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 film about missionaries in the Himalayas, Black Narcissus]