Three films that (might) make you believe in God

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]

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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11 thoughts on “Three films that (might) make you believe in God

  1. All fine movies. Ahem… sorry, films. My brother in law an intelligent atheist found tree of life to be pretentious. But I don’t mind pretends. Good craftsmanship conveying a pure idea from the heart will hold a mirror up to the viewer and create space for self reflection and the opportunity for God to be revealed. I think.

    I’d personally go for something a lot more mainstream.

    The exorcist – just try and tell me the average punter didn’t say a prayer before going to bed after watching it 😉

    The passion – sure, Mel Gibson’s torture porn was pretty hard to endure… but something about it is gripping enough to make us want to find out more. A friend of mine went high on lSD as a joke and spent the entire time weeping.

    Requiem for a dream… yeah, on the razors edge of addiction and repentence I saw this film and felt the Holy Spirit smack me in the face. A wake up call more powerful than any sermon I’d ever encountered. Walking out into the warm evening I could feel his grace all over me.

    Good food for thought mike.

    1. Great suggestions. Not so sure about The Passion of the Christ, and I hadn’t considered The Exorcist. But Requiem for a Dream could definitely have that kind of effect. Thanks for your thoughts.

      1. Interesting… are the reservations on the Passion be theoglogical / doctrinal or more about film criticism?

        1. The torture porn ( as you call it) was so over the top it had me questioning whether it was even historically accurate. Overall, it repelled me from sensing God’s presence. And I saw it with Brian Houston and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney!

          1. I am not a scholar of the bible or Roman torture techniques but I have heard teachings from pastors who were and of all the movies that depict Christ’s crucifixion, it seems that Mel’s rendition of the brutality Jesus willingly endured to purchase our salvation is realistic except for the loin cloth that he used to keep it socially acceptable. I agree that the movie wouldn’t necessarily make an atheist lean towards Christianity because they would view it simply as overdramatic violence but I think it does paint a powerful picture for those of us who do accept Jesus as our redeemer. Speaking only from my limited experience, I see apathy in some churches regarding His sacrifice. There is a weakening perspective being preached. I liken it to the diluted emotions today’s 30 and younger crowd may feel about the Vietnam war. It is historical fact but it stirs little emotion because they didn’t experience it. A Vietnam vet has a completely different view of that war, because they live with it everyday. We as Christians may be hearing and believing the historical facts of Jesus’s torture but we have a hard time connecting with it emotionally because we didn’t see it. Mel’s movie is definitely over the top if viewed against today’s social filters but we should feel shocked and appalled and grateful for what Jesus did for us. How many of us would willingly be beaten, scourged to the bone, ridiculed, tormented, nailed to a cross completely naked and humiliated and suffocate for their own family, let-alone all of humanity. Sorry if I veered off the main topic of this blog. I see many movies that lead me to think about God, not necessarily because the movie itself is focused on God, but because the movie’s message has love, faith, and overcoming difficult odds. I would have to discount The Exorcist though. Movies that propagate Satanism and demonic activity opens the door for demons to enter and influence the viewer. I don’t know what your thoughts are on spiritual warfare so I will limit my comments on this subject.

  2. Of Gods and Men, and The Mission would, for me, be obvious choices.

    1. Wouldn’t both those films lead an unbeliever to ask about the absence of God rather than sense God’s presence?

      1. Oh not at all. It was the very real presence of God that brought the men to make the supreme sacrifice for the people they served. We could arrive at the same conclusion if we looked at the 3 Hebrew children in the firey furnace of Daniel 3:16. They vowed to not bow there knees even if God didn’t save them. Such a commitment is evidence of something deep and abiding inside.

        1. I agree that Christians would see it that way. And I agree that an unbeliever could be moved and impressed by the monks’ sacrifice and devotion. But wouldn’t an unbeliever think that they were either abandoned by their God or that there is no God to save them? I’m not saying they’re not great films. I’m trying to imagine how someone without faith would interpret them.

  3. The Blind Side. The scene in the restaurant, where the mother tells off her “best friends” for giving her a hard time because she and her family have taken Michael into their home and are trating him like he is one of their own children, is such a profound example of truely following Jesus.

    1. Would an atheist see it that way, or would they just see it as the depiction of kindness?

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