8 Excellent Movies about Religion

Throughout the history of cinema, there have been a number of excellent films that offer insight into the many religions of the world.


Baraka, 1992, Ron Fricke

Aside from documentary films and ethnographic film on religion, the independent and mainstream cinema has known some very interesting movies through which we can get a glimpse of the religions that may be foreign to us.


Cinema and Religion

Films containing religious subject matter are not necessarily examples of film that tell you something of religious practice. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten CommandmentsBen Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told and the more recent Noah, are all examples of stories taken from the traditional narrative of a religion and depicted by artists; they are not necessarily examples of film that introduce you to religious practice, past or present.


The Ten Commandments, 1956, Cecile B. DeMille

Instead, these films are examples of passion plays, or are inspired by the current of traditional religious stories that pass through the center of any given culture.

The diverse reactions to Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of Christ, underlines a certain amount of religious controversy both within and outside of Christian circles. Films depicting traditional narratives tend to bring out sectarian differences, as different beliefs (within the same religion) clash with the story choices in the movie.


Jim Caviezel and director Mel Gibson on the set of The Passion of Christ, 2004

The Passion of Christ is a perfect offering to the long-standing tradition of the Catholic passion play, meant to bring the Christian texts to life and inspire faith.

Bertolucci’s Little Buddha intercuts a contemporary story with a cinematic depiction of the life of the Gautama Buddha. The film continues the tradition of depicting the life of the Buddha in art, and portrays the traditional narrative of the Buddhist teaching on the Gautama Buddha.


Little Buddha, 1993, Bernardo Bertolucci

But there are films which, intentionally or not, introduce us to religions that may be foreign to us, or teach us something we didn’t know about religion.

1. Kundun


Kundun, 1997, Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, 1997, brings to life much of the history and beliefs of the Dalai Lama, and depicts many of the customs and practices of the Tibetan Buddhist monks.


2. Baraka

The film Baraka directed by Ron Fricke, 1992, gives us a non-narrative, visual survey of Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and many indigenous religions of the world.


Baraka, 1992, Ron Fricke


3. Why Has The Bodhidharma Left For The East

The Korean film Why Has The Bodhidharma Left for the East created by Bae Yong-kyun, may be difficult to get your hands on, but can serve as an insightful and appropriately cryptic look at the fundamental concerns of Zen Buddhism.


Why Has The Bodhidharma Left for the East?, 1989, Bae Yong-kyun


4. The Burmese Harp

There is a classic Japanese post-war film The Burmese Harp directed by Kon Ichikawa in 1956, which deals with a more generalized spirit of Buddhism, and is a film that may introduce you to Japanese Buddhism in the modern age.


Biruma No Tatekoto, 1956, Kon Ichikawa


5. Andrei Rublev

One of my favorite films of all time comes from Andrei Tarkovsky. His, Andrei Rublev, 1966, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969 and released internationally in 1971. Although you could argue that all Tarkovsky films obsess over religious themes, Andrei Rublev thoughtfully introduces the viewer to the Orthodox Christianity of 15th century Russia, and portrays the ‘interior life’ of the Orthodox Christian.


Andrei Rublev, 1966, Andrei Tarkovsky


6. The Mission

The Mission, 1986, directed by Roland Joffé, explores the perennial theme of tolerance and intolerance of one religion for a another.


The Mission, 1986, Roland Joffé


7. Footnote

In more recent cinema, the film Footnote, 2011 by Joseph Cedar depicts a father and son who are both Talmudic scholars. This quiet film gives a glimpse into the world of the Hebrew scholar devoted to the understanding of the redaction of the Talmudic corpus.


Footnote, 2011, Joseph Cedar


8. Partition

Sikh, Muslim and Hindu relations are explored in the 2012 film, Partition, directed by Vic Sarin. The story is set in the 1947 partition of the Punjab.


Partition, 2007, directed by Vic Sarin





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September 5, 2014 · 3:05 PM

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