Throughout the history of cinema, there have been a number of excellent films that offer insight into the many religions of the world.
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 Commandments, Ben 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
6. The Mission
The Mission, 1986, directed by Roland Joffé, explores the perennial theme of tolerance and intolerance of one religion for a another.
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.
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.