Having found much that was good in mainstream cinema last week, we turn our attention now to films which not only contain fine moral messages, but also display openly religious themes.
When it comes to religious cinema, we ought to seek out and support those efforts which excel both in spiritual and artistic quality. These are the films which have power to bring souls to the Savior, because their testimony combines with emotional authenticity. This authenticity allows the audiences to see the real-world applications of faith . Solid writing, directing, and acting enable audiences to relate to the person onscreen; the effects of true principles on such a character resonate far more with viewers than do the effects of the same principles on a one-dimensional caricature. Furthermore, beautiful cinematography, inspiring music, and thoughtful editing all combine to create an experience that stirs the soul. This is not audience manipulation, but rather the efforts of artists whose reverence for the material inspires them to give their very best.
Learning from the Faith of Others
Though Latter-Day Saints have been blessed with the gospel in its fullness, there is much that we can gain from the values and experiences of people of other faiths. President Gordon B. Hinckley encouraged Church members to not only be tolerant of other’s beliefs, but to see the beauty in them:
“Look for their strengths and virtues, and you will find strength and virtues that will be helpful to you in your own life .” ( Go Forward With Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley. P. 576.)
All people are children of God, and members of the Church are not the only ones with access to divine influence. Handell was not a Latter-Day Saint, yet the Messiah certainly was an inspired work. C.S. Lewis was not a member of the Church, yet he wrote marvelous insights that our General Authorities refer to often. Shakespeare’s prose, Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Mother Teresa’s words.time and time again men and women, from many places and of many faiths, have expressed the divine in them.
It is not surprising, therefore, that this heavenly spark should carry over into the artistry of filmmakers. Next week we’ll focus on Mormon Cinema; today, however, we turn our attention to other fine examples of religious moviemaking. The following films are not made by or about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but they certainly contain strengths and virtues that will be helpful to church members.
Religion at the Movies
Amazing Grace (2006)- Gorgeously-shot and lavishly produced true story about William Wilberforce, a statesman and man of faith, who led the abolitionist movement in 1700’s England . Wilberforce was inspired by his friend John Newton, a former slave-owner turned priest who wrote the titular hymn. Features fine performances by an excellent cast, including Ioan Gruffudd ( Horatio Hornblower,Titanic ), Albert Finney ( Big Fish, The Bourne Ultimatum ), Michael Gambon (The Harry Potter series), Romola Garai ( Nicholas Nickleby ) and Rufus Sewell ( The Illusionist ). Has excellent messages about glorifying God in our daily work, racial equality, and fighting for freedom.
Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959)- Best Picture-winning classic is a masterpiece of epic and spiritual filmmaking. Charlton Heston stars as Jewish nobleman Ben Hur, whose character and quest for vengeance are slowly reformed as he periodically crosses paths with the Son of God. The chariot race remains one of the most impressive action scenes ever shot, but it is the faithful story and lovely music that stir the soul here.
Chariots of Fire (1981)- Another Best Picture winner, this terrific film tells the tale of two Olympic runners, one Jewish, the other Christian, whose beliefs play a profound part in both their struggles and their triumphs. Highlighted by one of the greatest musical scores in the history of film, and solid performances by Ian Charleson ( Ghandi ), Ben Cross ( First Knight ), and Ian Holm ( The Lord of the Rings ), Chariots of Fire also contains sound messages about being true to one’s beliefs, magnifying our talents to glorify God, and honoring the Sabbath day.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) and Prince Caspian (2008)- Faithful, big-budget Disney adaptations of the classic C.S. Lewis family novels, the Narnia films are rich with Christian allegory. The Atonement, the Resurrection, the Battle of Armageddon, faith, obedience, repentance.all are dealt with in a manner that is both easily understood by children and profoundly moving for adults. Imaginative storytelling and great special effects are among the highlights. Parents should note that while both films are rated PG, the second may be too intense for small children.
End of the Spear (2005) – While waiting in a line at Disneyland , I had a chat with a very bright Christian woman who recommended this film to me (“I cried and cried” she said). I’m glad she did, because this is one of the most moving and uplifting films I’ve seen in a long time. End of the Spear tells the true story of a group of 1950’s Christian missionaries who travel to Ecuador to preach the gospel to warring native tribes. The natives’ continual bloodshed has placed them on the verge of extinction; I won’t tell you any more details, as to not spoil the surprises (for the same reason, I discourage you from reading the spoiler-filled DVD back cover). The movie boasts gorgeous cinematography, lovely music, great acting, a balanced view of the two cultures, and an unabashedly Christian message emphasizing the virtues of peace and forgiveness. Note: this film is rated PG-13 for tribal warfare and may be too intense for children.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)- Five-star musical is one of my all-time favorite movies, and an Academy Award-winner for Best Music (as well as a nominee for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director). Tells the story of a Russian Jewish family whose small-town traditions are challenged by changing times and views. Fiddler on the Roof captures the beauty of Jewish beliefs and culture, and Latter-Day Saints (whose own theology is grounded in Israel ) will find much to strengthen their faith here. Fantastic music, dancing, and performances (especially by Topol), the film strikes a terrific balance between drama, romance, and comedy.
Gandhi (1982)- It has been said that the most Christ-like man of the 20 th century wasn’t even a Christian. While some may debate the statement, none can argue that Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t an inspired leader and one of the great figures of world history. Winner of 8 Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director), this masterpiece is a thoroughly entertaining, emotionally-gripping, and thought-provoking overview of the life of a man who used nonviolent resistance, self-sacrifice, and genuine love to move nations, promote peace, and better the lives of millions. Sir Ben Kingsley’s performance as the titular character is nothing short of a breathtaking transformation. Gandhi embraced many Christian virtues and values, and his example has led individuals of many faiths to draw closer to God by living decent lives and loving as He would have us do.
The film includes thoughtful treatments of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977)- The quintessential film about the life of the Savior, this six-hour miniseries has terrific acting and attention to both historical detail and the biblical text. While Latter-Day Saints may disagree with certain elements (the baptism shown is not by immersion, John the Baptist is a bit more wild than we tend to imagine him, etc.), as a whole, there has never been a film that has more thoroughly or impressively told the story of our Savior’s life. A reverent tone permeates the film, and Robert Powell makes a fantastic Christ. It is a treat to experience and contemplate the miracles and teachings of the Lord as portrayed here. Note: this film is not rated, but the scourging and crucifixion are intense enough to likely warrant a PG-13 rating.
Love Comes Softly (2003) – Surprisingly solid Hallmark TV movie finds Katherine Heigl ( 27 Dresses ) as a widow who agrees to a marriage of convenience, only to find herself learning to love her husband and his children. This chaste romance is well-acted and well-shot, with positive Christian overtones.
Luther (2003)- Terrific portrayal of the life and mission of Martin Luther, with fine acting by Joseph Fiennes ( Shakespeare in Love ), Peter Ustinov ( Jesus of Nazareth , Disney’s Robin Hood ), and Alfred Molina ( Spiderman 2 ). This film clearly demonstrates the church corruption resulting from the Great Apostasy, as well as the inspired Reformation that ultimately paved the way for the Restoration. Luther worked and sacrificed much in his attempts to align the Christianity of the time with that found in the Bible, and the depiction of his faith here is nothing short of inspiring.
The Nativity Story (2006)- Don’t. Miss. It. This overlooked gem has it all: gorgeous visuals, wonderful acting, powerful music, and stellar direction. What’s more, it’s faithful to the biblical account while fleshing out the story with rich historical detail and thoughtful explorations of the challenges faced by Joseph and Mary. For example, how would Nazareth have reacted to an unwed pregnant woman claiming to carry the son of God. What challenges does traveling the 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem pose, especially on foot and mule, with a pregnant wife? Most importantly, how do mortal parents prepare to raise the Messiah and Son of God? Absolutely mesmerizing, with one of the most exemplary husbands and one of the most faithful women in the history of film. Engaging from start to finish, this is one to put on your “must-view” list this Christmas season.
One Night With the King (2006)- Lavish, gorgeously-produced version of the Old Testament story of Esther, this multimillion-dollar production has the feel of the classic Hollywood religious epics. This is both a storybook romance and a powerful tale of faith in God. Tiffany Dupont (Lydia in the first Work and the Glory film) does excellent work as Esther, holding her own against acting giants Peter O’Toole ( Lawrence of Arabia ), Omar Shariff ( Dr. Zhivago ), and John-Rhys Davies ( Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings ). The sets are enormous, the wardrobe stunning, the script expands on but is faithful to the Biblical text, and the acting is solid. While the film drags ever so slightly in the middle, the powerhouse third act, with Esther putting her life in the Lord’s hands as she risks it all to save Israel , hits all the right emotional cords. A faithful treatment of one of history’s great women of God.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)- While it takes some narrative liberties, this Oscar-winning adaption of the Exodus story carries with it a spirit of glory, rejoicing, and reverence that is undeniably true to the source material. Don’t let the fact that it’s animated deter you; this is an ambitious work of art on an epic scale, with a $70 million budget (it grossed some $200 million worldwide), designed to inspire young and old alike. Absolutely stunning visuals and some of the best film music I’ve ever heard (“When You Believe” won an Academy Award for Best Original Song), in addition to terrific vocal work by Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfiefer, Danny Glover, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Ralph Fiennes, and Patrick Stewart.
Shadowlands (1993)- Effective tear-jerker about C.S. Lewis and the love of his life, played to perfection by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, respectively. Positively portrays Lewis’ Christian faith, and has terrific messages about love, marriage, loss, and belief. Hopkins is terrific, as always, and Winger will knock your socks off with a performance that earned her a Best Actress nomination. Wholesome and uplifting.
The Ten Commandments (1956)- Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, this Cecille B. Demille masterpiece finds Charlton Heston as the quintessential screen Moses, Yul Brynner as the imposing Pharoah, and a cast of thousands of extras bringing the Exodus story to life. Impressive sets, a reverent tone, and legendary filmmaking make this classic worth multiple viewings.
The Ultimate Gift (2006) – Tries, for the most part successfully, to be many things at once: Christian drama, romance, coming-of-age morality tale, and adventure. It nails the first three, and though the fourth feels a little forced, the final product is an involving, well-acted movie that is definitely worth your time. A vain young man is left an inheritance from a recently deceased rich relative (James Garner of Maverick, The Notebook, and The Rockford Files ), who requires him to perform a series of character-building tasks before he can acquire it. Funny and touching, with a great cast including Abigail Breslin ( Signs, No Reservations, Definitely Maybe ), and Brian Dennehy ( Tommy Boy, Return to Snowy River ).
Whale Rider (2002)- A fascinating look into the beliefs of a South Pacific tribe, Whale Rider is truly amazing. Keisha Castle-Hughes (later to star in The Nativity Story ) became the youngest woman to ever be nominated for Best Actress (she was 13) for her harrowing performance as a chief’s daughter who bucks against tradition in her attempts to claim her destiny. This is an insightful family and cultural drama.