The Top 10 Religiously Themed Films of the Decade
Taking a cue from Eric Repphun's pick list of religiously themed movies for 2000-2009, I offer my own. Though I like many of Eric's choices, only three of them make my cut, and I'm afraid his baddy (Gibson's passion film) also finds a home on it. Unlike Eric, I rate them in order, descending, with the best at the top.
1. The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson (2001, 2002, 2003). The best story ever told was stunningly realized on screen at the dawn of a new century, its pre-Christian landscape delivered intact. As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien viewed the history of Middle-Earth as a "long defeat", containing glimpses of final victory but never more, which is why a pagan hero like Frodo Baggins has to be a foreordained failure. He's ultimately unable to resist and destroy the Ring (claiming it for his own), and his quest to Mount Doom was hopeless from the start. The cause, not the hero, is triumphant only because of what Tolkien called the "euchatastrophe", or the unexpected intervention of fate made possible by the mercy shown Gollum. Jackson and his co-writers did a fairly good job (though not entirely) of representing themes of hopeless courage and pagan doom from Tolkien's classic. It's lost on many people that hopeless heroes suggest a nobility of character unparalleled in the Judeo-Christian tradition, precisely because they believe evil can be resisted but not overcome, and that it should be resisted for no other reason than because it's the right thing to do.
2. Palindromes, Todd Solondz (2005). Loved or despised among critics, this satire on abortion sets out to offend everyone. A thirteen-year old girl is forced to have an abortion by her mother, then runs away to join a fundamentalist family whose patriarch kills abortion doctors. It's open season on the pro-life and pro-choice crowds equally, suggesting both sides wind up at square one, mired in hypocrisy and contradictions. (A palindrome is a word reading the same backward as forward; hence the title, and hence the name of the girl, Aviva.) The film ingeniously draws on the book of Ecclesiastes (my favorite book of the bible along with Romans), as I discussed in my review. I'm as pro-choice as Solondz, and appreciate his willingness to portray the liberal mother in a slightly more negative light than Jesus-freak Mama Sunshine, so as not to let us off the hook easily.
3. The Road, John Hillcoat (2009). In theaters right now, this is the best post-apocalyptic film ever -- bleak in the way that only Cormac McCarthy novel adaptations are -- in which marauding cannibals overshadow lone protagonists and nothing promises to get better. Viggo Mortenson plays a father who will do anything to save his son, even shoot him as a last resort to spare the kid rape at the hands of the baddies. Ironically, it is this child who has been construed by some critics as an implied messianic figure who, unlike his father willing to sink to any depths necessary, "carries the fire" of goodness to the end. Even if the ending panders too much to those preferring tidy resolutions, it plays authentic, after the death of the father and so much despair.
4. Martyrs, Pascal Laugier (2008). A thoroughly demented horror film about a woman who takes vengeance on people who tortured her when she was a child, while her best friend gets abducted by the same atheist cult. This woman is then also tortured in preparation for her "transfiguration", a visit to the great beyond by becoming one with pain. Inevitably, some critics have panned this movie as torture porn, but unwisely. Torture porn (like Eli Roth's Hostel) encourages viewers to want more and to act as voyeurs without feeling much empathy for the victims. The torture in Martyrs isn't remotely titillating, and Laugier's purpose is to put us through a horrendously emotional ordeal and share in the victims' hopes (however futile) for mental and physical liberty. The premise behind what drives the cult is terribly fascinating, as is the idea that only women are receptive to transfiguration.
5. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley (2008). Based on the Broadway play by the same name, about a liberal priest in the '60s who is accused of having an erotic interest in one of his altar boys. The film tells its parable of doubt with flawless craft and intelligence, as two nuns suspect the priest, one becoming convinced of his innocence, the other remaining obsessively certain otherwise. Viewers aren't sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest is a sympathetic character. The theme of doubt works on multiple levels, not least because the drama takes place during Vatican II, when doubt was one of the few common denominators between new- and old-school Catholics. Reviewed here.
6. The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan (2008). I really can't put it better than Repphun for this one: "When the butler Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, Batman's playboy alter-ego, that some men –- the Joker in this case –- just want to watch the world burn, he nails the character of religiously-motivated violence in the contemporary world, which is more performative and symbolic than strategic or tactical. In the final analysis, this is a startling depiction of the deep irrationalities and the dark magics that underlie the surface of the rationalised modern world. It is also a striking visualisation of the things that modern societies must do to combat these forces." As when Lucius Fox reluctantly agrees to invade every citizen's privacy to locate the Joker (shades of the Patriot Act), and then resign from serving Batman out of disgust. Reviewed here.
7. Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2006). This underrated film uses the Tower of Babel narrative in Gen 11:1-9 as an allegory of failed communication. In three stories obliquely interconnected, people become isolated on account of misunderstandings and prejudice. No one is a hero or villain, because everyone behaves understandably, yet no one understands. We see cultures collide in the contexts of America, Mexico, Morocco, and Japan, and the plots become admittedly a bit contrived to make the big picture work. But it's inevitable in a film like this, and it doesn't feel manipulative. The film gets better with subsequent viewings and represents the most creative working of the Tower of Babel account into a piece of literature or film, aside perhaps from the well-known scene in C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength.
8. There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson (2007). About a ruthless oil man at the turn of the 20th century, who gets tangled up in the town-politics of a fundamentalist church. The narrative and moral scope of this film is amazing, dealing with the power of charisma, hypocrisy, exploitation (of land and children), and inevitable alienation from society. Repphun describes it as an "intertwining of the religious and the economic that can be read as a condemnation of the Prosperity Gospel movement or as a critique of violence perpetrated in the name of profit that is given a slickly religious gloss." That's about right. So is this Scarface religionized?
9. The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson (2004). Unlike Repphun, I say Gibson's film is an important achievement which doesn't depend on endorsing a medieval mindset or even a Christian one. It takes us into the eye of a paradox where retributive justice and mercy become one, which isn't so different from Homer's Iliad when you get down to it. It's no more anti-Semitic than most passion dramas (and in some ways less so than the gospels of Matthew and John) and it can't be classified as torture-porn any more than Martyrs (#4) for the same reason (though for a hilarious argument to the contrary, don't miss this review). It's more mythological than historical, naturally, because it's Catherine Emmerich's vision. (The fact that Gibson can't distinguish myth from history is his problem, not the film's.) For better or worse, this myth is a heavy part of our Western heritage, and it's powerfully realized here. I'm probably even less religious than a critic like Roger Ebert, but like him, I can respond positively to orthodox beliefs.
10. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron (2006). Another post-apocalyptic film like The Road, portraying a bleak future in which humanity has lost the ability to reproduce, immigration is criminal, terrorism runs rampant, and law officials treat people like beasts. A pregnant woman suddenly offers hope for humanity, but it's not terribly clear why, anymore than how women lost their fertility to begin with. Cuaron's dislike for back-story and clear exposition seems to have led him to use the concept of infertility as a vague metaphor for the fading of human hope; yet the film ends on a note that plays into one's predispositions, so that optimists will sense at least some hope for humanity, others not so much. Whether this means the film is unsure of its vision or profoundly polysemous, I'm not sure, but there's no denying its mythic power.