Many readers will be aware of my Christian views, so I thought I’d offer a brief analysis of what I consider to be the most thought provoking films of the past few years from a Christian perspective. These are not “Christian” films per se, in the sense that they are not propaganda pieces (there are plenty of ghastly examples of the latter out there, which I emphatically don’t recommend). Rather, these are major, mostly mainstream releases; mostly if not entirely made by non-believers, who intentionally or not have grappled with and expounded on Christian themes in profound and interesting ways, across a variety of genres.
(WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD)
“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
Overview: The first film in Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary Batman trilogy features Christian Bale as the eponymous Dark Knight.
Theme: Faith without works is dead.
Key Sequence: Bruce Wayne tells Rachel that his playboy existence isn’t who he really is inside. She then challenges Bruce that it isn’t who he is inside, but what he does that defines him. Later in the film, Batman repeats this line back to Rachel, thus identifying himself to tremendous dramatic effect, and underscoring the faith without works is dead theme.
“I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”
Overview: Brendan Gleeson plays a Catholic priest who is told by a parishioner that he will die in three days for sexual abuse suffered as a child at the hands of another now deceased priest.
Theme: Faith and forgiveness.
Key Sequence: The ending, wherein Gleeson’s absolute belief in forgiveness results in him willingly laying down his life.
“The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”
Overview: Catholic paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren investigate their most notorious case in James Wan’s derivative but thrillingly scary horror pic, supposedly based on a true story.
Theme: Spiritual Warfare.
Key Sequence: During the full-on third act exorcism, the power of Jesus Christ drives out evil, albeit amid dollops of dodgy theology that will upset those Christians who bizarrely mistake films for sermons.
Of Gods and Men
“Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion.”
Overview: The true story of French Algerian monks who decided to remain in their monastery and keep helping the local community, despite threats from an increasingly dangerous Islamic militia.
Theme: Faith in the Face of Persecution.
Key Sequence: The wordless “last supper”, as the monks listen to Swan Lake whilst they eat. An almost unbearably moving depiction of Christians united in their belief to remain true to their calling, in the face of certain death.
The Book of Eli
“It’s a weapon… aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them… All we need is that book.”
Overview: A violent post-apocalypse action thriller from the Hughes Brothers, starring Denzel Washington, about a man determined to protect a mysterious and powerful book from falling into the wrong hands.
Theme: The Power of the Word
Key Sequence: Action affictionados will love the single-take gunfight, but from a Christian perspective the most important element in this film isn’t so much a single sequence but the villain’s desire to obtain the mysterious “book”, because he knows it has power, and that he can twist that power to his own ends. The Book of Eli isn’t just concerned with the power of the Bible, but how the Bible has been misused. It’s worth adding that as I left the cinema, I overheard lots of people saying how that film had made them want to read the Bible.
“Everything in this life has to be paid for. Only the grace of God is free.”
Overview: The Coen Brothers adapt Charles Pontis’ classic western novel and manage to make a better film than the original 1969 John Wayne version, mainly because they retain the overtly Christian elements stripped out of the earlier film.
Theme: The Price of Vengeance.
Key Sequence: In the opening moments, Mattie says the line quoted above. She proves those words when she tracks down her father’s killers and exacts revenge. The consequences of her actions are immediate and permanent, as made clear by the final part of the movie.
The Lives of Others
“To think that people like you ruled a country.”
Overview: Technically, this film doesn’t contain any direct Christian references, but I can’t think of a more powerful and haunting redemption story in recent cinema history. In 1984 East Berlin, a cold-hearted, desperately lonely secret policeman named Wiesler rediscovers his humanity when asked to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman.
Key sequence: The deeply moving final act, when Dreyman discovers, years later, how Wiesler protected him. He approaches Wiesler to thank him, then halts whilst still a fair distance away, realising how hollow his thanks would be. Instead he writes a book, and dedicates it to him, which Wiesler discovers in the final scene.
“Whether you’re at the highest or most modest level, you must show great strength and determination and do everything with love and a deep belief in God.”
Overview: A truly extraordinary documentary about the life of Formula 1 racing legend Ayrton Senna, who had a troubled but remarkable faith in God.
Theme: Honouring God with the gifts he has given to you.
Key Sequence: Throughout the film, Senna consistently gives glory to God for his achievements. However, the way in which God apparently spoke to him through the Bible, hinting at his impending demise, is as eerie as it is faith-affirming.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
“I know I’m asking a lot. But the price of freedom is high. It always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, then so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.”
Overview: Captain America fights a Hydra conspiracy to bring about a New World Order where people are deceived into accepting a brutal dictatorship because they feel afraid. Substitute the word “Hydra” for “Antichrist” and the film suddenly becomes very “End Times”.
Theme: Standing for truth and freedom in the End Times.
Key Sequence: Captain America’s speech quoted above leads to a stunning moment with the bravest character in the film – not Captain America, but a technician who refuses an immoral order, even though he knows he will be shot. Such bravery in the face of evil has provoked many a conversation with my children.
“I forgive you because I don’t want to remain angry.”
“I think if Jesus was here right now he’d tip you out of that fucking wheelchair – and you wouldn’t get up and walk.”
Overview: Judi Dench and Steve Coogan give remarkable performances in this hugely powerful true story of a journalist helping an Irish woman track down her lost son decades after he was taken from her by the Catholic church (via the notorious Magdalene laundries).
Theme: Supernatural forgiveness.
Key Sequence: The finale, in which Philomena (Dench) forgives the utterly unrepentant nun responsible for the trauma, abuse and subsequent subterfuge that kept her apart from her now dead son. Such forgiveness feels impossible, and I imagine most viewers will instead identify with Coogan’s righteous fury. Hence the two quotes above instead of one.
The Tree of Life
“Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good when you aren’t?”
Overview: Terence Malick’s love-it-or-hate-it masterpiece is a stunningly beautiful, profound, poetic piece of pure cinema. Essentially it deals with a son looking back on his troubled relationship with his father in fragmented, dreamlike flashbacks, but most of the dialogue is streams of consciousness or prayer, concerning suffering and tragedy, most particularly with regard to a sibling who died. Throw in an incredibly audacious flashback to the creation of the Universe, dreams, visions and a metaphysical journey into the afterlife, and you have a genuinely singular movie modelled loosely on the book of Job.
Theme: Coming to terms with grief and suffering.
Key Sequence: Here I must confess that I love The Tree of Life for many, many deeply personal reasons. I could list many sequences here, but I’ll pick the “heaven” moment near the end of the film, where Sean Penn’s character falls to his knees on the beach and is reunited with his entire family in paradise. Is Malick overreaching? Perhaps. But I defy anyone who has experienced grief not to find the scene powerfully moving and immensely cathartic.
I’ll end with one more quote from this remarkable film:
“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”