Christian imagery and themes have been prevalent in movie making ever since the Lumiere Brothers filmed “Priest Running Straight At A Camera” in 1897. The Biblical epic is firmly established as a genre but Christian theology makes its way into movies from The Matrix to Bad Lieutenant via The Mission. And then there’s Bruce and Evan Almighty. So no matter what your own faith or non-faith system is, chances are you have noticed Judeo-Christian subtexts in some of your favourite movies. Then I got to thinking which were my favourite movies that deal with aspects of Christianity…not necessarily out and out Christian movies, because 3 of my top 5 movies with a Christian theme were made by atheists, but ones where they play a large part. So, here are my top 5:
The Peter Cook & Dudley Moore version (how I hate having to qualify it like that. Damn you, Liz Hurley). For my money Cook’s performance is cinema’s definitive Satan. Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins missed the mark: The Devil doesn’t radiate sinister evil, he’d be easy to spot and avoid if he did. Cook’s Satan comes across as your new best friend, the only guy who really gets who you are and what you want. He convinces you that life is just plain unfair but with his help you’ll get everything you desire. And he’s fun, smart, with-it and full of throwaway wit. This Satan charms your socks off and it’s only later when Moore realises he’s been conned and that the Devil exploits him and the loopholes in his wishes in order to make him more dependent on him. Through some very funny vignettes we get some really well thought out comments about the Devil, God, theology and morality. In one scene the Devil sends a swarm of wasps to harass a bunch of hippies who are enjoying a peaceful picnic. Moore asks the Devil to stop the wasp attack and the Devil replies that maybe Moore should give up one of his 7 wishes to make it stop. Moore refuses; his greed overtakes his compassion. Eventually we realise the Devil is actually pathetic and small-fry compared with God: St Peter doesn’t recognise him when he shows up at the Pearly Gates and in the Devil’s own words “God’s omnipresent, I’m just highly manoeuvrable”. Cook’s Satan comes across as a rebellious child, eager to get back into God’s good books by winning a bet but failing to understand that God knows more about the rules of the bet than he does. But he’s also got some genuine compassion; after all he is a fallen angel. I’ll leave the last word to Dudley Moore: “I know God is real. How? Because I’ve met the Devil”.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
I remember, many years ago, being invited to an event to coincide with the re-release of The Exorcist and there were ministers, film makers and members of the moral brigade all debating whether the movie was deeply immoral or not and should be considered a nasty. I made the point that evening that I considered it to be a very Christian movie, despite the swearing, sexual imagery, violence and horror being depicted on screen. It’s not fluffy faith in the mould of “Highway to Heaven” or “The Bells of St Mary’s”, this is a movie about priests in the extreme combat zone of spiritual warfare but make no mistake, the God botherers are the heroes of the movie. It centres around a modern, secular family: A single mother who’s an actress and her daughter, in Washington DC, the capital of the most advanced country in the world. When the daughter is demonically possessed, you get a team of priests on the case. Now Max von Sydow’s exorcist is an interesting character but it’s Father Karras who serves as the focal point of the fight-back. He’s on the verge of losing his faith early on in the movie but he then sees that all his years of training, service and faith is leading up to his defining moment. His response is straight out of Jesus’ play book.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW (1964)
Peter Cook was an atheist. William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, is an atheist (although the writer, William Peter Blatty is a Christian) but for the most unlikely film maker to make a Gospel movie it has to be Pier Paolo Pasolini: A communist, atheist, homosexual. Yet he has delivered perhaps the best movie about the life of Jesus Christ ever made. This movie is a straight retelling of Matthew’s Gospel with no bits added or taken out. There’s not even any disclaimers on the part of Pasolini; he said of this movie “it’s a film made by a non-believer through the eyes of a believer”. The cast are mostly non-actors who all deliver excellent performances, particularly the lead who was a student when he was cast as Jesus. Pasolini finds much to admire in Jesus from the compassion, the anger at a greedy, exploitative establishment, the radical idea to change the world and save humanity from its greed and selfishness and the redemption of people society has deemed irredeemable. His Jesus isn’t wishy washy, or blue eyed, or floating on a cloud. He’s a guy people can get with.
The writer, Alex Garland, wanted Sunshine to be a movie about atheism. Danny Boyle, the director, saw it differently. The two clashed. In the end, you have a movie that can be read both ways. The first time I watched it, I saw the Christian subtext so that’s why it’s on my list. So, what makes it a Christian allegory? Well, it shares some aspects with John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. The crew of the Icarus II are on a long journey to save the Sun (Sun/Son..get it?). Not everyone has the faith or belief to make it all the way (that is, faith in the mission). The two main characters are Capa, a thoughtful, cerebral character who is akin to St Paul and Mace, a taciturn, no-nonsense engineer who is the St Peter equivalent. The two personalities of the men clash at various stages, like Peter and Paul do in the Acts of the Apostles, but both remain utterly committed to the mission. Then you have Pinbacker, the insane commander of the previous mission, who has embraced a heresy and has murdered his own crew and is prepared to murder the others to further his belief. Now Garland had Pinbacker as the religious character endangering the rationalists on Icarus II but there’s very little rationality on show in Capa, who has a metaphysical way of looking at the universe and takes the “leap of faith” at the movie’s climax after one of the other characters sacrifices themselves so that the world might live. Is it a Christian movie or an Atheist one? In the end, that’s up to you.
THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)
You may not know this movie at all. Not many people do. It’s the true sequel to The Exorcist (and not Exorcist II, The Heretic) but shares precious little with the earlier movie other than writer/director William Peter Blatty and one character: A minor one in The Exorcist called Billy Cutshaw. He is an astronaut who is present at a party and who is told by the demonically possessed Regan that he will die on his next mission. The Ninth Configuration begins with the aftermath of that prediction by Cutshaw having a nervous breakdown during the countdown and having to be committed to a military mental asylum. What follows is a movie that is part One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, part M*A*SH and part The Mission. Whacky humour and crazy characters are interspersed with a creeping terror about the true nature of the asylum’s new chief psychiatrist and wonderfully written and performed scenes about religion and atheism between Cutshaw and Kane, the psychiatrist. It’s a movie that rewards repeat viewing and there really isn’t a movie quite like it. If it does have one iconic scene (apart from a truly vicious bar fight), then it would be the image of an astronaut on the Moon planting the stars and stripes flag and turning around to see the crucifixion. It’s that kind of a movie.