Going Biblical: 6 Films to Watch on Easter
Filmmakers have been making movies based on Bible stories and about faith for about as long as the medium has existed. A tradition almost as long held is that of watching biblical films with friends and family on Easter. So we have assembled a list of six films (some expected, others less so) perfect for the occasion.
Noah (2014) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky had been fascinated by the story of Noah since he was given a writing assignment in the seventh grade, and had been trying to make a big screen version of it since he burst onto the scene with his feature debut Pi. 16 years later he made that idea a reality with 2014’s Noah. Aronofky refers to the film as the “least biblical biblical film ever made”, and while that’s not far from the truth the subversive nature of the film only enhances and enriches the power of the story. This version of Noah (played by Russell Crowe at his best) is a deeply flawed human, and is in many ways the villain of the piece as his blind dogmatic faith drives him to attack his family. Aroknofsky took the story and molded it into a relevant allegory for climate change and toxic masculinity - themes he explored again in 2017’s mother!. Aronofsky is known for his ambition and his visual flourishes, and on a pure technical level Noah might be his most ambitious to date. There also fallen angels who appear as rock monsters. Noah is surely a biblical film that will withstand the test of time.
- Sam Van Haren
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) dir. Martin Scorsese
In 1988 Martin Scorsese upset a lot of people with The Last Temptation of Christ, his look at the final days of Jesus. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis with a screenplay by Paul Scrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) this biblical story was a bit too much for the religious community to handle with it's near sacrilegious depiction of Christ's love-life and imperfections. In time it's been accepted as a classic and one of Scorsese’s better pictures thanks in part to the questions it poses as well as the masterful lead performance by Willem Dafoe. Positing that in his final days he was tempted by Satan with all manners of human emotions including fear, lust, and depression, it's the lust that really raised the hackles of some Christians. Even with a disclaimer before the film, they still protested the release, judging the picture sight unseen. It's not the only time Scorsese would struggle with his faith via cinema (Silence, Bringing Out The Dead) but it's certainly the most polarizing. Having failed out of a preparatory seminary where he had wanted to live his life as a priest, he turned to film as an outlet and it can be argued that The Last Temptation of Christ was the picture he'd been working towards for the first part of his career. It's an astounding and devastating work that that doesn't shy away from gruesome details and stands amongst his very best work.
- Matt Curione
Dogma (1999) dir. Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith does a religious movie in the only way that he knows how. With crass language, gross-out humor, and a motormouth cast of characters that speak exactly like Kevin Smith. These typical elements are taken to their extreme points, further than they had been before or would go again in Smith’s films. Even though the movie is full of gonzo set pieces (that either work well or don’t at all) and features Jay and Silent Bob in supporting roles, it’s deeply religious. We follow Loki and Bartleby (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, respectively), two angels who’ve been cast out of heaven. In their desperate bid to get back to the pearly gates, Loki remains faithful, but Bartleby eventually goes mad and wreaks havoc on the human world he’s stuck in. It’s a true struggle of faith, and amid the goofy comedy beats, rings completely true. Dogma is one of the most ambitious movies I’ve ever seen, an all-star cast assembled to tell a surprisingly deep crisis of faith story that’s surrounded by graphic violence and vulgar comedy on a mid-sized budget.
- Marcus Irving
Ben-Hur (1959) dir. William Wyler
William Wyler’s Biblical epic Ben-Hur is probably best known for its thunderous, jaw-dropping chariot race. And of course it’s one of the best action sequences in the 20th century. Ben-Hur, however, is far more visually daring and emotionally complex than most mid-century epics. Unlike most Christian-themed movies, Ben-Hur does not depict faith or Christ in a simple way. The film doesn’t pander to its faithful audience either. The concept of Christ in this film is more abstract and ethereal. In His limited appearances, Jesus Christ’s face is not shown and that creates the feeling of spirituality rather than just copying previous depictions. Perhaps that’s why Ben-Hur appeals to me, someone who isn’t Christian. The film focuses more in what draws people to believe in God. As a film itself, Ben-Hur is stunning. Robert L. Surtees’ cinematography and Miklos Rosza’s score give the film an epic, larger-than-life vibe. The script, credited to Karl Tunberg but Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry both claim they did heavy rewrites, is passionate and intimate. The performances are also strong, particularly Charlton Heston in the title role and Stephen Boyd as Messala (who played the role with a homoerotic subtext, unbeknownst to the conservative Heston). The film won a record 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. At the time, the film became the second-highest grossing film of all time and remains an Easter season staple.
- Manish Mathur
The Book of Eli (2010) dirs. Albert and Allen Hughes
Most post apocalyptic media is driven by an unspoken mission: survival. The survival at the heart of The Book Of Eli is not just one of the mind and body, but of the spirit. After a nuclear war that has decimated the planets resources, blame is put on the holy books of the world and it’s believed no bible has survived a cultural purging. Eli (Denzel Washington) is in possession of the only King James Bible seen in decades, and feels a presence that directs him on a mission west. A struggle ensues as Carnegie (Gary Oldman) seeks to control the book, feeling the words of a bible will allow him great control over the people in his ramshackle fiefdom. While the film is propelled forward by a series of chases and fights over the holy book, it reaches quiet moments that allow for us to sample Eli’s distilled faith: It’s not that the words in the book require strict adherence, but a message to try to do better by others than you do by yourself. The Book Of Eli achieves a rare balance, criticizing institutions and their usage of faith while striking a hopeful tone about the solace that can be found for the individual in their own faith.
- Nick Isaac
Silence (2016) dir. Martin Scorsese
Maintaining religious faith in everyday life can often feel like walking a tightrope. Keeping that faith in a culture that’s dead set against it is kinda like that same tightrope is on fire. And that tense dynamic is what’s explored in Martin Scorsese’s breathtaking masterpiece, Silence. Two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe, bring their strong belief in Christ with them on a rescue mission to Japan, where they hope to find their missing mentor. Under Japan’s violently anti-Christian lens, the contradictions of their faith are scrutinized and manipulated against them. Ultimately, Rodrigues must choose between his own suffering and damnation and that of others. By denying the faith in Jesus that’s shaped his life, he becomes that same symbolic martyr figure; though his suffering is not in a painful sacrificial death, but in a solitary life, lived in the silence of God. There’s no easy assurances at the end of Silence, and there aren’t meant to be. Scorsese confides in his audience every insecurity he has in his beliefs and the things he prays are the truth, and this intense trust is what makes Silence a piece of cinema as conflicting and fascinating and beautiful as the Christian faith itself.
- Callie Smith