Posted January 6, 2010 by Phil Hall in Blog

The 50 Most Important Religion Films Of All Time


FilmSnobbery.com is paying tribute to the union of the sacred and cinematic with its list of the 50 Most Important Religion Films of All Time.

Covering the full spectrum of film history from the silent movies to digital filmmaking, with stops in Hollywood, Indiewood and the global cinema the 50 Most Important Religion Films of All Times weighs reverential dramas, irreverent comedies, provocative documentaries and even horror films that span the diverse ways that filmmakers have come to view Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

“Few topics manage to provoke audiences the way that religion can,” says Phil Hall, film scholar and author of “The History of Independent Cinema” (BearManor Media, 2009), who helped compile and edit the list. “Sometimes the provocation is reassuring, sometimes it creates agitation.  Inevitably, it causes moviegoers to express their views and to seek out other opinions on the subject. At the end of the day, this is what motion pictures were meant to do, take passive audience observers and make them active players in considering the subject being presented.”

The 50 Most Important Religion Films of All Time, according to FilmSnobbery.com, are as follows:

1. The Ten Commandments (1956): Cecil B. DeMille’s lavish spectacle continues to enchant film lovers with its opulent reconsideration of the Book of Exodus. A wild mix of special effects, sex appeal, an all-star ensemble and even a wicked dance number around the Golden Calf, the film still resonates as brilliantly over-the-top entertainment.

2. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964): It took a gay Marxist (in this case, Pier Paolo Pasolini) to offer a visceral yet emotional consideration on the life of Jesus. The neorealist visual style and the gifted nonprofessional cast offered a rough, visceral reconsideration of Jesus’ ministry.

3. Fiddler on the Roof (1971): The pull between the well-defined parameters of religious tradition and the challenges of a changing secular world is the crux of this moving passionate film adaptation of the classic Broadway musical.

4. The Passion of the Christ (2004): Mel Gibson’s controversial vision of the death of Jesus brought a new attention to religion-themed films, while forcing a revived debate on issues that divided different faiths for centuries.

5. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s visually jolting recreation of the trial and execution of the French saint (brilliantly played by Renee Falconetti in her only starring role) is among the most emotionally unsettling productions ever created.

6. Life of Brian (1979): Monty Python’s irreverent riff achieved the impossible by finding intelligent satire within a sacred subject matter.

7. Intolerance (1916): D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking masterpiece weaves three historic stories of religious intolerance, the fall of Babylon, the Crucifixion and the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre, with a fourth modern secular tale, resulting in a epic commentary on the challenge to maintain faith in an evil world.

8. The Nun’s Story (1959): Fred Zinnemann’s mature adaptation of Kathryn Hulme’s novel provides an intelligent understanding of the inner struggle of maintaining a holy order in the midst of personal and political upheavals.

9. The Exorcist (1973): William Friedkin frames the endless good-versus-evil struggle against a gory backdrop of demonic possession, creating one of the most influential and effective horror films of all time.

10. Dogma (1999): Kevin Smith’s twisted satire originally generated concern from several Catholic organizations, but it has since been recognized as a devastatingly original comedy where heavenly good trumps the machinations of miscreant fallen angels.

11. The Blues Brothers (1980): Jake and Elwood Blues are on a “mission from God” to save a Catholic orphanage, although their mission allows them time to indulge in vibrant music numbers and classic slapstick comedy.

12. Body and Soul (1925): Oscar Micheaux explores the chaos created by a charlatan preacher in a pioneering all-black silent drama that gave Paul Robeson his first film role.

13. The Jazz Singer (1927): The film that planted sound in films was, at its core, a human drama about a young performer’s struggle to walk away from his family’s Orthodox Jewish heritage in favor of the flash and glamour of show business.

14. Devi (1960): Satyajit Ray considered the tragic implications of religious obsession in this dark drama of a man who believes his young daughter is an incarnation of a Hindu goddess.

15. Black Narcissus (1947): The physical isolation of a Catholic convent in the Himalayas creates severe emotional trials for a group of British nuns, who slowly realize they are unsuited for both their new surroundings and their religious vocation.

16. Becket (1964): The political battle of wills between England’s King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas a Becket results in a power struggle that determines whether the ultimate authority rests in the church or the crown.

17. The Dybbuk (1937): The Yiddish-language Polish classic mixes Hasidic Jewish culture with a legendary ghost story, in which the spirit of a Talmudic scholar possesses the body of his forbidden love, who is engaged to marry another man.

18. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973): Norman Jewison’s vibrant film version of the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice musical uses Holy Land locations for its funky retelling of the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

19. The Song of Bernadette (1943): Jennifer Jones won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Bernadette Soubirous in this tasteful, sincere, big-budget biopic.

20. Submission (2004): Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh’s short film about misogynistic violence enforced through idiosyncratic Koranic interpretations created a harsh debate on Islamic tenets. The film’s controversy resulting the Van Gogh’s murder by a Muslim extremist.

21. Elmer Gantry (1960): Richard Brooks’ adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel mixes the sacred and the profane in a bold tale of a con artist’s infiltration of a fundamentalist Christian organization.

22. Going My Way (1944): The light-hearted classic about a pair of all-too-human priests (played by Oscar winners Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald) was the top-grossing film of its year.
23. Blood of Jesus (1941): Spencer Williams’ drama about a dying woman’s test of faith is considered by many film scholars to be among the finest films from the African-American “race film” genre.

24. From the Manger to the Cross (1912): Filmed on location in the Holy Land, this early silent classic was among the top-grossing films of its time, which helped to usher in the production of additional religion-based titles.

25. Man in the Fifth Dimension (1964): Billy Graham’s film essay on the spiritual dimensions of the human condition had its premiere at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It is also noteworthy as the only non-theatrical film shot in the widescreen Todd-AO process.

26. Plan 10 from Outer Space (1994): Trent Harris’ low-budget underground comedy re-imagines Mormon history with a singing Karen Black as the extra-terrestrial wife of Brigham Young.

27. The Burmese Harp (1956): Kon Ichikawa’s stark anti-war drama focuses on a Japanese soldier who adopts the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk during the closing days of World War II.

28. Galileo (1974): Joseph Losey’s adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht play puts science and theology on a collision course, with the 17th century astronomer’s open challenge and bitter defeat to church-defined notions of scientific principles.

29. Ordet (1956): Carl Theodor Dreyer’s intense drama details the frayed emotional bonds of a family whose members either embrace religion to the point of mania or bitterly reject the faith, thus making them pariahs.

30. A Jihad for Love (2007): Parvez Sharma’s documentary breaks the taboo on the pressures faced by gay and lesbian Muslims seeking to balance their religious heritage with their sexual orientation.

31. The Golem (1920): Paul Wegener’s silent classic offers a stylish adaptation of the legendary tale of a clay monster created to protect the Jewish citizens of 16th century Prague.

32. Chariots of Fire (1981): The Best Picture Oscar winner details the parallel struggles of two British runners “one Jewish, one Christian” whose respective faiths define their efforts to compete in the 1920 Olympics.

33. Yentl (1983): Barbra Streisand starred in and directed this musical adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer story of a Jewish girl disguising herself as a boy in order to gain a Talmudic education.

34. Siddartha (1972): Conrad Rooks’ handsome film adaptation of the Herman Hesse novel follows a young Indian nobleman’s indefatigable search to find the answers to human salvation.

35. Vajra Sky Over Tibet (2006): Documentary filmmaker John Bush surreptitiously filmed Tibet’s Buddhist temples in a study of how the ancient religion has managed to persevere in the face of brutal Communist Chinese occupation and repression.

36. The Mahabharata (1989): Peter Brooks’ six-hour film offers an intense yet visually imaginative adaptation of the sacred Hindu text.

37. The Robe (1953): The first feature film released in CinemaScope was this Biblical epic that imagined the fate of the garment worn by Jesus prior to the Crucifixion.

38. Woman Thou Art Loosed (2004): T.D. Jakes played himself in Michael Shultz’s film version of his novel, which details a crack addict’s painful road to self-healing and spiritual solace.

39. Ben-Hur (1926): The $6 million extravaganza was the single most expensive film producing during the silent film period.

40. Ben-Hur (1959): The celebrated remake of the 1926 classic set a record for winning 11 Academy Awards, a feat that was matched twice (by Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) but never surpassed.

41. Romero (1989): Raul Julia played the assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in this Paulist-produced independent feature film.

42. Little Margaret (1986): An independently-produced biopic stars Lucia Pucci as Blessed Margaret of Castello (1287-1320), the Italian nun who rose above childhood trauma “she was abandoned by parents who were ashamed of her blindness and physical disability” to achieve a state of piety that moved all who came to know her.

43. The Boys of St. Vincent (1992): John N. Smith broke a taboo in his bold retelling of a 1980s sexual abuse scandal at a Canadian boys orphanage.

44. Barabbas (1962): Richard Fleischer’s acclaimed film of the Pär Lagerkvist novel imagines the fate of the thief who was freed by popular demand when Pontius Pilate was judging the fate of Jesus.

45. Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954): Robert Rosselini’s film version of the oratorio by Paul Claudel and Arthur Honegger stars the director then-wife Ingrid Bergman as the French saint during the period of her imprisonment, trial and execution.

46. Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie (2002): The computer-generated animated feature mixes Christian philosophy and anthropomorphic vegetables into a family-friendly tale that emphasizes the concepts of mercy and compassion.

47. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965): George Stevens’ artistic epic retelling of the life of Jesus features an all-star cast, with the rugged terrain of the American Southwest used to represent the Holy Land.

48. The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1973): Gerard Oury’s wild slapstick romp finds a Catholic bigot and an Arab revolutionary leader hiding amidst a Hasidic Jewish community in Paris, while police detectives and terrorists vainly try to apprehend them.

49. Das Mirakel (1912): A groundbreaking German film version, directed by Cherry Kearton and Max Reinhardt, used an early sound recording technology for its story of the statue of the Virgin Mary coming to life to replace the absence of a wayward nun.

50. The Last Jews of Libya (2007): Vivienne Roumani-Denn’s documentary details the decline and eventual disappearance of a once-vibrant Jewish population in North Africa.

Phil Hall

Phil has written about cinema for the New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired Magazine, American Movie Classics Magazine, Tower Records Pulse! Magazine and the Organica Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including “Independent Film Distribution” and “The History of Independent Cinema.” Beyond film journalism, he is a former United Nations correspondent for Fairchild Broadcast News and a writer and editor for technology and financial publications.