Even before Mel Gibson grabbed hearts and headlines with The Passion of The Christ, Christians were finding a new fascination with the spiritual significance they're encountering at the multiplex. Every month sees a new film-and-faith book hit the shelves, film clips are showing up in Sunday sermons like never before, and believers gather in study groups where the VCR and DVD player are almost as important to the proceedings as Bible or concordance. Jesus "spake not except in parables," and the spiritual impact of story didn't end with Christ.
The folks at Arts & Faith, an online discussion group comprised of film critics—including Christianity Today Movies critics Jeffrey Overstreet, Peter T. Chattaway and myself—and other movie buffs have been carrying on a lively conversation about spirituality and film for years. Recently, the participants forged a terrifically diverse and intriguing list of 100 Spiritually Significant Films—an incomparable resource for anyone interested in exploring transcendent themes in the movies.
During our voting process, two films clearly rose to the top, tying for first place: Dekalog, a series of ten one-hour films created by Poland's Krzysztof Kieslowski, dealing indirectly with the Ten Commandments, and Robert Duvall's personal vision film, The Apostle. Arts & Faith had an in-depth discussion of Dekalog, a highly artistic and ethically complex series; in fact, the A&F board got started with a discussion of another series of films by Kieslowski, the Three Colors trilogy, which also found its way into the top 100.
The Apostle was written, directed and personally financed by Duvall, who also plays the title character, a troubled Southern evangelist who is not only a deeply flawed human being, but also a penitent man with an extraordinary drive to share the gospel. Another extraordinary performance by Duvall also found its way quickly onto the list: Tender Mercies, writer Horton Foote's masterpiece of understatement about the faith journey of a recovering alcoholic.
Other films that were among the A&F favorites included P.T. Anderson's multi-character masterpiece Magnolia and Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a sparse and poverty-stricken account of Christ's life considered by most Jesus movie aficionados to be the greatest of its kind. The Passion of The Christ also made the list, as did the surprisingly rich The Miracle Maker (an animated life of Christ), Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth miniseries, the more controversial Jesus of Montreal and The Last Temptation of Christ, and the not-quite-Jesus-film from the Monty Python gang, Life of Brian.
The unflinching portrayal of spiritually lost characters in Magnolia may scandalize some believers, but there's no denying it's one of the most often cited favorites among Christian film buffs, with its wonderfully human (and profoundly admirable) Christian cop, its intricate moral and relational complications, and its undeniable acts of divine intervention. Punch-Drunk Love, a less obviously religious film by the same director, also finds its way onto the list, a prime example of a story without explicit religious elements which nonetheless holds great appeal for Christian viewers, with its grace-filled portrait of damaged human beings yearning toward redemptive love.
Another relative no-brainer for the A&F list was the exquisite Babette's Feast, the story of a cook who spends all she has to bless her employers—and their entire village—with a remarkable feast that reawakens their spirits like the sacrificial fragrance of the jar of perfume poured out over Christ's feet.