Ah Religion, that old war-starting, fear-mongering, life-giving chestnut. Whether you're an evangelical believer or a hard nosed atheist, the fact is that the R word has inspired some great movies. Take these 5 as a start...
Dogma (Kevin Smith)
Let’s start easy, shall we? Kevin Smith’s irreverent love letter to Catholicism is great in that in manages to lampoon vast swathes of the Catholic church whilst simultaneously celebrating a lot of the good that can come out of Religion, namely, the great stories and characters that it has thrown up over the years. Inspired casting decisions such as Alanis Morisette as God, Alan Rickman as the voice of God (Obviously) and Chris Rock as Rufus, the 13th apostle, combined with Smith’s trademark pithy, cannonball dialogue have given this film a longevity that some of his others have lacked. Also, Prince loved it, so much so in fact that he invited Kevin Smith to come to his Paisley Park mansion and make a documentary about him, with rather hilarious results as these videos will attest to… Oh Prince.
Fata Morgana (Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog is always interested in themes of truth, life, existence and what it is to be human. This is true for his whole body of work, whether he’s delving into ancient caves with 3D cameras, climbing to the top of a volcano about to explode or pulling a boat over an Amazonian mountain. In Fata Morgana, his meditative, essayistic documentary about African mirages, we get Herzog’s very own creation myth playing out like a beautiful science fiction odyssey. Indeed, Herzog initially visited the deserts with the intention of making a straight up sci-fi movie about aliens landing on earth, but quickly changed his mind, believing the landscapes themselves to be dramatic enough. An entrancing, beguiling piece of filmmaking with some really stunning scenes, including a brilliant deconstruction of a turtle, Fata Morgana is to my mind Herzog’s finest hour.
Never has the British stiff upper lip been more succinctly and eloquently illustrated as when Eric Idle implores Graham Chapman to always look on the bright side of life whilst he is being crucified
The Exorcist (William Friedkin)
The Exorcist is not only one of the finest horror movies of all time, it is in fact one of the finest movies of all time. Essentially the film deals with a crisis of faith being suffered by Catholic Priest Father Damien Karras, due to him having to deal with his mother’s illness. It is only when Karras is brought in to assist on an apparent possession case that this crisis of faith is confronted head on, literally by the presence of the devil itself in a small child. People talk about the gross-out nature of the final scenes, the head-twisting and the girl plunging a crucifix inside her vagina, and yes, all this on its own may sound like an early form of torture porn at best, or at worst shock for shock’s sake. The fact that it is not is all down to Karras. Jason Miller’s performances manages to convey the huge emotional upheaval Karras is being put through with his faith being called into question for the first time. The fear in his eyes when assisting in the final exorcism is palpable, but it is a fear based not on the presence of the devil alone, but the presence of everything he has been struggling to believe in the wake of his mother’s state. For the first time in his life, Karras’ Religious belief is not based on faith, it is based on proof, and that’s about as terrifying an idea as you can get.
Monty Python’s Life Of Brian (Terry Jones)
You didn’t think I’d leave it out, did you? Life Of Brian is Python at their anarchic best, mixing the profound and the profane in a way that has seldom been bettered. Never has the British stiff upper lip been more succinctly and eloquently illustrated as when Eric Idle implores Graham Chapman to always look on the bright side of life whilst he is being crucified. Blasphemous? Yeah, probably, but God’s God, I’m sure he doesn’t give a fuck who’s having a laugh in his name.
A Serious Man (Coen Brothers)
A Serious Man is interesting in that it carries with it all the hallmarks of being a Coen Brothers film whilst simultaneously feeling like a story they hadn’t told yet. Purportedly based on the Book Of Job, the film’s star Larry Gopnik, a maths professor whose life is slowly unraveling in front of him, with his wife wanting to leave him and one of his pupils attempting to blackmail him in exchange for a better grade. The film’s prologue frames the story as a Religious piece, it being a short Jewish folk tale about a man who meets with a ghost, or more specifically a “dybbuk”, a character in Jewish folklore meaning a malevolent spirit. When I first saw the movie I found it hard to reconcile how the prologue sat with the bulk of the film, but thinking about it now, it seems as if this “dybbuk”, and the untimely end that meets the character in the prologue, frames how the Coen’s see God or Religion in the movie, as an all powerful force that can overcome you at any point, for good or bad, and in either case there’s very little you can do about it. The film’s brilliant final shot encapsulates this idea, with Gopnik, his life now in tatters, standing beneath an impending storm. He got caught in the crosshairs, and run though he might, everything will catch up to him eventually. A masterpiece.
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