As the Oscar nod for Life of Pi shows us, even 21st century human beings contemplate the role of religion in understanding our existence. Of course, religion, like any discourse, is polyvalent and many filmmakers have tackled this expansive subject and Ang Lee’s adaptation is by no means the first.
So, for your viewing pleasures, here are five films that very effectively attempt to dissect the role of theology in our lives.
1. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Hey, I never promised they were all going to be in favor of religion. Ingmar Bergman’s classic film about a knight who plays a devious of game of chess with death ultimately portrays a reality where there is no God to help his followers in their final moments.
Antonius Block, our protagonist who once went to war for God, is now uncertain and has a severe crisis of faith. He asks, “Why does He hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles?” When Block laments, “I call out to Him in the darkness. But it's as if no one was there,” Death simply asks, “And if there isn’t?”
2. The Truman Show (1998)
While normally regarded as a contemplation of the role of media, Jim Carrey’s best acting performance becomes explicitly religious when it references Psalm 139, a Biblical passage depicting a human’s conversation with God, right before Truman speaks with his show’s creator. Truman leaving the world, even after his maker presents himself and pleads him to stay, seems like a rejection of any God.
However, the fact that Truman’s girlfriend was praying for him to actually leave implies that it was not the creator but the lying intermediary that Truman was discarding. Truman left to find his own reality, one with far more uncertainty perhaps, but certainly one that is not entirely fabricated by some egomaniacal human with a desire to control everything.
3. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Frankie Dunn (an amazing Clint Eastwood) never misses church but is somehow still distant from his religion. He has questions that don’t get answered and lacks definite meaning in life but, when tasked with the most difficult decision he has ever made, Dunn ultimately tries to find an answer with God.
Eastwood’s tale demonstrates that religion allows people to keep going even when their life seems to have lost meaning, but it also ends with him drifting away from it all. Towards the conclusion, Dunn takes a decision many religions would not have allowed, but it also leaves him with nothing. His preacher, who interestingly forgoes religious citations and provides an emotional answer to Dunn’s questions, states, “Forget about God or heaven and hell. If you do this thing, you'll be lost. Somewhere so deep you'll never find yourself again.”
And on every level that mattered for Dunn, he was right.
4. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Another tale that seems very similar to the Seventh Seal in its portrayal of death as lacking meaning, the Coen brothers’ Oscar-nominated adaptation is another story that shows us just how powerless we often are. When two old men sit down and talk about how “once you quit hearing ‘sir and ‘ma'am,’ the rest is soon to foller,” the story shows us how simple morality is meaningless in saving us. Sometimes, death can come from anywhere and it won’t be you or your manners that stop it.
Our protagonist spent his life thinking, “God would sorta come inta my life somehow. And he didn't.” But, as someone wise tells him, “Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming, it ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity.”
5. Doubt (2008)
A story that raises more questions than any, perhaps, this Oscar-nominated film shows us how religion can inspire people to search for the truth, but it also shows us that things aren’t quite as simple as that. There often isn’t certainty in the world regarding anything, be it good, evil, or the presence of God. This film demonstrates the positive effects of religion in creating good human beings that seek to stop what’s wrong but it also rejects the certainty that religion prides itself in.
In the mind of the believer, according to many practitioners of faith, there can be no uncertainty; he who is himself unsure cannot be a shepherd to others, some say. However, as this movie shows us, even the most ardent of believers have their doubts and “In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God.”
Of course, this is a condensed list, and there are many movies that have taken part in theological discourse, so be sure to share the ones you know in the comments.