This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout April with the theme of ‘faith’. This piece is part of the site’s Thousand Words section and examines why many of the most thoughtful films about religion come from atheist directors.
Ever since its earliest days, cinema has, to quote the esteemed French critic André Bazin, “always been interested in God”.
Whether it be biblical tales of all scales and budgets, stories about saints and sinners, or more grounded accounts of everyday church professionals, filmmakers have consistently returned to the well of religion to draw inspiration.
Many of the most thoughtful and challenging cinematic examinations of religion come from directors who are declared atheists or agnostics; a fascinating paradox that begs the question – just what is it that drives such filmmakers to explore religious themes?
The most recent, and certainly lavish, example is Exodus: Gods And Kings (2014); Sir Ridley Scott’s epic retelling of the Moses story.
Scott, an atheist who once declared that “the biggest source of evil is, of course, religion”, has dipped his toe into such waters before with Kingdom Of Heaven (2005), his controversial 12th-century Crusades drama, released at the height of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, which asked why Christians and Muslims can’t just get along.
Scott has spoken of choosing to strip superstition and supernaturalism out to find his way into the story and this is reflected in the logical way the plagues are explained by Ewen Bremner’s Expert, while Moses’ vision of God comes from a knock to the head. Scott’s most interesting decision is to depict God as a petulant young boy, who is accused by Moses of acting out of revenge, not love.
Exodus: Gods And Kings proved a hard sell to the same Christian groups who didn’t take kindly to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), whose eponymous central figure the atheist director has described as “the first environmentalist”. Aronofsky’s singular vision (he called it the “least-biblical biblical film ever made”) of a zealot driven to the brink of madness by his mission from “the creator” and the presence of giant angels made out of rock proved too subversive for some.
The CGI effects and huge budgets of such tentpole blockbusters are in stark contrast to the work of Ingmar Bergman, whose austere ascetic belies the emotional explosiveness of his dramas.
Reconciling his “tormented and joyless relationship with God” in his autobiography The Magic Lantern, Bergman concludes: “When you die, you are extinguished. From being you will be transformed to non-being.”
Having previously addressed God’s silence in the likes of The Seventh Seal (1957) (“Why can’t I kill God within me?” asks the medieval knight, to which Death replies: “Perhaps no-one is there.”), Bergman returned to this theme as the crux of a trilogy of powerful and devastating masterpieces: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963).
The trilogy can be distilled to a key scene in Winter Light involving a depressed Pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand), who goes through the motions for his diminishing congregation in spite of his own faith having evaporated since his wife’s death, and the Sexton (Algot Frövik).
Rather than the physical pain Jesus endured in his final hours (“It couldn’t have been all that bad”), the Sexton suggests Christ’s real torment was emotional, having been abandoned by his disciples and seized by doubt in his last moments on the cross. “Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence,” suggests the Sexton, to which the Pastor can only meekly respond: “Yes…”
The life of Christ has been portrayed countless times on film, but none have done so with the poetic power of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According To St Matthew (1964).
Pasolini is a fascinating figure; a homosexual and atheist who embarked on the film after reading the New Testament in a hotel room and explained his philosophy in a press conference thus: “I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”
Unlike most other depictions of Christ’s life, The Gospel According To St Matthew‘s neorealist approach is striking for just how raw and unvarnished it is. Imbued with Pasolini’s Marxist leanings, Jesus is portrayed as a revolutionary leader who expects and demands the word of God be listened to and obeyed. Arguably the most wholly realised biblical movie ever made, it speaks volumes about The Gospel According To St Matthew that it sits within the Vatican’s list of 45 great movies.
Another atheist filmmaker who appears on that list is Luis Buñuel (for his 1959 film Nazarin); which is amusing as many of his films openly mock the Roman Catholic Church.
Buñuel is well-known for his merciless satirical style, but few institutions get it in the neck as sharply as organised religion, whether it be subverting the image of Christ in L’Age d’Or (1930), or playfully portraying Satan as a busty blonde trying to tempt the saintly title character off the pillar he has sat atop for six years, six weeks and six days in Simon Of The Desert (1965).
Buñuel remained an uncompromising figure, as the following passage from his autobiography My Last Sigh attests: “If someone were to prove to me – right this minute – that God, in all his luminousness, exists, it wouldn’t change a single aspect of my behaviour.”
Equally uncompromising was Robert Bresson, who revisited the themes of redemption, salvation and grace throughout his celebrated career and became regarded as the “patron saint” of cinema; ironic considering the director once cryptically described himself as a “Christian atheist”.
Set in a convent, the metaphysical thriller Angels Of Sin (1943) is a daring and assured first feature that immediately established the director’s unique style. The beauty of grace is central to the spiritual odyssey that is Diary Of A Country Priest (1951), while The Trial Of Joan Of Arc (1962) is unsparing in the suffering handed out to the Christ-like Maid of Orléans.
However, it’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) that remains arguably his most divine film, a work described by Jean-Luc Godard as “the world in an hour-and-a-half”. Like Joan, the saintly donkey Balthazar endures cruelties and humiliations with a nobility that rises above the sadistic instincts of his human masters – with the exception of the vulnerable Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who also withstands the torment of others.
Cinema is storytelling and religion is rife with stories; so should it be any wonder that the most transcendent filmmakers explore such themes, be they believers or not?
What an excellent, thought-provoking read, Mark. Really enjoyed this, my friend.
Thank you mate. It was a challenge, but enjoyed putting it together.
Wow, a lot of films there I need to check out, and a great insight into the non-Hollywood biblical re-tellings. When I was back in Catholic school I always wished Spielberg or someone would make the whole bible into a HBO mega-series so that I’d never have to read the scriptures again. Turns out good Western directors don’t always pull it out of the bag, if Exodus was anything to go by. Still, watching that would be way better than working from a boring textbook which insists that the burning bush was a thing.
Quite. Have you ever seen the mini-series The Bible? It’s not bad, but is, as you might expect, too reverential and Jesus comes across as a happy-clappy guy (much like so many other versions of Christ).
amazing essay! what a good read. going to share this with some of my film buddies. they will really like your perspective and insight here, Mark! kudos!
Thank you Vic! That means a lot buddy. Thank you also for sharing.
Of course man! Love reading your stuff 👍😁
A fascinating piece man. The notion that self-proclaimed atheist directors (be they contemporary or of the past) have produced some of the most talked-about and/or controversial pieces is maybe one of the more interesting aspects of cinema discussion, period. That said, I still think I have the curiosity to check out things that I know are likely to not do anything for me, modern sensational films such as Heaven is For Real. I think in order to appreciate films that talk about such controversial topics as the life of Jesus and what religion means to different communities, it is important to see what films made by ostensibly extremely devout filmmakers are trying to say too.
Heaven is For Real isn’t the best example, as I know there are probably many more things out there like that. I’m just referencing probably the only contemporary one I know at the moment. And I don’t think I’m dismissing that film before I’ve seen it as something that’s not going to interest me, I’ve just read a bit of the book and was turned off immediately by its decision to speak to one particular audience while discounting everyone else.
I’ve not caught Heaven is For Real (what’s that about I wonder?!). There are a bunch for God-bothering movies out there now; I must say I’m intrigued to check out Left Behind with Nic Cage to see if it’s as bad as I’ve heard. I must say that I enjoyed the HBO show The Leftovers which is basically about the Rapture.
Thanks for the great feedback mate. Very interesting stuff.
Intriguing piece here Mark! As a believer myself, I do think it’s fascinating that agnostic and atheist filmmakers have turned to Scriptures for cinematic adaptations, with varying results. I personally think that whether the person believe the text or not, it should respect it and treat it with care.
I do agree with you Ruth, although any religion that can’t take a joke I’ve always had a problem with. A film like Life of Brian, for example, completely respects the Jesus story, while satirising organised religion.
Have you seen or heard of The Stations of The Cross Ruth? Amazing German film about the pitfalls of fanatical believers… but at the same time it has a sensitivity towards people who are of Christian faith. Its a great movie, very arty, it only uses 14 different camera shots. 14!!!
I’ve heard of it, but not seen it. Thanks for pointing this one out; always great to hear a recommendation – 14 camera shots; sounds like a Bela Tarr movie!
Minimalist filmmaking to the extreme hehe
Really enjoyed reading this. I knew Aronofsky was an atheist, but had no idea about the others you mentioned, even Scott. Generally speaking I don’t care enough to find out. However, this is a really intriguing subject. You have definitely got me iinterested in The Gospel According to St. Matthew.
That’s good to hear. The Gospel According to St Matthew is a fantastic film; albeit one that won’t be for everyone.
Fantastic piece, Mark! Loved reading this. Despite being an atheist myself, I find religion fascinating, something I think was also an element that played in these directors’ religious films.
I’m the same mate, not religious at all but i’ve read the bible many times and find it to be an extremely fascinating piece of fiction. All religion fascinates me TBH, though I’m not an atheist, more a Buddhist that anything. The only religion I have any respect for. Oh Hinduism too. Both are pretty damned interesting.
Sorry for taking so long to get back to you, Jordan. Glad we agree! 🙂
Nice post mate. It reminds me of a movie I just watched – have you heard of ‘Stations of the Cross’?? Its a german art film about fanatical christianity and the affects in can have on young people. I highly recommend it!! 🙂
I also have a bunch of films to check out now – sweet 😀 nice post again, looks like it took a bit of effort!
It certainly did. If anyone catches one of these films off the back of the article I’ve done my job.