Abigail Disney’s documentary The Armor of Light takes an unusual but illuminating approach to the gun control debate. In the film, Reverend Rob Schenck — an evangelical Christian who gained some cachet on the right decades ago via his leadership of anti-abortion Operation Rescue rallies — talks to Disney about how he’s lost support from his old friends by suggesting that “pro-life” should also mean anti-gun. For Schenck, it’s obvious that anyone who believes human life is sacred would also be against the weapons that shoot others dead. But after decades of close ties between the NRA, the gun manufacturers, and the Christian right, Schenck finds his fellow evangelicals parroting the idea that firearms “protect the innocent.” Even harder for Schenck, the goalposts keep moving for gun enthusiasts, from mere “self-defense” to active vigilantism.
The Armor of Light follows Schenk around the country, watching him try to persuade people who share his faith, but who have very different interpretations of what that faith demands. And while the film is as much about America’s gun obsession, it joins the long list of movies that weigh what it means to believe. The tenets of religious faith can give life a deeper meaning; or they can lock adherents into patterns of behavior that they may find unsatisfying and regrettable. The nine films below explore characters and situations that fall all along that range.
Trembling Before G-d (2001): In recent years, a handful of outstanding documentaries have pushed headlong into some uncomfortable but necessary questions about religion, via interviews with unlikely true-believers, grappling with the contradictions of their creed. Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s Trembling Before G-d, for example, considers what becomes of homosexuals who aspire to be observant Orthodox Jews. The film travels around the world, taking to gays and lesbians — often interviewed in silhouette — who explain why they cling to a denomination that condemns their lifestyle. Dubowski also uses silhouettes to show Jewish family rituals, as a way of illustrating what would be lost if his subjects just quit Judaism altogether. What emerges is a study of two historically persecuted communities — gays and Jews — and of the people who maintain a shaky footing in two otherwise inviting, generous worlds. Their big question: Does being a practicing sinner trump all spiritual pursuits?
Prophet’s Prey (2015): Amy Berg’s utterly absorbing true-crime documentary tells the story of Warren Jeffs, the infamous, now-jailed leader of a polygamist sect. Berg digs into the history of Jeffs’ cult, and uses the work of investigators and the testimony of ex-members to provide a rare look inside the gated suburban compounds, where church leaders preached against all earthly pleasures while preparing young girls to be child brides. This movie is partly about the particulars of how Jeffs was able to live like an old world king (mainly thanks to shrewd real estate deals that bordered on the crooked), but it’s also about how one man could be so persuasive with his doomsday prophecies, convincing hundreds of people to buy into his bizarre way of life. Prophet’s Prey is an at-times disturbing portrait of an America so huge, so splintered, and so forgiving of fundamentalism that it allows a weirdo sex criminal to hide and thrive for decades.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015): Given the litigiousness of The Church of Scientology, and the decades’ worth of rumors about what really goes on within its congregations, documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) had a tough task in adapting Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear — both in saying everything that needed to be said and in making sure it was all legally verifiable. Gibney’s experience and skill as a non-fiction storyteller help greatly, as he lays out the twisty tale of an American success story gone awry. Here’s a homegrown religion that’s been useful to so many, but has also forced families apart, and has seen unconscionable smear campaigns against its enemies. Going Clear considers both positive and negative angles, and lets the voices of ex-Scientologists explain how they came to the church in the first place, out of a deep need for spiritual faith — only to find themselves pinned between their religion and other vital cultural institutions.
The Catholic Bloc
Diary of a Country Priest (1951): Many of the world’s greatest filmmakers were raised Catholic and wrestled with the culture and the meanings of their religion through their work. Austere French writer-director Robert Bresson’s adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ novel The Diary of a Country Priest is by no means his only film to confront Catholicism, but it’s his most direct and least allegorical. As an idealistic young cleric (played by Claude Laydu) deals with the indifference and suspicions of his new parishioners, Bresson asks what the devout really expect from their spiritual leaders: actual guidance, or someone who just goes through the motions? A quiet, haunting motion picture, Diary of a Country Priest takes some melodramatic plot turns, but always as a way into more profound inquiries about how best to serve the Lord.
The Exorcist (1973): One of the big reasons why The Exorcist scared the pants off of so many people in the ‘70s is that it didn’t just pit a helpless single mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) and her adolescent daughter (Linda Blair) against a monster. It made the villain an actual Satanic demon— an entity that many of the movie’s more religious viewers could believe existed. Director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty (adapting his own novel) dug into some of the issues that were concerning Americans at the time: the decline in religious faith, the increased carnality of the younger generation, and the demands of single parenthood. The Exorcist is a deeply Catholic movie, rooted in centuries-old rituals and pivoting on one depressed priest’s growing alienation from the church. But the ancient evils mix with modern malaise, such that even the film’s quiet moments are imbued with menace.
The Third Miracle (1999): The title of Agnieszka Holland’s film (adapted from a Richard Vetere novel) refers to the traditional criteria for sainthood in the Catholic church. Two provable miracles are required, but a third is preferred, and all three must exemplify the virtue inherent in one of God’s messengers. The Third Miracle stars Ed Harris as a skeptical priest whose job for years has been to debunk these miracles, which has been pushing him further away from his faith. But when he’s called on to play detective in Chicago, looking into the case of a statue weeping tears of blood, he starts to develop a different idea of what it means to be divine. The Third Miracle is the rare religious mystery that shies away from the supernatural and instead looks at how arcane rules and expectations can keep even true believers from seeing God’s presence.
Babe: Pig in the City (1998): The original Babe is a sweet story of sacrifice and dogged belief, which in itself can easily be read as covertly religious. But writer-director-producer George Miller took the connection even further with the brilliant, underrated sequel. Here, the plucky pig gets separated from his owners in a dark, dangerous urban hellscape, where he stumbles into a hotel filled with squatting animals, and becomes their unlikely savior. Both Babes really share the same message: Don’t underestimate the little guy. But Miller also deals with matters of destiny — sometimes in an upbeat way, sometimes not — and he shows how faith in the humble-but-capable can pay off in the long run.
Magnolia (1999): When Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious, emotionally fraught Los Angeles travelogue debuted in the fall of 1999, one sequence in particular stunned and perplexed audiences: a literal rain of frogs, wreaking havoc on the city, just like something straight from the Bible. But anyone paying close attention to Magnolia shouldn’t have been that surprised. For one thing, the film is littered with biblical references. For another, as Anderson weaves his way through the lives of a dozen desperate Californians, he keeps coming back to three particular father figures, who’ve disappointed and damaged their children. The analogy is plain: It’s hard for the rest of these characters to maintain their faith, because whenever they seek God they find only frail, capricious, spiteful humans. But that in itself connects them all, which in Magnolia is presented as its own kind of miracle.
Antichrist (2009): The ever-provocative Lars von Trier (Melancholia, Dancer in the Dark) poured all of himself into this divisive psychodrama, blending diverse visual styles, and veering from stark realism to surreal horror, all while cutting deep into his core themes: human nature, gender relations, and, yet again, religious faith. Ostensibly the story of how a touchy-feely therapist (played by Willem Dafoe) and his self-loathing wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) deal with the accidental death of their toddler son, Antichrist evolves into a waking nightmare, as the woman’s tortured subconscious begins to bleed into the couple’s woodland retreat. Throughout, the psychologist tries to convert what’s happening into something rational, but even his absurd coping mechanisms begin to break down once he’s confronted with untamable chaos. Like a lot of films on this list, Antichrist sees the divine and the supernatural as at once mysterious and frightening; and sees the attempts by men to codify a proper reaction as a vulgar joke.