Darren Aronofsky’s “bold, weird, magnificent mess” of a biblical epic Noah sailed into theaters this weekend. Our own Jason Bailey described the film as striking as it is “odd and schizophrenic.” Noah seems compelling enough, though it certainly won’t suit everyone’s palate in terms of religion-inspired stories. If you’re searching for something without the bombast, we’ve collected ten art house films that take an alternative approach in telling age-old religious tales.
A pinnacle of controversy and visual mastery in the collaborative relationship between writer Emeric Pressburger and director Michael Powell, Black Narcissus focuses on the mounting tension, eroticism, and isolation between five nuns at a school and hospital in the Himalayas. The pioneering Technicolor film features extraordinary performances and stunning camerawork (from legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff).
Richard Brooks’ 1960 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel of the same name stars a charismatic Burt Lancaster and a riveting Jean Simmons as a lusty con man and female evangelist who start their own revival show in small-town America. The film is often described as an expose on evangelism, though the satire is perhaps broader than Lewis’ banned book and not nearly as cutting.
Based on Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel of the same name, the prolific John Huston directed this 1979 adaptation starring the criminally underrated Brad Dourif. The actor takes on a memorable role as an aimless army veteran who opens the first Church Without Christ in the fictional town of Taulkinham. Huston’s eccentric, tragicomic portrait of hypocrisy and evangelism is spellbinding.
Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s breathtaking performance as the condemned Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s stunningly directed silent epic has been called the “finest performance ever recorded on film.” For Dreyer, Falconetti revealed “a soul behind that facade.” Her depiction of this transcendental suffering carries the surprisingly abstract film.
Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 anthology, starring Anna Magnani and Federico Fellini, became embroiled in a First Amendment controversy for its “sacrilegious” story about a troubled peasant who is impregnated (raped) by a vagabond she believes to be Saint Joseph. She concludes that she must be the Virgin Mary. The case led to a landmark free speech decision. Stark, beautiful, and at times oddly absurd, Rossellini’s work is a fascinating look at the inherent naiveté of faith.
Christopher Smith’s chilling indie art house horror film Black Death finds Sean Bean as a 14th-century knight who is dispatched with a group of mercenaries to a remote village. The isolated locale seems to be immune to the effects of the plague that is ravaging the neighboring communities, which leads the band of travelers down a dark path to the truth. Of the same mind as Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man, Smith’s film explores the moral ambiguities and thrall of faith, and the dangerous power of absolutes.
“No movie has ever attached greater significance to the artist’s role,” critic J. Hoberman wrote of Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant film about the life and afflictions of venerable fifteenth-century Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev.
On one hand, Rublev is founded on the conflict between austere Christianity and sensual paganism — whether Slavic or Tatar. On the other, it puts the artist in the context of state patronage and repression… On the other hand, the film projects an entire world — or rather the sense that, as predicted by André Bazin’s ‘Myth of Total Cinema,’ the world itself is trying to force its way through the screen.
The emotionally devastating black-and-white Soviet drama The Ascent, directed by Larisa Shepitko, is a harrowing Christian parable that follows two partisans during a bleak winter in the era of Nazi rule. The Ascent is a tale of war, death, and humanity in a time of unbearable suffering told with rich religious symbolism and incredible cinematography.
Ken Russell’s frenzied tale of sexual perversion and religious hysteria during the 17th century was censored and banned for its blasphemous depiction of Oliver Reed’s priest Urbain Grandier as Christ and the wanton Ursuline nuns who worshiped him. Russell’s film reveals an unholy alliance of greed, lust, politics, and corruption — one that can lurk amongst any rigid belief system.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poetic and political interpretation of Jesus’ life and ministry was filmed with a nonprofessional cast and eclectic score (ranging from classical to American spirituals). Roger Ebert wrote of the film: “Pasolini’s is one of the most effective films on a religious theme I have ever seen, perhaps because it was made by a nonbeliever who did not preach, glorify, underline, sentimentalize or romanticize his famous story, but tried his best to simply record it.”