Christian films for atheists

Praise the Lord and pass the sponge bath.

Praise the Lord and pass the sponge bath.

Cecil B. DeMille was a lousy director, but at least he colored his cinematic Bible lessons with elements bound to please the heathens in the audience, such as Claudette Colbert taking a milk bath in 1932’s The Sign of the Cross.

These days, explicitly “Christian” movies are crafted exclusively for Christian audiences, but in the spirit of Easter (the resurrected Jesus part, not the chocolate-bunny part), here are some quality Christian films that even atheist cinéastes can believe in:

King of Kings (1961): The underappreciated classic of studio-system Bible pictures, this intimate epic was made by a talented director with no theological ax to grind (Nick Ray), and an unusually human portrait of Jesus is the result.

The Last Temptation of Christ: Despite the hysterical, knee-jerk Catholic protests that met it upon release, the final third of Scorsese’s 1988 adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel contains one of the most powerful expressions of faith and sacrifice ever put to film.

Au Hasard Balthazar/Mouchette: Devout French director Robert Bresson built his career on crafting ascetic portrayals of Catholic principles, and these are of two his finest parables, rigorous tales of sacrifice and transcendence told through the eyes of a brutalized donkey (Au Hasard Balthazar) and a brutalized schoolgirl (Mouchette).

A Canterbury Tale: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1944 nimble story of “modern” pilgrims destabilized by World War II works on numerous levels, most keenly as a tale of blessings and penance on the road to Canterbury Cathedral.

The Passion of Joan of Arc: Carl Dreyer’s silent masterpiece is a volatile story of Catholic persecution, but it’s also one of immense and inspiring faith, as Maria Falconetti carries the righteousness of her visions intact into the fires.

Next week, a return to our regularly scheduled godlessness.