The big new release this week is Ridley Scott’s actioner Exodus: Gods and Kings, his take on the ancient tale of the Hebrews and their Moses-led exit from Egypt. In his capsule review, Reader film editor J.R. Jones writes “[Scott] made this Biblical epic the old-fashioned way, casting thousands of extras instead of conjuring them up digitally, and the movie works well as big-budget spectacle despite a ho-hum script,” suggesting the film is the director’s attempt at a Cecil B. DeMille-esque Bible spectacle, appropriate considering Scott’s classical sensibilities.
Bible films are found throughout the history of film, transcending genre, style, and country of origin, which is particularly interesting when you consider how the most prominent examples come from America. They’re essentially cinematic standards at this point, likely because their inherent sensationalism and symbolic nature translate particularly well onscreen. Below, you can find my five favorite Bible movies.
5. Quo Vadis (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1951) My favorite of MGM’s grand epics, directed with studio smarts and a touch of irreverence by LeRoy. There’s some fascinating Hollywood-ization happening here, of the Christian-Roman conflict as well as Italian film history: much of the film was shot in the Cinecittà studios, and some of the action sequences would fit right at home in a peplum film.
4. The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988) This deeply personal rumination on the life of Jesus remains overshadowed by the controversy it stirred upon release, highly unfair considering how faithfully it depicts everything the Bible says—mostly. Scorsese’s conflation of the spiritual and the human, a running theme of his, is at its most poignant here.
3. A Serious Man (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009) Allegory and metaphor course through biblical text, and the Coen brothers take it another step further with this darkly humorous character study that doubles as an exegesis of the Book of Job. Like the text in question, as well as its ilk in the Old Testament, A Serious Man is deliberately opaque. The further you question it, the more questions arise, indicative of the inherent nihilism of spirituality, ancient or otherwise.
2. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964) Another film whose controversial reputation tends to precede it. Pasolini’s postneorealist style lends itself to the story’s magical realism, so the more fantastical elements—the miracle of the seven loaves and fishes, Jesus walking on water—are rendered even more mystifying, if not a little eerie. Indeed, this isn’t a devout film. That same postneorealist aesthetic highlights some of the story’s strange, antihumanist undertones.
1. The Decalogue (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988) The Ten Commandments explored in ten intricately linked 50-minute films set in a Warsaw housing project, a hermetic yet somehow universal story of the human condition that doubles as an idiosyncratic portrait of Polish society during the waning days of European communism. Each installment is strong enough to stand on its own (e.g. A Short Film About Killing), but woven together they form a richly cinematic tapestry, particularly astounding when you remember that The Decalogue a TV miniseries.
Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.