As Vera Farmiga struggles with faith in her directorial debut, we contemplate religion on film.
Politics, priest scandals, and Stryper have soured religion for many in the twenty-first century, spurring an atheist movement that often recoils (or, in the case of Christopher Hitchens, raises a bemused, condescending eyebrow) at burkas, Bible-thumping, and other conspicuous displays of piety. Clearly attuned to the shifting tide, Vera Farmiga has directed and stars in Higher Ground, a new movie about a Christian woman's struggle with faith, out this Friday. In tribute, we've compiled a list of religious-minded films that even non-believers might enjoy.
1. Persepolis (2007)
Religious content: Years after her childhood dreams of being a kung-fu-kicking prophet, a young Iranian woman gets snapped out of a suicidal funk by visions of Allah and Karl Marx.
Why atheists might like it: Marjane Satrapi's animated adaptation of her own autobiographical comic functions both as a universal coming-of-age story and a sharp critique of extremist fundamentalism from the point of view of a Muslim woman suffering the consequences of a theocratic regime.
2. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe (2005)
Religious content: C.S. Lewis, the author of the popular books behind the semi-popular film franchise, slipped a lot of Christian allegory into his fantasy tale. (That big talking lion? It's Jesus!)
Why atheists might like it: Director Andrew Adamson's adaptation respects Lewis' themes without hitting audiences over the head with them, and Tilda Swinton's White Witch is a compelling cinematic villain. No matter what your belief system may be, it's pretty easy to root against her plan for endless winter and childhood Turkish Delight addiction.
3. Saved! (2004)
Religious content: The genre is teen comedy, but the setting is a fundamentalist Christian high school in Maryland and the characters (including Jena Malone as a girl who gives up her virginity to "help" a gay friend) are defined by rather than dismissive of their faith.
Why atheists might like it: Brian Dannelly's charming film is respectful of religion, but also hilariously perceptive about the frequent disconnect between piety and common decency. (Plus, Mandy Moore's performance as a holy-rolling mean girl is hilarious.)
4. Contact (1997)
Religious content: After a long-running argument with Matthew McConaughey's himbo Christian philosopher over the existence of God, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) experiences an inexplicable extraterrestrial encounter that redefines her understanding of faith.
Why atheists might like it: Can you think of another big-budget mainstream Hollywood movie centered on the beliefs of a heroic globe-trotting atheist? Heck, even Arroway's climactic spiritual rebirth is unapologetically secular in its awe-struck appreciation for the wonders of the universe.
5. Oh, God! (1977)
Religious content: It's right there in the title, as God Himself takes center stage in hopes of reminding the world He exists.
Why atheists might like it: Say what you will about organized religion (and director Carl Reiner takes plenty of potshots at sanctimonious kooks and con men), but it's hard to argue with George Burns' humane, sensible deity when he proclaims, "You can love each other, cherish and nurture each other or you can kill each other… Free will. All the choices are yours."