The way in which religious faith is dramatized on the big screen has changed radically over the years, moving beyond epics and hagiographies. The following five films fade in on storylines that are as much about doubt, deceit, and the absence of God as their opposite. But don’t judge the moral of their stories until you’ve reached the closing credits.
The Apostle (1997)
Sonny (Robert Duvall) is a southern Pentecostal preacher with a lively, racially integrated church—and a secret. He beat to death his wife’s lover and fled the consequences, baptizing himself as “The Apostle E. F.” Is Sonny/E. F. truly born again or merely in disguise? Does the preacher have God’s anointing despite his crime, or is he just a good ol’ boy who cut a fast deal with Buddy Jesus? What it means to be simultaneously a sinner and a saint is powerfully dramatized in this frank depiction of how God can draw straight with crooked lines.
Sling Blade (1996)
Newly released from a mental hospital where he has been resident since he was a child, Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) returns to small-town life in Arkansas and is befriended by a twelve-year-old (Lucas Black) made miserable by his mother’s love interest (Dwight Yoakam). As the boyfriend becomes increasingly abusive, Karl decides to intervene for the child’s sake. But first he demands baptism, an identification with Jesus’s death, as he prepares to sacrifice himself for the sake of another. Although depicted as mentally handicapped, Karl is wiser than most about the nature of good and evil, and the grief that comes from such knowledge.
It’s 1964, a time of reform in the Catholic Church, and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is principal of a Catholic high school in the Bronx. She has reason to suspect that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is sexually abusing one of her students, an African-American boy whose mother’s only concern is that her son get through the system without trouble. The principal has no proof of her suspicions. Can she afford to sacrifice the soul of a child to save the career of a popular parish priest? On what do we really base our faith? Is it a matter of the heart—or hard evidence? And is there a difference between faith and certainty?
Higher Ground (2011)
Corinne (Vera Farmiga, making her directorial debut) and her family survive a horrific bus crash and come to believe that God saved them for a purpose. Living in a tightly supervised “New Testament” community, she slowly comes to question the basis for this sui generis church authority, as well as the supernatural spin placed on natural phenomena. And what happens when prayers are answered—to our horror? Can someone who fears she’s hell-bound really be an unbeliever?
The End of the Affair (1999)
A novelist, Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), relives via his diary an affair with a married woman (Julianne Moore) during the chaos of World War II–era London. A bombing raid they both survived brought the tryst to an abrupt halt, with Bendrix uncertain as to why. When he finally learns it was an answered prayer that ended the affair, Bendrix becomes hell-bent on convincing his former lover to break yet one more vow—this one to God. As in The Apostle, Graham Greene’s story of a soul’s struggle with unwanted supernatural intrusions demonstrates that defining sinner and saint—and, for that matter, believer and skeptic—demands more than a dictionary.