The Harlem River Dispatch: Five Foreign Films About Faith

"Faith is the surrender of the mind; it's the surrender of reason, it's the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It's our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated."

- Christopher Hitchens - "Holier Than Thou", Penn & Teller: Bullshit!

Yes, faith as a virtue has gotten a lot of flak over these past few 'enlightened' centuries.

To strictly rational folk who prefer that every step they take is an assured one, living a faith-filled life in this day and age may seem nothing short of foolish, and in a way they may be absolutely right. To walk in faith in a faithless world can be one reckless and risky venture - such is its virtue - and to commit in faith to anything uncertain, whether it be love, hope, success, or God, does require a great deal of foolishness.  However, to further dismiss it as stupid, overrated, or even plain-out sinister is something that we at By Way of Beauty refuse to let slide.
I have heard it said that a person who lives by faith is just too afraid to turn away from their familiar source of nourishment and security. What many seem not to understand or admit to, however, is that faith, at its most stripped down, is an endeavor for the brave, not for the cowardly – it is far more akin to walking on a tight rope than it is to reclining safely upon a pile of pillows. 

Consider the fact that there has rarely been a compelling narrative in which the characters lacked a profound faith in someone or something. Faith makes for good drama. It's that which forms the most valiant of heroes, romantic of lovers, and dreamers of the most impossible dreams.

Even most rationalistic, secular characters are driven by some intense faith in something. In last year's Moneyball, for instance, Brad Pitt's character believed so much in his numbers game, which was so reasonable that it seemed absurd to most, that he was willing to risk his entire livelihood on it. It was that leap of faith which made that film so compelling. Without such elements, stories about people puttering around on their own webs of reason and rationality would bore us to tears and offer little inspiration. (Imagine how useless a play Hamlet would be if the Prince of Denmark actually believed that there were no more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy?)

Here we've come to the point for me to share with you the five foreign films which inspired me to write this article. They are by no means the quintessential quintuplet of the genre, but they are five of my favorites, and I feel like they perfectly demonstrate what it means to live by faith. I highly recommend them for their themes, but also because they are each excellent films in their own right.  They are:

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
Dir: Robert Bresson (France)

Based upon Georges Bernanos' classic novel (originally published in 1937), Diary of a Country Priest is about a young pastor serving the people of the small town of Ambricourt, France. Isolated, sickly, and disdained by many members of his flock, the Curé d'Ambricourt quietly fulfills his priestly duties while living ascetically, his diet consisting of just bread and wine.

Filmed in beautiful black and white by Bresson's stark but brilliant eye, the film does a fantastic job in introducing you to what seems to be a dour and dislikable drip of a man only to gradually reveal him to be a living saint. While many modern films with new-age sensibilities are apt to sugarcoat faith, Diary of a Country Priest unabashedly douses it in bitter medicine. In the film, faith is treated as something that would empower us not to drown out our most troubling doubts, but rather shine a cold and clinical light upon them. Nor is it depicted as anesthesia for the cruelties and injustices of the world - instead, it's what enables us to excruciatingly bear them.

The ultimate conclusion that this film seems to come to, however, is that despite all the hardships one might face, faith will provide the perspective that is needed in order to endure. This idea is best summed up in the moving final lines of the film: "What does it matter? All is grace."

Ushpizin (2004)
Dir: Gidi Dar (Israel)

Reminiscent of many of Shakespeare's comedies, this delightful film is set in Jerusalem, where a financially struggling yet profoundly devout married couple are preparing for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Written by and starring Shuli Rand, a Breslover Hasidic Jew, alongside his real life wife (who surprisingly has never acted before), Ushpizin is a perfect family movie in its depiction of faith. Its characters exhibit a steadfast trust for the guiding and gracious hand of the God - and with every error made and obstacle met, the couple continues to pray with intense fervency. By the end, one can't help but sing along in their triumphant songs of worship and thanksgiving.

The Island (2006)
Dir: Pavel Lungin (Russia)

In the great tradition of Russian existentialism comes this paradoxical film about a "holy fool" living hermetically on a small and snowy island.

Played with great cunning and depth by former U.S.S.R. rocker Pyotr Mamonov, Brother Anatoly has proved himself to be a bit of a stumbling block for his fellow monks at the island monastery. While he seems to be undisciplined in his practices of prayer and is partial to pulling pranks, he also is curiously blessed with mysterious powers of healing and foresight. As the local pilgrims start coming to Anatoly, the other monks begrudgingly begin to turn to him, also to try and learn what he may be there to teach him.

What I think the film teaches, in the end, is the consistency a faithful life requires in order to bear fruit. Everyone around Brother Anatoly seems to be cutting corners - from his superiors at the monastery who boast about their lush bedding, to the receivers of Anatoly's tentative miracles, who would rather hurry back to their lives instead of following through with the instructions Anatoly had laid out for them. The final message of The Island is so powerful, that upon its initial release in Russia, it was reported that Russian Orthodox priests and Bishops would stand outside in prayer to bless the theaters in which the film was playing.

Ordet (1955)
Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer (Denmark)

Ordet (which translates to "The Word") is about Morten, a devout Danish patriarch with three troubled sons: Mikkel, the eldest, is a staunch atheist who is concerned about the health of his beloved wife who is pregnant with their third child; the middle son, Johannes, who drove himself mad by reading philosophers like Kierkegaard and who now believes himself to be Jesus Christ; and Anders, the youngest, who is passionately in love with the daughter of a pious member of a rival sect, who is intent on recruiting Morten and his sons to his congregation.

Throughout the entirety of the film, the Morten house is haunted by Johannes' pathetic presence as he shuffles through the dark rooms of the estate, admonishing all those in ear shot in a creepy high-pitched voice for their unfortunate lack of faith. His madness at first seems like a mockery of their current struggles, and of the religion that has entangled itself into their lives - except for Mikkel’s daughter, who hangs on Johannes' every word with childlike wonder and innocent belief.

Ordet - which has an unexpected knockout at the end - has often held the top spot in the 100 most spiritually significant films of all time, as compiled by the Arts and Faith online community.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Italy)

Inspired by an invitation by Pope John XXIII for secular artists to converse and collaborate with religious clergy and institutions, Pasolini, a committed Marxist and devout atheist, began work on a film inspired by the first Gospel of the New Testament.

Prior to it, Hollywood had been fairly adept at churning out biblical epics that were chock-full of spectacle and pomp, but never had it produced a film that was as raw, real, and as poetically reverential as was Pasolini's. Casting the characters entirely with Italian amateurs, including a stern unibrowed economics student to play the role of Jesus, Pasolini peppered his film with artistic flourishes of a true auteur, such as scoring the film with not only Bach but also with selections from the Congolese Missa Luba as well as soulful African American spirituals.

Because of Pasolini's controversial personal life, however, as well as some of the grotesque and horrifying movies he would eventually go on to make, many critics have remained suspicious of Pasolini's true intentions with this film. Whether or not Pasolini saw parallels between Christ galvanizing his apostles and the proletariat rising up against the systematic powers of his day, it's clear that Pasolini recognized and had much respect for the immense faith that Christ had inspired in a small rabble of poor Jewish fishermen. Pasolini seems to have come to the conclusion that their faith was not just a sinister delusion which tricked them into eventual martyrdom, but rather the very tool which enabled them to transform the world and alter the course of history forever.

So, there you have it - my five favorite foreign films about faith. I recognize there are many others floating around out there, and I'm looking for a good reason to start up my Netflix account again, so if you have any good recommendations, don't hesitate to leave them in the comments section below.

'Til next time, friends!


  1. Fantastic!!! Great choices, HRD. All attest to the fact that "By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the Word of God" (Heb:11-3) Charity may be the flower, hope the stem, but faith, undoubtedly, is the root.

  2. Excellent post with one correction. In The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, you make reference to Pope John XXII (1316– 1334). I'm certain that you meant to mention Pope John XXIII (1958-1963).

    1. Ushpizin is a sheer delight. Diary of a Country Priest I've seen so many times, its part of me. I would definitely add 'Tree of the Wooden Clogs'. Pasolini's film is such a refreshing change from Hollywood Jesus (I'm thinking of Jeffrey Hunter's shaved armpits for the crucifixion in King of Kings) which is probably the low point.

    2. 'Tree of the Wooden Clogs' looks good! I'll definitely be sure to check it out. I agree with you regarding Jeffrey Hunter's Hollywood Jesus in King of Kings... another low point might be John Wayne's cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told...

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