Holy Visions: Five Favorite Films on Faith

Day of Wrath: Michael Shannon faces an apocalyptic sky in “Take Shelter”

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Here are a small selection of many films we looked at in prepping for God’s Land – and one that we would have watched had it been released a few years earlier. These are films that reference ‘faith’ or ‘cults’ in unique and informative ways, how Man interacts with (or even supersedes) their God. Why are these people ‘choosing’ to live this way? If they aren’t choosing to live this way, who or what is making them? Are they out of step, mentally unbalanced or do they have an insight that is only privileged to a few?

Also, what’s up with all the movies coming out recently dealing with faith and cults? Martha Marcy May Marlene, Higher Ground, Take Shelter, etc. Does this new curiosity with non-traditional spiritualism reflect something the larger population is grappling with at this time or is it only coincidental? If it’s the former, then Carl Th. Dreyer is due for a huge comeback!



Distance (2001) dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda

Kore-eda is a filmmaker that provokes deep feelings in me. His previous film After Life is one of the most original narratives of the hereafter I know. Distance, his next film, tells the story of the aftermath of an Aum Shrinko-type cult in Japan who have killed innocents with a sarin gas attack. Here family members of the former cult come together in an eerie woodland setting to do … what? They discuss the death of the leader’s son, they mope, they bicker, what are they planning? The stand-out scene deals in flashback with a young group member retuning to his family home late at night for food and supplies only to be confronted by his mother. She tries physically to stop him from leaving and returning to the cult but she is too diminutive to prevent him. Her futile attempt to hold on to her son is devastating.

Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (TV 1980) dir. William A. Graham

Though not a traditional horror film, this is one of the most frightening movies I’ve ever seen. To me it’s similar to The Exorcist in that they both confront the darkest personality of ‘A Greater Power.’ Except, this story based on the evil of Rev. Jim Jones actually happened!  Powers Booth’s petrifying portrayal of the religious cult leader is so convincingly real. The story is straightforward and well known from a number of documentaries; the leader starts off as a do-gooder against the hypocrisy of the organized church. Then as his congregation and influence grows, in his twisted mind he moves from being a disciple to the Almighty Himself. In turn, he takes whatever he ‘needs’ from the members of his group. The sweat and charisma Jones/Booth exudes completely mesmerizes you. The last words many of his people hear as they self-administer the poisoned Kool-Aid will forever haunt me, “we are not dying, just stepping over to another place.”  I first saw this on TV when I was a kid and it has never left me.

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Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence) (2005) dir. Philip Groning

This stunning film brings enlightenment to the patient viewer. It shows faith through ritual and the monks who devote not a day or an hour to their spirituality but every waking moment. Shot year-round reflecting the seasons and the use of natural light only amplifies the position of Man in God’s kingdom. This unprecedented access to the lives of these cloistered clerics; how they eat, how they live, how they pray, how they tend to their literal flocks of animals, shows an entirely unaffected group of devotees who have heeded the call of their God. Their humanity too, is divine.

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Devi (1960) dir. Satyajit Ray

This story of a religious Hindu family where the old father believes his daughter-in-law is a deity is deeply enthralling. A local child is ‘healed’ of a potentially fatal malady just as the old father has a dream of the goddess Devi. The daughter-in-law sits upon the dais as the locals in the village show up to pay obeisance. She goes from being amused, then burdened by the adulation and finally believing herself to be a real goddess with healing powers to finally losing her mind. Here again misplaced faith has disastrous results when the child she has to heal is part of her family. This would make an interesting double-feature with the above Jim Jones story.

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Take Shelter (2011) dir. Jeff Nichols

A riveting story about a man who doesn’t hear voices as some designated holy men, but instead he has very troubling visions. Some of his visions are of the general nightmare variety; a dog attack, a friend turning on him, people ambushing him in his car, while others are real End-of-Times, apocalyptical imagery. One thing that’s for sure is the actual pain; physical and emotional, he endures during these ‘dreams.’ Not an overtly religious person though he does seem to go to church somewhat regularly, he initially feels that he has inherited his mother’s mental illness. Later he considers that he may be a Cassandra with his visions showing the harrowing near future where the atmospheric conditions become supernaturally severe and birds all at once fall from the sky. This man’s calling is not to serve his Lord but to warn the masses. Or it could just be like the accusations that cling to all spiritual seekers; it could all be in his head.

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Incomplete list of films screened in prepping GOD’s LAND:

Ordet (1955) – dir. Carl Th. Dreyer

Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (TV 1980) – dir. William A. Graham

Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence) (2005) – dir. Philip Groning

L’Humanite (1999) – dir. Bruno Dumont

Yi Yi (2000) – dir. Edward Yang

Distance (2001) – dir. Hirokazu Koreeda

Pather Panchali (1955) – dir. Satyajit Ray

Devi (1960) – dir. Satyajit Ray

The Apostle (1997) – dir. Robert Duvall

Stellet Licht (Silent Light) (2007) – dir. Carlos Reygadas

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) – dir. Carl Th. Dreyer

Into the Wild (2007) – dir. Sean Penn

Nashville (1976) – dir. Robert Altman

Also, many, many works of Jim Jarmusch, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang, Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, Ingmar Bergman, Buster Keaton and after GL was shot Ozu Yasajiro.

Krishna Kokopelli Anderson is the editor of God’s Land as well as an all-around good post-production guy. Besides learning to like Joan Didion, he is an aspiring tandoori-wallah , a spastic flautist and very eager to take up painting one day. Some of his recent writings can be found in his own notebook.

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