A few years ago I thought it would an interesting challenge to think of films that reflected the heart of the season of Advent. You can see that list of “10 Films for Advent” here. But what about Lent? What makes a film “Lenten”? As I thought about it, I first thought of images: films of desert, spartan landscapes; faces of lament and suffering; gray and drab color palettes. Then I thought of tone: somber, contemplative, quiet, yet with a glimmer of hope or a moment of catharsis. Finally I thought of themes: suffering, isolation, hunger, penance, hope. I came up with the list below (in alphabetical order).
Ballast (2008): Lance Hammer’s debut film is a quiet (indeed, sometimes silent) look at the hard times of a downtrodden family in Mississippi. Amidst the film’s pervasive squalor, destitution, and grim grayness, there is an affirmation of life and a building towards hope. It’s a film about people on the brink getting a second chance, gradually finding their bearings and ballast as they move through the mire of life’s hard knocks.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951): French director Robert Bresson’s Priest charts the everyday struggles of a young priest trying his best to follow God’s will in shepherding a small parish in rural France. Quiet, contemplative, lonely, quotidian and yet transcendent (Paul Schrader would say), Priest is a gorgeous picture of a devoted-yet-imperfect believer leaning on God in the mundane isolation of modern life.
Gerry (2002): Gus Van Sant’s avant garde film is essentially a silent observation of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the unforgiving deserts of the American Southwest. There are scant more than a couple dozen lines of dialogue to be found in its 103 minutes, nothing like a “plot” to speak of, and yet the film is utterly spellbinding. The desolate, waterless wilderness is ominous but strangely beautiful.
Hunger (2008): The debut feature from Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Hunger is a raw, visceral depiction of IRA leader Bobby Sands’ 1981 prison hunger strike. Less political than existential, Hunger is about self-imposed suffering for a cause. Bleak, brutal, hard to watch, Hunger nevertheless ends with a note of hope/catharsis.
Into Great Silence (2007): Philip Gröning’s film is nearly three hours long, pretty much silent, actionless, and repetitive. But all of this is appropriate for a documentary about the ascetic life of monks. The film, like Lent, is quiet, contemplative, beautiful in its simplicity and a truly worshipful experience.
Last Days in the Desert (2015): Rodrigo García's film is perhaps the most literal Lent film on the list. It's a film about Jesus (Ewan McGregor) in his 40 days of prayer and fasting in the desert, where he is tempted by Satan (also played by Ewan McGregor). Spare, quiet, perceptive and provocative, this is contemplative religious cinema at its best.
L’enfant (2005): I was debating which Dardenne brothers film to include here, because I think many of their films have a Lenten feel to them. I chose L’enfant (The Child) because of its cold, stark tone and its exploration of sin, suffering and penance. The “penance” part comes really only as a hint, in the final cathartic minutes, but what a powerful climax it is.
The New World (2005): Terrence Malick’s The New World centers on the story of Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), whose journey in the film is decidedly Lenten. At one point she has her own “ashes to ashes” moment when she covers her face in ash and dirt as she grieves the supposed death of John Smith. She undergoes profound suffering in the film but is beautifully resilient, learning from every up and down and growing “towards the light” like a tree even when a branch breaks off.
Of Gods and Men (2011): A true story about monks in North Africa who risk it all in pursuit of their mission, Gods is one of the most inspiring films about faith, sacrifice, and community that I’ve ever seen. A quiet, austere, but utterly transcendent film, Gods paints a picture of what it means to be faithfully present as Christ’s ambassadors in hostile world. It’s a film about joy in suffering, and the beauty of picking up one’s cross in pursuit of Christ.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): This silent masterpiece from Danish director Carl Dreyer provides an amazingly artful and moving account of the suffering and martyrdom of Joan of Arc. Shot almost entirely in close-up, the film’s striking images—especially Joan’s face—are gripping and evoke the holy, even in their spartan simplicity.
The Road (2009): John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is a dark, gray, horrifying film about suffering and survival in a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. This was actually the first film that came to mind when I thought about “Lenten films.” As dark and painful as the film is to watch, there is a quietness and slowness to it that engenders contemplation. And though 90% of the film feels like Good Friday, its hopeful ending nods in direction of Easter.
Silence (2016): Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Shusaku Endo's novel is a film about knowing Jesus Christ in and through suffering. A film about persecution, doubt, temptation, and the struggles of the flesh, Silence pulls the viewer into a quiet, contemplative space that focuses on our weakness and the sufficiency of Christ.