Roger Ebert’s 10 Favorite Christian-Themed Films

Pulitzer-prize winning film critic Roger Ebert died today at the age of 70. Although he had some confused views on faith (“I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God.”), Ebert often provided insightful criticism of religiously themed films. Since he never (that I know of) composed a list of his favorite Christian-themed movies, I’ve decided to put one together for him based on films that he gave a four star review or included on his Great Movies list.

While I refrained from commenting on his selections, I’ve ranked them in order of best to worst (the first six are all superb; the last is an atrocity).

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Ebert Quote: “Some movies, even good ones, should only be seen once. When we know how they turn out, they’ve surrendered their mystery and appeal. Other movies can be viewed an indefinite number of times. Like great music, they improve with familiarity. “It’s a Wonderful Life” falls in the second category.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Ebert Quote: “To modern audiences, raised on films where emotion is conveyed by dialogue and action more than by faces, a film like “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is an unsettling experience–so intimate we fear we will discover more secrets than we desire.”

The Apostle (1998)

Ebert Quote: “Sonny is different from most movie preachers. He’s not a fraud, for one thing; Hollywood tilts toward the Elmer Gantry stereotype. Sonny has a one-on-one relationship with God, takes his work seriously, and in the movie’s opening scene, the preacher pauses at an auto accident to ask one of the victims to accept Jesus Christ, “who you’re going to soon meet.” Sonny is flawed, with a quick temper, but he’s a good man, and the film is about his struggle back to redemption after his anger explodes.”

Ordet (1955)

Ebert Quote: “For the ordinary filmgoer, and I include myself, “Ordet” is a difficult film to enter. But once you’re inside, it is impossible to escape. Lean, quiet, deeply serious, populated with odd religious obsessives, it takes place in winter in Denmark in 1925, in a rural district that has a cold austere beauty.”

The Decalogue (1988)

Ebert Quote: “At the end you see that the Commandments work not like science but like art; they are instructions for how to paint a worthy portrait with our lives.”

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Ebert Quote: “Like many great films, Chariots of Fire takes its nominal subjects as occasions for much larger statements about human nature.”

Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

Ebert Quote: “Pasolini’s is one of the most effective films on a religious theme I have ever seen, perhaps because it was made by a nonbeliever who did not preach, glorify, underline, sentimentalize or romanticize his famous story, but tried his best to simply record it.”

Note: You can watch the entire film online here.

The Tree of Life (2011)

Ebert Quote: “Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.”

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Ebert Quote: “What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of. That his film is superficial in terms of the surrounding message — that we get only a few passing references to the teachings of Jesus — is, I suppose, not the point. This is not a sermon or a homily, but a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion. Take it or leave it.”

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Ebert Quote: “The astonishing controversy that has raged around this film is primarily the work of fundamentalists who have their own view of Christ and are offended by a film that they feel questions his divinity. But in the father’s house are many mansions, and there is more than one way to consider the story of Christ–why else are there four Gospels? Among those who do not already have rigid views on the subject, this film is likely to inspire more serious thought on the nature of Jesus than any other ever made.”

  • Tyler

    Probably my favorite film on this list is Ordet. It is a wonderful, masterful film that seriously points to Christ and the power of the resurrection. There are few films made today in its vein: it takes the faith seriously and is very good.

    Joe, did Ebert ever review any of Ingmar Bergman’s films?

    • Joe Carter

      Joe, did Ebert ever review any of Ingmar Bergman’s films?

      Yeah, Ebert loved Bergman’s films. I can think of at least three (Persona, The Seventh Seal, Cries and Whispers) that are on his Great Movies list.

  • Jonathan

    My top two are 1. Chariots of Fire 2. Tree of life

    “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Gets me every time

    • yankeegospelgirl

      Chariots of Fire is my all-time favorite film.

  • Andrew

    Thanks for this, haven’t seen all these so this is some great movie material for future viewing.

    My personal favourite is ‘The Apostle’, Robert Duvall is golden and it is such in cool picture of a flawed person used by God which has given me much hope over the years.

  • Collin

    It’s hard to calculate the influence Roger Ebert has had on my life. It was his writing in part that made me so passionate about film art. The eloquence of his criticism and insight into the process of filmmaking inspired me to go to film school, which set me on a trajectory I could never have predicted. Nothing but a largesse of gratitude toward Mr. Ebert for his contribution to the film world and film criticism, and an abiding sadness that he uniformly and cognizantly rejected the gospel. Thanks for posting this list. “Religious films” provided the platform for Ebert to write some of his most thoughtful criticism.

  • Drew

    Blood Diamond is one of my favorite movies that portrays the gospel. While not intended to do so, if you have seen this film I hope you were moved by the relentless love and pursuit that a father has for his son who is his enemy. I saw grace all through this movie.

    • MIchaelA

      Drew, I had the same thought watching Blood Diamond. Its not intended to be Christian, but it does illustrate some powerful points relevant to the gospel.

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  • Mark

    Where is Babette’s Feast?

    • Joe Carter

      For some reason, I don’t think Ebert ever reviewed that film.

  • Jcas

    I cannot believe you included The Last Temptation of Christ. This is NOT Christian-themed as it denies the divinity of Christ. Just because Jesus is portrayed in the film, does not make it Christian-themed.

    • John Carpenter

      He simply listed those Ebert considered the best. Notice that Mr. Carter said that the last one (“The Last Temptation . . .”) was an atrocity.

    • Joe

      I watched “Temptation” a long time ago, so can’t recall much. I thought the film’s message is that the last temptation is ‘thought’, as in Jesus was thinking “if only…”. It’s just unfortunate that the protagonist is Christ Himself.

  • Jen

    Glad to see a list of films and will seek out to view. However, didn’t anything in the first paragraph of this article jump out at anyone? Ebert says he considers himself a Catholic but doesn’t believe in God. I’m a Christian, and know that the Catholic church believes in God and His Son Jesus Christ. So, how could he have made such a statement?

  • yankeegospelgirl

    This is so sad. Every time a new film came out, I wanted to hear what Ebert thought of it. I would say RIP but sadly he’s probably not.

    • Jedidiah Slaboda

      Agreed. The reviews on TGC seem to me to fall into the trap of warning the reader/viewer to be careful too often. I am not sure that shows enough respect to TGC readers (essentially telling us not to believe everything we read/see all the time) or, in this case, a well-made work of art.

      • Joe Carter

        ***a well-made work of art.***

        Are you referring to ‘Last Temptation?” I’m certainly not warning viewers to be careful about that movie. The only real danger is they become so bored watching it that they’d fall asleep and hit their head on their coffee table.

        • Jedidiah Slaboda


  • Patty

    It’s sad that just because The Last Temptation of Christ doesn’t tell the Christian story of the gospel, you have to call it an atrocity. Fact of the matter is, The Last Temptation of Christ is a superbly well made movie; it is well-written, it is conceptually adventurous, and the pieces come together to create a really tight cinematic product. Writing it off because it is bad theology seems silly to me. After all, the film doesn’t take itself to be telling the story “as it happened” but instead recasting the story of Christ in a new and conceptually interesting way.

    • danny

      Patty, I agree.

      I am a fully conservative (theologically), reformed, evangelical believer. But as an art fan, film fan, Scorsese fan, and thinking human I think we need to come down off our high horses enough to look at a film like that and say “Yes, it misses the point, but I can engage with it honestly and thoughtfully.”

      I guess I’m just not sure God is looking at the film and saying “You all have to go fundamentalist and get mad on my behalf.” I think this is true when God is mocked, but mocking God is not what is going on here. This film is an attempt to engage with God, although a misguided attempt in some ways, and it is a very well made film.

      • Joe Carter

        ***This film is an attempt to engage with God, although a misguided attempt in some ways, and it is a very well made film.***

        My biggest problem with the film is not theological. On that front, it’s definitely a mess. But it’s just as bad as a work of art. The casting is terrible (Dafoe, especially is wrong for the part), the dialogue is silly, the pacing is sluggish. Everything about the film is subpar. I’ve seen every feature film Scorsese ever made and Temptation is hands-down his worst work (even wore than the Roger Corman produced B-movie, “Boxcar Bertha.”).

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  • Herman J Grobler

    Great stuff!
    Thanks for compiling this list. I am going to try and see those I do not know!
    Two of my favorite films that didn’t make the list are Ben Hur and Jesus of Montreal
    God bless,

    Herman of Bibledifferences