Holy Week is a week of mysteries. As we immerse ourselves in the drama of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, we come face to face with the mysteries of sin, brokenness and the worst forms of human darkness. But we also encounter the mysteries of divine love and forgiveness, of what it means to find new, and real, life.

Sometimes the best way to meditate more deeply on these things is through art, and some films do this exceptionally well. Jeremy Ambrose is Campus Pastoral Associate for Staff at ACU Melbourne, and he also screens classic films for ACU Film Culture and for Melbourne Catholic Cinephiles. With a deep love for film, Jeremy recommends five films that make for great Holy Week viewing if we are searching for alternatives to The Passion of the Christ.

Of Gods and Men (2010), directed by Xaviar Beauvois (MA 15+)

This may be one of the greatest religious films of all time (and made by an atheist). It is certainly perfect for Holy Week, an intense and prayerful experience to inspire all viewers and draw them deeper into the mystery of Good Friday. It is the true story of the Trappist monks in Algeria who, as Islamist militants invade the area, must decide whether they will leave the country or stay behind to be with the local people they minister to.

The film is overflowing with beauty, through the music, the quietness, the rugged and real faces of the people and the visual poetry of the monks going about their daily routines. The liturgical prayer of the monks structures the narrative, and the film climaxes with one of the most beautiful scenes ever committed to film: a last supper scene set to the music of Swan Lake, with each movement of the music reflecting the inner journey of the monks, individually and as a community, as they come to make the decision of their lives.

Ordet (1955), directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer (not rated)

Translating from the Danish to mean ‘The Word’, Ordet is a film about faith, suffering and resurrection. Meditative, shocking and luminous, it probes the faith of the viewer, challenging us beyond comfort.

The Borgen family have several crosses thrust upon them, including that of Johannes, the middle of three sons, who suffers a mental breakdown (after studying Kierkegaard) and believes himself to be Jesus Christ. His presence throughout the film is unsettling, throwing things off kilter, as he speaks words from the Gospel that nobody can take seriously but that haunt each person’s conscience.

What happens next in this film should not be described but needs to be experienced. Ordet is about many things: madness and sanity, fundamentalism and freedom, death and resurrection, the little faith to be found on earth and the faith of God’s little ones.

To quote film critic Roger Ebert, Ordet is ‘a difficult film to enter, but once inside it is impossible to escape.’ The perfect Lent or Easter film experience.

A Hidden Life (2019), directed by Terrence Malick (PG)

The films of Terrence Malick are more like retreat experiences than anything else. They are slow-moving, meditative and filled with dynamic, visually rich images of beauty. They can test the patience of even the most experimentally inclined viewer, and often the narrative can be non-existent as the films move backwards and forwards in a subconscious haze of philosophical thought.

A Hidden Life, however, is the film where Malick perfects his craft, combining the internal questioning, the endless breathtaking images of intense beauty, and the life of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter in a perfect harmony of truth, goodness and beauty.

We are plunged into the depths of a man’s conscience as he tries to discern what he is called to do, torn between two paths as he seeks God’s voice to show him the way. It also contains one of the greatest depictions of marriage ever to appear on screen, perfectly portraying the holiness, beauty and sacrifice inherent to the vocation. A Hidden Life is essential Lenten viewing!

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966), directed by Robert Bresson (PG)

Why would a film about a donkey be great Holy Week viewing? Well, Catholic filmmaker Robert Bresson gives a perfect visual explanation through this tragic tale of suffering witnessed and experienced by the above titled donkey, Balthazar.

Balthazar becomes a Christ figure as we see suffering upon suffering heaped upon this innocent creature. The sufferings are compounded by abuses received by the young girl, who loves the donkey, and Bresson films the still, expressionless face of the donkey in this context, so that we are able to impose our emotions onto the face and, via the donkey, experience what it is to ‘suffer with’ those on screen. The film culminates with a final radiance that only makes sense knowing that Easter follows Good Friday.

Ben-Hur (1959), directed by William Wyler (G)

You can never go past an old biblical epic for appropriateness and sheer entertainment during Holy Week. There are many to be recommended, such as The Robe (1953), Quo Vadis? (1951) and Barabbas (1961). The mother of all epics, however, in terms of grandness, quality and running time, is the one and only Ben-Hur.

Subtitled A Tale of the Christ, it truly is a film with Christ at its heart, and the sheer beauty and magnificence on display expands the emotions, readying us for the divine encounters that come throughout. Judah Ben-Hur seeks vengeance upon ex–childhood friend and now Roman commander, Messala. Along the way, his path intertwines with a certain carpenter from Nazareth, producing some of the most moving and impactful moments in cinema history.

The action and adventure scenes are exhilarating, the performances glorious; the colour is eye-popping, and the score soars, sweeping the viewer along for the journey. Filled to the brim with excellence. They simply don’t make them like they used to!