When asked at a press conference about his faith, French director Francoise Truffaut’s answer was simple: “Films are my religion.” I don’t think we need to go as far as Truffaut, but certainly there are many points of contact between religion—Judaism in particular—and cinema. I am trying not to be too heretical, but wasn’t the experience of seeing a film for the first time probably a bit like that of the people of Israel in front of Mount Sinai, where it is written that they “saw the voices”? Here, Moment offers readers a list of ten films, each with a thematic connection to perhaps the most famous segment of the whole Torah: the Ten Commandments.
1. I Am the Lord Thy God – The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
There haven’t been many biographical films about God. Many of the attempts have been juvenile comedies (Evan Almighty featuring Morgan Freeman comes to mind). Why is this? Perhaps filmmakers are aware that creating a dramatic narrative centered around God could be a tad pretentious. Luckily, we do have some wonderfully pretentious directors like Terrence Mallick who can answer our call for a film centering the first commandment.
True, The Tree of Life doesn’t feature a character who answers to the name “God.” Superficially, his film seems to be about the simple day-to-day life of a family from Texas. But The Tree of Life can be interpreted as about the eternal battle between the value of mercy and the value of judgment. The mother of the family (Rachel McAdams) is a seemingly never-ending fountain of grace, while the father (Brad Pitt) is the epitome of judgment. Their children grow in the context of this complex tension between these values, and it continues into their adult lives.
How is this all connected to God? According to many Jewish texts, and particularly the Kabbalah, mercy and judgment are the two conflicting values which are at the basis of all creation. A quick look at the Bible, and even more so into Kabbalah, will lead us to see that the God of Abraham is full of judgement on one hand (see: the flood, among other instances), yet on the other hand He is also full of grace (just look at the rainbow!). I find it amazing that a simple family from Texas can become, through Mallick’s unique lens, a brilliant allegory of these contrasting traits of God Almighty.
2. Thou Shalt Have no Other Gods Before Me – City of Gods (Fernando Merielles, 2003)
This commandment seems pretty simple, but the histories of the ancient Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah indicate otherwise. The truth is that not only are we demanded by God to not be tempted by idols of stone and gold, but we are also challenged to not worship those made from flesh and blood.
City of Gods by Fernando Meirelles shows us what happens when people start seeing themselves as gods. This gangster movie revolves around the story of a kid growing into the crime world of Rio de Janeiro, and like many other films from the gangster genre, his vanity leads to his downfall. True, many films, and particularly gangster films, deal with megalomania, but the religious undertones in this one are particularly prominent because Brazilian society is still extremely Catholic. This film is a brilliant moral tale with a clear message, which echoes throughout the Bible: When men become gods, and are worshiped as such, things quickly start to fall apart.
3. Thou Shalt not Take the Name of the Lord thy God in Vain – Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988)
Michael Keaton in a bizarre costume and with an extravagant wig doesn’t exactly fit in with our usual notion of God, but Tim Burton’s classic black comedy teaches us an important lesson about how important it is to be careful of what we say.
Beetlejuice—a mysterious and hilarious demon—only crashes into our realm of reality when his name is uttered three times in a row. Unfortunately for the young and recently deceased couple who star in this flick (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), they do just that and summon the supernaturally annoying Beetlejuice, who terrorizes their suburban home. I would love to keep talking about this film…but his name has already appeared twice in this paragraph and I really don’t have time or energy to deal with a demon.
4. Remember the Sabbath Day, to Keep it Holy – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)
What is the essence of Shabbat? Trying to answer this question would be ridiculously pretentious. Still, I believe almost any Jew would agree that Shabbat is connected in some way or another to rest.
There is no better film to represent the virtue of rest than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Our culture often sees rest as an unfortunate necessity, as something which is fundamentally inferior to diligence—but high schooler Ferris Bueller is determined to have a day off, despite what his uptight principal thinks about it. This absurd determination leads to many shenanigans. With his friends and wonderfully entertaining personality, Ferris surprises us by showing that resting can, and should, be chic, unique and truly inspiring. Resting is an art form we need to master!
5. Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother – Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981)
Why should we honor our parents? Well, they love us, they are completely committed to us, and they often are the people who know us best. But the film Mommie Dearest adds another reason for us to respect the fifth commandment: Respecting our parents might prevent the creation of horrendous films like Mommie Dearest.
This awful film, a cult classic, isn’t only problematic because it completely bashes the character of Joan Crawford as a mother—the film is so ridiculously over the top that it’ll make you doubt if anything has any meaning at all. I won’t even try to go into the plot of this film and all of it’s “unusual” artistic choices (why does Faye Dunaway have to scream so much?), because just like our relationships with our parents, some things should be left undiscussed.
That said, I believe that if one approaches this film with the right attitude, it might be a hilarious and campy watch. Just give in to the absurd and let all expectations of coherence gently float away.
6. Thou Shalt not Murder – Titane (Julie Ducarnu, 2021)
Titane, the latest Palme D’or winner, is something to be witnessed. When I watched the film during the 2021 Jerusalem Film Festival I would turn my head back once every few minutes—particularly during the gruesome murder scenes—just to see the expressions of sheer horror, disgust and amusement on the faces of the audience. I can’t say this enough: It was a blast.
The film tells the story of a young serial killer who gets impregnated by a retro car (yep, read that again: The hero of this film gives birth to a semi-human semi-mechanical fetus) while impersonating the young missing child of a fireman in an attempt to flee the police. Truly, there isn’t anything like this film. But what does this film tell us about the act of murder? I doubt you’ll exit the movie theater holding a completely new perspective about serial killers, but this film does shock by showing us that even malicious murderers can be forgiven, and can be loved. In this sense, Titane dares to say what the sixth commandment does not.
7. Thou Shalt not Commit Adultery – Little Children (Todd Field, 2006)
This film tells the story of two lovelorn spouses from separate marriages, who begin an affair in an attempt to escape the cripplingly boring day-to-day life of suburban Massachusetts. This film is definitely not family friendly—and in fact, it isn’t friendly at all.
This disturbing film, starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, Is masterfully directed by Todd Field. The film’s beautiful colors and gentle camera movements lure us into it and its extremely erotic undertones. If you are looking for a challenging watch which might make you rethink the stability of life in our bourgeois world, this is just the film for you.
8. Thou Shalt not Steal – Bob the Gambler (Jean Pierre-Melville, 1956)
The film that immediately comes to mind when we think of theft is Ocean’s 11—the deliciously stylistic heist film by Steven Soderberg. But not many are aware that Soderberg’s film is based upon the wonderful French film Bob the Gambler by the master Jean Pierre Melville which came out just several years before the French New Wave (an extremely influential cinematic movement which bubbled in the beginning of the 1960s in Paris) and in many ways predicted it.
This black-and-white film tells the story of Bob, a retired conman who decides to come back for one last job. Bob recruits for his plan a diverse cast of characters, and sets us out on his mission with a scheme which seems completely bullet-proof. But will his plan succeed? This film is so beautiful, rhythmic and cool that it makes us want to completely revise the eighth commandment: Thou Shalt not Steal—unless you have a really good plan and a healthy dash of French je-ne-sais-qoui.
9. Thou Shalt not Bear False Witness Against thy Neighbor – Primal Fear (Gregory Holbit, 1996)
We are used to just about anything as film viewers—murder, drug abuse, foul language—but something that still shocks us is when the characters on screen have the nerve to straight-up lie to us. Spoiler alert: In this brilliant legal thriller, Edward Norton manages to escape a murder trial by convincing everyone that he is mentally unfit. He fools everyone—the judge, his lawyer and even the audience—and in a frustrating ending note, the movie ends as he walks off freely into the sunset.
The ninth commandment, and Primal Fear, understand that we humans like seeing justice done, and that we are built to be outraged at injustice. This is perhaps why we want to throw our popcorn at the screen when we see people making fun of justice. But don’t let your anger at the film mislead you: the direction, writing and acting on this one are simply masterful.
10. Thou Shalt not Covet – American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)
Jealousy is perhaps one of the worst human traits, and the Bible realized this when deciding what to place as the final commandment. Jealousy hurts us, it blinds us to the important things in life, and it can only lead to misery. If you don’t agree, I would recommend watching American Beauty.
This masterpiece, which launched the directing career of Sam Mendes, shows us how longing for something we don’t have—coveting, in other words—destroys the life of every individual in an ordinary suburban family. The film focuses on the father of the family, who becomes obsessed with his high school daughter’s beautiful friend, but as the film continues, we realize that practically everyone in the neighborhood is tangled up in some kind of twisted romantic fantasy. The shocking and sad truth at the heart of this film is that although jealousy is corrupting, it is practically impossible to exist in modern western society without it.