Every year in the lead-up to Easter, films about Jesus and scenes of his resurrection are not hard to find. This year’s Jesus: His Life on the History Channel is one of the latest, but other recent examples include Risen (2016) and Son of God (2014). Cinematic depictions of resurrection, however, are not confined to Easter-season adaptations of the New Testament.
In one sense, almost every film is a resurrection film. The traditional cinematic plot arc is from “Friday” to “Sunday.” A person, community, or cause is “dead,” lost, hopeless (Friday). There is lament, struggle, tension, darkness (Saturday). But in the end, there is rebirth, resolution, a new day’s dawn (Sunday). Human beings resonate with this movie structure for a reason. It’s the greatest story ever told.
But beyond this familiar story arc, resurrection is often a more explicit theme in movies. You see the death-resurrection cycle often in superhero or fantasy movies, where a seemingly defeated hero nevertheless revives and returns (e.g., Gandalf the White in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, or Batman’s ascent out of the abyss in The Dark Knight Rises). Then there are the countless action movies where the hero is left for dead, pummeled from every direction by every imaginable weapon, and yet somehow bounces back, again and again.
These “resurrection” tropes are so familiar in certain genres that they can numb us to the jarring beauty and bracing surprise of resurrection. But other films capture the magic and shock of resurrection by situating it within more mundane realities and contexts. Here are five of my favorite examples of this kind—movies that capture resurrection in all of its miraculous, unsettling, hope-giving glory.
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (Danish for “The Word”) is almost always near the top of lists about the best films about Christian faith, and for good reason. Dreyer (one of three filmmakers whose work is featured in Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film) has a knack for capturing the transcendent in the mundane. Nowhere is that more evident than in Ordet and its famous, unexpected scene of resurrection near the film’s end. Though clearly a film about faith (or lack thereof), Ordet has a spartan style and ordinary setting that makes the literal, straightforward resurrection scene all the more startling when it comes. A woman, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), is lying dead in a coffin. Her brother-in-law Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) simply says, “Inger, in the name of Jesus Christ, I bid thee arise!” And she does. Watch on The Criterion Channel.
When I think about films that capture the beauty of resurrection, I always think of this small, little-seen indie from director Lee Isaac Chung. Set in post-genocide Rwanda, it focuses on the friendship of two adolescent boys who come from opposing ethnic groups (the Hutus and Tutsis). The wreckage and blood-stained trauma of Rwanda’s past is everywhere, but the focus is on the hope, reconciliation and resurrection that can come in death’s wake. This lyrical, neo-realist film (using all non-trained actors) came out of a trip Chung and his wife, both believers, took to Rwanda with Youth With a Mission (YWAM), to help teach filmmaking to young people. Resurrection is not literal in the film (though a few unexpected, magical shots suggest it) so much as it is a pervasive possibility that infuses every frame. It’s a film that beautifully captures the lament and hope of the “already, not yet.” Watch on Amazon.
The Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick’s masterpiece is thoroughly Christian from start to finish (as its title would suggest). There is birth and death, but also resurrection. Genesis, Job, and Revelation loom especially large, shaping a narrative that essentially follows Scripture’s creation, fall, redemption, and restoration structure. Life’s ending is perhaps cinema’s most vivid depiction of the Christian eschatological idea of the resurrection of the dead. Set to the music of Berlioz’s “Requiem Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts),” we see people rising from graves, along with a variety of images evoking Revelation 21: a lamp (v. 23), an open gate (v. 25), a bride (vv. 2, 9), the nations walking (v. 24). To cap it all off, the boy about whom the film’s final line refers (“I give you my son”) is named “R. L.,” an abbreviation I suspect is a nod to John 11:25: “Resurrection and Life.” Watch on Amazon.
The Salt of the Earth (2015)
On first appearance, this documentary might seem to be more about death than resurrection—more Friday than Sunday. Directed by Wim Wenders (a believer), along with Juliano Salgado, the film explores the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who turns his cameras unflinchingly on war, disease, poverty, famine, industry, migration and other human struggles in our fallen world. But as much as it captures visceral lament and anger over suffering and injustice, it also captures eschatological, “swords into plowshares” hope for renewal: not just for individuals, but for creation itself. This is stunningly captured in a sequence showing Salgado re-planting a decimated rainforest in his Brazilian hometown, showing the new life potential that always lurks beneath the soil of barren, drought-ridden ground. Watch on Amazon.
Happy as Lazzaro (2018)
This Italian film from director Alice Rohrwacher suggests resurrection in its very title (Lazzaro is the Italian name for Lazarus). Sure enough, the beguiling-but-beautiful movie does indeed have a jarring resurrection scene involving its titular character, though it’s not a parallel to the biblical Lazarus story. Still, Happy as Lazzaro—which is full of biblical imagery and has been described as a “religious parable”—is a powerful example of how awe-inspiring it is when resurrection happens in an otherwise realistic course of events. More than any other film I’ve seen outside the zombie genre, Happy as Lazzaro captures the “whoa” nature of seeing someone you thought was dead, very much alive and in the flesh. It puts us in the shoes of Thomas and the other disciples, friends, and family of Jesus who struggled to believe the resurrected man was really, truly resurrected. Watch on Netflix.