From 'Ten Commandments' to 'Uncut Gems,' here are 12 great movies for Passover and Easter

Justin Chang
Yul Brynner, left, and Charlton Heston, center, in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic "The Ten Commandments."  (Paramount Pictures)

It’s not uncommon for some of us to describe a great, genuinely transcendent movie as a religious experience. We like to exalt the sublimity of the moving image, sacralizing what is too often regarded as a godless, sometimes profane medium. We make our dutiful pilgrimages to this Robert Bresson retrospective or that repertory house blessed with a 35-millimeter print of “Andrei Rublev,” and we return home in a state of grace, even rapture — a feeling that can be expressed in silence or in gushing, free-flowing conversation.

You needn’t be a believer in anything but the greatness of cinema to be so moved and transported. But for those of us who do attend churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship, it is no stretch to see the movie theater as another kind of temple — an essential forum, in its own right, for the blessings of joy, restoration and communion. As temples go, a theater is not even a strictly secular venue: I know I’m not the only one who emerged from Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” feeling genuinely closer to God.

The social aspect of these public rituals — of gathering in a common space, with a mix of friends and strangers, to see and hear something (hopefully) remarkable — is something to cherish. And it has been one of the many pleasures we’ve temporarily surrendered as we shelter at home, hoping to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The absence of these gatherings has surely hit especially hard this week for those who held Passover Seders on Zoom or who plan to gather online for an e-Easter Sunday.

But the physical distance between us and our fellow worshipers can provide its own kind of solace. All those familiar faces, smiling out at us from our laptop screens, show how precious and resilient the bonds of a spiritual community can be. They also serve as a heartening reminder that — despite the rationalizations of the many places of worship across the U.S. that have defiantly stayed open — a physical gathering is not necessary to experience meaningful connections with God and with others.

And there is beauty and meaning, too, in the very nature of the self-isolation we have taken upon ourselves. Even in non-pandemic times, my personal experience of Holy Week has always driven me toward solitude. I’ve always found it both saddening and deeply consoling to wrap myself in the deep gloom and enveloping shadows of Good Friday, a day when Christians recall and identify with Jesus in his darkest hour of suffering.

For Jews and Christians alike, I imagine this week will invest the act of self-quarantine with its own obvious metaphors: As the COVID-19 outbreak surges and peaks in parts of the U.S., many of us may huddle in our homes and think of the plagues and pestilences of the distant past.

This will be, for many of us, a week of solemn reflection as well as quiet gratitude. And also, yes, a week for movies, always an ideal companion in trying times. The pictures listed below will serve, I hope, as a useful guide, and I recommend them wholeheartedly regardless of a viewer’s faith background or lack thereof.

Some Passover perennials (“The Ten Commandments”) have been included despite their obviousness; other titles may seem more obscurely related to the events and observances at hand. A few suggested pairings are sprinkled in, and I also tried to include some laughs, which we do desperately need. Comedy, too, can nudge us closer to the sublime.

All titles are available for streaming on multiple platforms unless otherwise specified:

Anne Wiazemsky in the movie "Au Hasard Balthazar."  (Rialto Pictures/Photofest/UCLA Film & Television Archive)

“Au Hasard Balthazar” (1966). Jean-Luc Godard described Bresson’s masterwork as “the world in an hour and a half.” Ostensibly about the life and death of a donkey, it is also a story about the sufferings we endure and inflict daily, and the lasting sorrow that ultimately unites all creatures great and small. The ending is one of the most wrenching spiritual benedictions in all of cinema.

August Diehl and Valerie Pachner in the movie "A Hidden Life."  (Reiner Bajo)

“Cool Hand Luke” (1967) and “A Hidden Life” (2019). Dramas of imprisonment and endurance are always particularly faith-resonant; certainly the Christian parallels and iconography running through Stuart Rosenberg’s durable “Cool Hand Luke” have been well chronicled, especially Paul Newman’s unforgettable (and very Easter-appropriate) hard-boiled-egg eating challenge. The more recent “A Hidden Life,” Terrence Malick’s biography of a World War II conscientious objector, is as powerful a movie about the challenge of Christlike conviction as any director has made.

Martin Landau, left, and Jerry Orbach in "Crimes and Misdemeanors."  (Brian Hamill / Orion Pictures)

“Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) and “Uncut Gems” (2019). Thirty years separate Woody Allen’s darkly brooding comedy-drama from Josh and Benny Safdie’s ferociously amped Adam Sandler-starring thriller. Both are intricately plotted stories about Jewish Manhattanites in desperate straits, trying to hold onto their families and outrun romantic and financial disasters of their own making. And both notably include scenes at a Passover Seder that position their characters’ sins and shenanigans in a haunting new light.

Marco Hofschneider in the movie "Europa Europa."  (Criterion Collection)

“Europa Europa” (1990). Meticulously restored in 2016 and available for streaming on the Criterion Channel, Agnieszka Holland’s surreal, funny and devastating film recounts the war-torn early years of Solomon Perel, a German Jew who escaped Nazi persecution by posing as an Aryan. The Passover scene in this movie takes the form of a dream sequence — a strange, haunting reminder of an identity that, however hard one may try, can never be left behind.

“The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964). You might think of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s beautifully spare biblical drama as the anti-“Passion of the Christ”: Filmed in black-and-white rather than color, in Italian rather than Aramaic, it finds its soul in the trappings of vintage neorealism rather than in a pummeling display of authenticity. And it was made by a committed atheist who somehow summoned more of the poetry and mystery of Jesus' life, death and resurrection than Mel Gibson's fervent Christ-sploitation massacre could manage.

Willem Dafoe in the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ."  (Universal Studios)

“The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979). The cries of "blasphemy!" that once greeted Martin Scorsese's impassioned Jesus drama and the Monty Python gang's joyous New Testament satire have long since receded into history; the thrilling impiety and wild creativity of their filmmaking remains. Blessed are the cheesemakers, always.

Adrianna Biedrzyńska in "Dekalog IV," the fourth chapter of Krzysztof Kieslowski's series loosely inspired by the Ten Commandments.  (Janus Films)

“The Ten Commandments” (1956) and “Dekalog” (1989). It would take you a little more than 13 hours to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s barnstorming Exodus epic and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental Ten Commandments-inspired omnibus back-to-back, and it would be worth every minute. (“A Short Film About Killing” and “A Short Film About Love,” two expanded entries from “Dekalog,” are available for streaming on Kanopy and the Criterion Channel; the entire series can be purchased on disc.)

Jack Albertson, left, Peter Ostrum and Gene Wilder in the movie "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory."  (Felicity Dahl)

“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971). Shelter-at-home orders have made it more difficult to get your Peeps, Cadbury Creme Eggs and Russell Stover Milk Chocolate Easter Bunnies these days. Embrace your inner Augustus Gloop instead: Stay home, throw on this Gene Wilder classic and lick the screen to your heart’s content. Accept no substitutes.