Somewhere along the way, European cinema lost its religion. As recently as 1995, the Vatican published a well-informed list of 45 "great films," with a predictable emphasis on religious and spiritual themes, and European contributions were much in evidence. The catalogue was impressive in its breadth: it included an Eastern Orthodox classic like Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1969), about the legendary icon painter, as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini's ruggedly Marxist Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966). The compilers were by no means looking for syrupy piety. Re-markably, they mentioned a significant number of then-recent entries of the highest quality, including Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast and Krzysztof Kieslowski's series The Decalogue. Not long ago, it seemed, European religious cinema—broadly defined—was thriving.
Philip Jenkins is professor of history at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade and The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels.