The Arts & Faith Top 25 Films on Marriage
How do we live our promises?
The way cinema tackles difficult questions about marriage is a moving target. These films represent important responses to this creative challenge, covering the mysteries of love, mortality, loyalty, and human vows. Produced in 2013 by the Arts & Faith online community, this list spans 84 years of cinema, from 1927’s Sunrise to 2011’s A Separation.
The Top 25 Films on Marriage is sponsored by Image, a literary and arts quarterly founded in 1989 to demonstrate the vitality and diversity of well-made art and writing that engage seriously with the historic faiths of the West in our time. Now one of the leading literary magazines published in the English language, it is read all over the world—and it forms the nexus of a warm and lively community. Explore Image here.
For more thoughts about this list by M. Leary, click here.
1. Viaggio in Italia (1954), Roberto Rossellini
While visiting Naples to close the estate of a deceased relative, two middle-aged sophisticates (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) are forced to acknowledge the tenuous condition of their marriage. Katherine and Alex spend much of the film apart, wandering through the rubble-strewn, post-war landscape, which is shaped by Rossellini's camera into a kind of mythic, holy place. Each of them faces temptations of their own choosing. Each imagines the other lives they might lead. It’s no spoiler to say that the reunion in the closing minutes of the film is among cinema’s most transcendent and sacramental images.
2. Certified Copy (2010), Abbas Kiarostami
He’s a cerebral English art critic (William Shimmel), who believes that a copy is as valuable and meaningful as an original, and she's an infatuated, impulsive fan (Juliette Binoche). As they explore Tuscany arguing about art, marriage, and parenthood, the lines between real and fake begin to blur: Is it an epic debate between estranged spouses, or a game between strangers acting as stand-ins for unseen partners? That’s only the first mystery of many, as we are challenged to take sides on issues of love, fidelity, authenticity, parenthood, independence, vulnerability, and —eventually —faith.
3. My Night at Maud's (1969), Eric Rohmer
Philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote of marriage as the lowest state to which a Christian can descend, but Jean-Louis, the Jesuitical bachelor protagonist of this fourth installment of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, strongly objects. “Pascal’s Wager,” he says, is a calculated utilitarian exchange, inapplicable to the spheres of religion or romance. The end result, as he spends an evening discussing religion, love and marriage with a dangerously attractive divorcee, is a fascinating reflection upon the choices and commitments that one has to make in order to enter the “adventure in sanctity” that entails living for another.
4. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), F.W. Murnau
Based on the story “An Excursion to Tilsit” by Hermann Sudermann, this silent-era masterpiece spins its tale around “The Man,” “The Wife,” and “The Woman From the City.” But this is no typical love triangle yarn. Sunrise is the story of a rekindled and reconciled man who—after breaking his vows—gets another shot at true love when it looked like all was lost. Murnau’s trademark expressionism is rife with vitality, combining a modern-era technical achievement with a beating heart that audiences have felt for the last eighty-four years.
5. Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Leo & Ray McCarey
Leo McCarey made two outstanding marriage-themed films in 1937, winning his first Oscar for The Awful Truth — “the wrong picture,” he complained. The “right picture” was this neglected humanistic masterpiece, a heartbreaking tribute to lifelong love and a jeremiad to filial indifference. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play an elderly couple losing their independence and turning for support to their children. A nostalgic outing becomes one of the most memorable movie dates of all time, a compassionate, defiant coda elevating the story from pathos to tragedy.
—Steven D. Greydanus
6. Tokyo Story (1953), Yasujiro Ozu
In this film, which many would call Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece, an elderly couple (Chishû Ryû and Chieko Higashiyama) visit their adult children in Tokyo, only to find that time and change have altered the way generations treat each other, and their future together becomes uncertain. In the end, their faithfulness to each other is honored and emulated by an unlikely family member, who serves them in a way that will make audiences nostalgic for the days when fidelity was the norm and not the exception. But the most magnificent fidelity in this film may be Ozu’s own faithfulness to the truth of words, silences, rooms, rituals, and light.
7. Stromboli (1950), Roberto Rossellini
In the second Rossellini/Bergman collaboration on this list, a WWII refugee (Ingrid Bergman) breaks free from an internment camp by marrying a young Italian fisherman (Mario Vitale), but finds herself trapped as soon as they return to his ancestral home—a Sicilian island that hosts a live volcano. Roberto Rossellini directs with an ascetic fervor that charges the simple storyline with cosmic significance. The stark, terrible beauty of the setting throws the concept of marriage into sharp relief, offering a stage for one of the most striking conclusions in ‘40s cinema.
8. The Family Way (1966), Roy & John Boulting
It’s one thing to save yourself for marriage, but what if you and your partner still don’t have any sex after the wedding? That is the question explored by this poignant, funny, bittersweet look at newlywed woes in 1960s Britain starring a grown-up Hayley Mills, but what makes the film truly special is how it shifts its focus partway through to look at the parents of the newlyweds, to suggest how our own relationships can sometimes be influenced by hidden forces in the relationships of others. Based on the play All in Good Time by Bill Naughton, whose Alfie explored the changing sexual mores of the era from a very different angle.
—Peter T. Chattaway
9. Friendly Persuasian (1956), William Wyler
From time to time in Friendly Persuasion we see a needlepoint that says, “God is love,” always in the background and near the center of the frame. It echoes the sentiment’s valued place in the marriage of Jess and Eliza Birdwell (Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire), a Quaker couple in south Indiana in 1862. That truth plays itself out in the way they encounter each other’s failures and foibles, in their relationship to their children, their neighbors, and even rebel soldiers who come to loot and destroy their farm.
10. A Separation (2011), Asghar Farhadi
Emotionally involving, intelligent, and psychologically complex, A Separation is a persuasive portrait of flawed but sympathetic people trapped in such familiar patterns of conflict that they might be our own family or neighbors, despite religious and cultural differences. Set in Tehran, Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning drama is spurred by the incompatible priorities of a middle-class Iranian couple with a pre-teen daughter, until unexpected circumstances overshadow the marital conflict. The wrenching denouement underscores the stakes in the failure of a marriage: the choice is impossible, all outcomes unthinkable.
—Steven D. Greydanus
11. A Woman Under the Influence (1974), John Cassavetes
Caring husband Nick (Peter Falk) works around the clock at his construction job to provide for his family, but the crescendo of his wife Mabel’s (Gena Rowlands) mental instability begins to threaten their children, frighten the neighbors, and jeopardize their marriage. A harrowing yet poignant film, A Woman Under the Influence takes an unflinching look at the trials and sacrifices required by love under the near-unbearable strain of mental illness.
12. In America (2002), Jim Sheridan
On the face of it, Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical tale of an Irish family settling in Hell’s Kitchen would seem a shamelessly sentimental tearjerker featuring adorable children and a lovable, dying black man. But the film transcends such a description with its unconventional directing, enchanting cinematography, and deeply compelling characters. Anchored by the marriage of Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) in the aftermath of their son Frankie’s death, In America offers an emotionally honest portrayal of the challenges of marriage in the context of children, family life, and procreation.
13. Another Year (2010), Mike Leigh
In a series of stories separated by the seasons themselves, Another Year follows Tom and Gerri Hepple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), a happily married couple, as they work in their garden and in the lives of those nearby. Exploring what it means to be a married couple in a community, and the virtue of hospitality itself, this is a deeply sad but also moving portrayal of patient love, longsuffering, and hopeful encouragement for the broken lives around us.
14. Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Ingmar Bergman
Originally a five-hour miniseries, Bergman’s episodic film gives us Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullman), a successful middle-class couple who find themselves torn between irreconcilable differences and habitual affection. Scenes is spare, unadorned, and unflinching in its depiction of the small jealousies and unspoken resentments which can tear a relationship apart. The material may be bleak, but the performances are extraordinary, and the writing is powerful and rich with insight.
15. Dodsworth (1936), William Wyler
William Wyler’s worldly drama charts the dissolution of a 20-year union between an aging automobile magnate and his vain, discontented wife during a long European excursion. Walter Huston carries himself with princely dignity as the titular tycoon whose instinctive loyalty is strained to the breaking point. His personal transformation poignantly reflects the high spiritual stakes of conjugal commitment.
16. Tender Mercies (1983), Bruce Beresford
Downtrodden Mac Sledge, played to perfection by Robert Duvall, wanders into the hearts and home of a young widow (Tess Harper) and her son. As his successful past continually hunts him down, this torn man tries to love and heal, give up the bottle that ails him, and reconcile his life with his new family and with hope from above. Beautiful, heartfelt and without one false note, the story demonstrates how tender mercies come—one small step at a time. In the face of recovery from loss, there will be mistakes along the way, but there is hope in doing the next right thing.
17. Husbands (1970), John Cassavetes
After the death of their close friend, three middle-aged New Yorkers spend a lost weekend in London, drinking, gambling, womanizing, and struggling to make sense of their places in the world. John Cassavetes had a preternatural talent for scratching at the scabs of our lives—evoking and expressing the complex, contradictory, and occasionally shameful emotions of adult relationships. Working with long-time friends and collaborators Peter Falk and Ben Gazzarra, Cassavetes creates with Husbands a lopsided portrait of marriage, colored, as the title suggests, by common (but not stereotypical) struggles of masculinity.
18. L'Atalante (1934), Jean Vigo
The canal barge L’Atalante is both livelihood and romantic getaway for its captain and his new small-town bride as they set out with cargo for Paris, but the romance of travel is lost as the tight quarters of the ship intensify marital strife and the makeshift honeymoon begins to give way to a monotonous and mundane life on the river. L’Atalante is the only feature film in Jean Vigo’s tragically short filmography, a demonstration of Vigo’s strong visual sensibility as well as his warm and humorous storytelling
—James Blake Ewing
19. Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), Radu Muntean
In the days preceding Christmas, Paul must choose between his stable ten-year marriage to Adriana or his passionate affair with their daughter’s young dentist, Raluca, in a film replete with duplicity, double entendre, and relational boundary intrusions. Every scene in Tuesday, After Christmas is marked by gestures, conversations, and settings that sharpen the contrast between the ordered family of three and the secret pair in the shadows. As the fallout of Paul’s affair plays out in long takes, the tension of interwoven marital and betrayal movements heightens, uninterrupted. What unfolds next is a profound warning against adultery, illuminated with raw transparency.
20. Don’t Look Now (1973), Nicolas Roeg
In Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, adapted from a Daphne du Maurier short story, an English couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) grieves over the accidental drowning death of their daughter. At their new home in Venice, a series of uncanny and portentous circumstances unfolds as the husband restores the stained glass windows of an old church. Through narrative elision, chronological reordering and repetition of colors and images, Roeg presents the entirety of the couple's shared experience—their ecstatic joys, their physical pleasures, their sorrow and fear of death—in one unbroken line, existing at a fixed time in eternity. Like a wedding ring.
21. Love (Chloe) in the Afternoon (1972), Eric Rohmer
Vows to “forsake all others” are all well and good, but how does that settle the longing for the thrill of new romance, particularly for a married fortyish lawyer in Paris, walking the same streets and frequenting the same cafes as the miniskirted footsoldiers of the sexual revolution? Frederic (Bernard Verley) must put his intellectual musings into practice when the ideal becomes real in the form of Chloe (Zouzou), an ex-lover who re-enters his life through happenstance. Chloe’s carefree rejection of monogamy and her open invitation to Frederic contrast with the ordered rhythms and obligations of his settled family life, but he can only choose one image to privilege.
22. Hobson's Choice (1954), David Lean
One of David Lean’s few forays into comedy tells the story of an alcoholic boot-shop owner (Charles Laughton) whose business suffers a blow when his bookkeeping daughter (Brenda de Banzie) leaves to set up her own shop and takes his gifted but underappreciated bootmaker (John Mills) with her. The courtship between the strong-willed daughter and the timid bootmaker plays at first like a bossy business transaction, but in time it proves surprisingly empowering, and it puts a new, amusing twist on the old idea that marriage consists of leaving one’s home and cleaving to one’s spouse.
—Peter T. Chattaway
23. Le Mépris (1963), Jean-Luc Godard
What is unexpressed is just as important as what is expressed in the exquisitely sad Le Mépris, in which unspoken words, lost moments, and failed connections lead to the collapse of a marriage. Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), a screenwriter hired to adapt Homer's Odyssey, uses his beautiful wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), as a bargaining chip to further his career ambitions, or so she believes. In one of the film’s greatest sequences, Godard blends together conversation, memory, thought, and image, exploring the complexities of love and trust, which, for this couple, prove too fragile to survive.
24. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Rainer Werner Fassbinder
“I’m alone most of the time. All of the time, really,” confesses Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a German widow, to Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem), a much younger Moroccan she’s just met. “Ali much alone, too,” he confides. “Always working, drinking. Nothing else.” So begins a cross-cultural, cross-generational relationship that leads to marriage, but even then the couple faces prejudice, skepticism and self-doubt before reaching an uneasy, unsettling peace. Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder inverts the Hollywood May-December convention in this love story—an update on Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows.
25. The Face of Another (1966), Hiroshi Teshigahara
Exploiting the tropes of both science fiction and horror, director Teshigahara explores the bonds of marriage in this existential film based on the novel by Kōbō Abe. When engineer Okuyama’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) face is disfigured in an accident, he volunteers for an experimental procedure: a lifelike mask that will give him not only a new face, but a new persona. He tests the new face by attempting to seduce his wife (Machiko Kyô), an act that threatens to destroy his marriage, as well as his own sense of identity.
—Tyler J. Petty
Stay in the know on the best of art and religion. ImageUpdate is a free weekly e-newsletter with reviews of books, albums, artists, gallery openings, and more.