Thursday, January 21, 2016

Bear's Picks for Great Catholic Movies

From the Lost Files. What are your suggestions?

The first list are movies I rate as very good and that are explicitly Catholic. The second, shorter list are movies that express Catholic themes or values in some way, even though they might not have a single reference to Catholicism. This isn't necessarily a "best" list, but certainly a "very good" list.

Great Catholic Movies

A Man for All Seasons -- I hope one day to meet St. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers, and I expect him to look like Paul Scofield. Great 1966 drama of a family man who would not compromise his Catholic conscience.

Becket -- "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" A king's expression of frustration with another one of those stubborn Catholics, or an invitation to murder? St. Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, had his brains bashed out and scattered across the floor of his cathedral while he prayed Vespers. Released in 1964 with a great cast including Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and John Geilgud.

The Passion of the Christ -- Mel Gibson's mesmerizing and bitterly moving 2004 reliving of Jesus Christ's Passion. Authentic details include everyone speaking the correct ancient languages, so Jesus speaks Aramaic, while Pontius Pilate and his wife speak Latin. (There are subtitles.) We watch it during Holy Week. Some of it, especially the Scourging at the Pillar, are frankly hard to take. I think there are two versions, one less graphic, but still bad enough. I know when I say the Second Sorrowful Mystery of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is the scene from the movie I often remember. The whole movie is perfect in tone for every scene, and the restrained use of bizarre images suggest the omnipresence of Satan, in his taunting moment of apparent victory.

Brother Orchid -- Totally changing tone now, this is just a sweet tale of a ruthless gangster who hides out with monks, and... You can probably guess what happens. By 1940 Edward G. Robinson was sick of playing gangsters, but agreed to this one in exchange for a promise of broader roles. Humphrey Bogart co-stars, but, as is typical at this point in their careers, he is overshadowed by Robinson.

Song of Bernadette -- 1943 movie faithfully presenting the traditional account of Bernadette Soubirous, the young visionary of Lourdes. This a solid movie built on a wonderful performance by a winsome Jennifer Jones as Bernadette. She won an Oscar for Best Actress. The screenplay was based on a novel written by a Jew, Franz Werfel, who never quite converted to Christianity. I saw it on TV as a young boy and still remember how sorry I felt for Bernadette when she rooted around in the mud as everyone made fun of her. I remember imagining that if I were there, I'd set them all straight! It sounds silly now, but we should not underestimate those early feelings of children. Mine, I would now call a childish chivalry. But what better sentiment for a boy to learn and to have? I wonder what we're teaching young boys and girls in today's entertainment?

The Passion of Joan of Arc -- 1929 silent masterpiece by Carl Theodore Dryer. I know what you're thinking. Sure, masterpiece for those days, before sound. No. This stands totally on its own merits. The cinematography is amazing, with constantly shifting angles, long pans, quick cuts to the faces of the clerics, each a fully realized portrait, many lasting only a few seconds. There is nothing dated about any of it. But it is Renee Jeanne Falconetti's luminous performance as Joan that makes the movie a masterpiece. It is possibly the greatest performance ever captured on film. Joan always seems on the boundary of two worlds, slipping almost imperceptibly from one to the other in response to events. This film is powerful to the point of disturbing. It is based on the actual transcripts of her "trial" -- some of the most remarkable documents in existence -- which I cannot read except as a defense lawyer. My blood boils. She, an illiterate girl, was alone before educated men, without counsel.  The English tricked her into signing a confession she could not read. She was tormented, condemned and burned at the stake. The film treats St. Joan with respect, and, being based on the trial transcripts, is quite faithful to the shameful events.

For Greater Glory -- Critics hated this 2012 movie of the 1926-1929  Cristero War between Catholics and an atheistic Mexican government. The late Roger Ebert (a self-described Catholic atheist) had to admit the move was well-made, but reflected "Catholic tunnel vision." Have never been movies about other religions' struggles against wholesale slaughter in the 20th century that have won universal acclaim? I'm sure he did not criticize their tunnel vision! If the idea of guns isn't frightening enough to mainstream movie critics, Catholics using them while crying "¡Vivo Cristo Rey!" must give them nightmares. Andy Garcia brings his usual understated yet compelling presence to the role of a former general who agrees to lead the Cristeros for a nice paycheck, plus the adventure. He is not religious himself, at least not at first. It got marketed as a "Catholic movie" but I thought it was just a great, old fashioned action drama. I had not known about this bit of history. ¡Vivo Cristo Rey!

The Mission -- A 1986 movie starring Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro and Liam Neeson. Jesuits and Indians in 18th century South America. (I wonder if Pope Francis has ever seen it?) It is a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Jesuits, who find the Indians are not necessarily peaceful. The movie is full of moral complexity where the right course is not as clear as in most movies. The great Ennio Morricone (still alive and working, by the way) wrote the score. He is known for scores for Clint Eastwood westerns, the Untouchables (which had a great one), and many, many others.

Of Gods and Men -- Poignant, understated 2011 movie about a small group of monks who serve an Algerian village. When Moslem radicals move in they must decide whether to remain or leave. Based on a true story. There is one scene where they share a bottle of wine at dinner that is unforgettable.

Into Great Silence -- 2005 beautiful documentary about the daily life of Carthusian monks high in the French Alps. The viewer is simply made a curious guest who watches the monks at their daily routine, goes along with some of them for their different work, and has conversations with others, young and old. The monastery has a barber shop, for instance, and the monks get their hair cut. No drama there. It is just an intimate look at everything. A monk is treated for a lung condition. Another repairs a cold frame for the garden. There are scenic shots of the mountains, a gathering storm. It is slow paced, but that's deliberate, indeed part of the viewing experience.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose -- I would not call this 2005 movie great, but it is good. A possessed girl dies after exorcism. The priest is put on trial, making this essentially a courtroom drama. As a lawyer, I find the idea of the criminal justice system being confronted by a supernatural event it is unable to deal with compelling. Interesting, effective and scary without going over the top, and it treats the subject respectfully and realistically. (The Rite is another exorcism movie released in 2011, starring Anthony Hopkins. It wasn't bad, and was generally well received as accurate in Catholic circles, but I just didn't enjoy it that much.)

The 13th Day -- This 2009 movie was, I believe, a straight to DVD release, but should not color expectations. It is a lovingly made Catholic art film that reverently and accurately portrays the miraculous events at Fatima, Portugal between May and October, 1917. Besides excellent, if obviously careful, cinematography, there are scenes where colors suffuse the screen in a way suggesting the supernatural atmosphere. There is nothing cute or well-scrubbed about the young seers, and the human side of the story is even gritty, emphasized by the black-and-white cinematography of most of the film. It makes the supernatural elements more moving. The famous "Miracle of the Sun," which was witnessed by 70,000 people, is especially well done in an unexpected, but compelling and utterly persuasive way. The story itself should be familiar to all Catholics, and probably even non-Catholics have heard something about "The Third Secret."

Not explicitly Catholic, But Expressing Catholic Themes

Ben Hur -- I have the DVD set that includes both the silent 1925 version and the more familiar 1959 remake starring Charlton Heston. Both have great chariot races. The 1929 version stars Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman. Just because they didn't have sound doesn't mean they didn't know how to make an epic. They built a real Roman warship, not the models used in the 1959 version. If the extras leaping off the burning ship into the water look terrified, it's because they really were jumping for their lives! The 1925 version better reflects Catholic tastes by including a beautiful holy card-like scene of a lovely young Madonna that is color in an otherwise black-and-white film. On the other hand, it is pre-Hays code, and silent religious epics frequently included gratuitous female nudity. Bare-breasted young girls throw rose petals before a procession. (It was Catholics who got Hollywood to agree to a voluntary code which kept movies clean. That led to the joke that Hollywood was an industry controlled by Jews selling Catholic theology to a Protestant audience.) Of course the 1959 version is great, too, and thats the one we used to watch around Easter before the nest emptied.  That single scene where the bullying Roman soldier confronts the off camera presence of Jesus for giving water to Ben Hur is the best two minutes in movies. He goes from bluster to uncertainty to shame without uttering a word, as if his encounter with Christ has revealed the corruption in his soul.

Ikiru -- Haunting 1952 Akira Kurosawa movie about the meaning of life. The title means "To Live." A sad little middle aged man, Mr. Watanabe has a meaningless mid-level bureaucratic position and nothing else. Then he learns he has stomach cancer. Watch the trailer for more, if you wish. Kurosawa was, if anything, Buddhist. Kurosawa apparently never claimed any religion through a life marked by tragedy and artistic challenges -- in fact he attempted suicide. He claimed as his favorite novel, however, the explicitly Russian Orthodox The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  However, in one scene, a character looks at Mr. Watanabe and. remarkably, says "Ecce Homo," and, "He's Christ." Does Ikiru reflect a traditional Japanese outlook, or one that has been "baptized" by Christianity? One recalls St. Paul Miki and his companions who were martyred in the 16th century by crucifixion, on a hill overlooking Nagasaki. There was no visible Catholic faith when missionaries returned in the 1860s. However, a large, secret Catholic community was found around Nagasaki, that had preserved the faith for all those centuries. Who is to say to what extent Ikiru is not informed by a Catholic spirit? The movie sounds depressing, but it isn't, somehow. Easily makes any top 10 list of greatest movies in the world, period. A find by my son Michael, who is a big Kurosawa fan. You'll never forget it, the ending, or the song.


  1. The Passion of Joan of Arc -- 1929.

    Agree. The french actress portraying Joan is phenomenal. There are times where she is sorta staring off in to her visions and I totally believe her.

    TCM had the the 1957 St Joan the other night. This is one of the versions I had not seen. Jean Seberg as St Joan. Richard Widmark as the Dauphin! Somewhat odd casting and acting from these two.

    A Man for All Seasons is another wonderful movie with tremendous actors. Scofeild and Robert Shaw and H8.

  2. Catholic:

    El Cid -- This is one of the great film epics, deeply stirring visually and musically, and well-acted. Its climactic scene, brilliantly enhanced by a musical effect, leaves one simply stunned. "For God, Alfonso, and Spain!" :-)

    Miracle in the Rain -- a very touching love story set in New York City during WWII. Its main character is a non-Catholic whose Catholic friend and co-worker brings her along to church one day (the church happens to be St. Patrick's Cathedral). The story deepens from that point on. The first couple of times I watched this movie, many years ago, I completely missed its secondary theme of the way God's grace can bring blessing from misfortune. That is the subtlety of a beautifully-made film (and the obtuseness of a spiritually illiterate teenager :-D)

  3. I like the Scarlet and the Black. Kick-'em-in-the-ass Priest during WW II, in a Church that still retained the Faith and manliness and dignity of our forefathers; a force to be recognized in a violent world gone mad.

    True story.

    1. And El Cid. My favorite Catholic movie, and one of my favorites of all time.

  4. All fine choices above.

    I would add "Black Robe" (1991) - Bear will understand my predilection for the title - and, "Angels with Dirty Faces" (1938) with Cagney, O'Brien, and Bogie.

  5. I should also add the 1951 French film directed by Robert Bresson, "Diary of a Country Priest". Faithful to the novel by Georges Bernanos. Very moving.

    1. Good movie, but I recall feeling like slitting my wrists afterwards. Of course, tonight I watched a Japanese post-war double feature: Ikiru (yes I cried, always do, everybody does) and Tokyo Story, which is about how little you can expect from your rotten grown kids when you're old. Oddly, Japan, with Kurosawa and others, made wonderful movies, but not so much Catholic ones.

    2. You know, Bear, I always believed The Godfather III was a very Catholic film. Cardinal Lamberto's observation to Michael Corleone particularly:

      (retrieving a pebble which had been submersed in water and breaking it, Lamberto remarked)

      "“Look,” he says, “perfectly dry.” The water on the outside had not seeped into the pebble.

      Lamberto continued: “The same thing has happened to men in Europe. For centuries they have been surrounded by Christianity, but Christ has not penetrated. Christ doesn’t live within them.”

      Sin and redemption plus some good old fashioned curial housecleaning (Mafia style) makes for a great tale.

  6. I agree about all the ones I've seen; the others go straight onto my wishlist. Similar to "Into Great Silence" but less demanding of stamina is "No Greater Love", about enclosed Carmelite nuns in London. And am I the only person to see "The Truman Show" as a crypto-Catholic film?

    1. I might have to watch The Truman Show again. Agreed that Into Great Silence is a demanding film.

    2. Let people not be put off by that, though. I saw "Into Great Silence" at an ultra-trendy "art house" cinema in Manchester. The hipster audience was fidgety and uncomfortable for about the first half hour, but once they fell into the contemplative rhythm of it, they were engrossed.

  7. "The Conflict"; based on Brian Moore's 1972 novel, "Catholics".

    From the Amazon blurb: "In the not-too-distant future, the Fourth Vatican Council has abolished private confession, clerical dress, and the Latin Mass, and opened discussions about a merger with Buddhism. Authorities in Rome are embarrassed by publicity surrounding a group of monks who stubbornly celebrate the old Mass in their island abbey off the coast of Ireland. The
    clever, assured Father James Kinsella is dispatched to set things right. At Muck Abbey he meets Abbot Tomás, a man plagued by doubt who nevertheless leads his monks in the old ways. In the hands of the masterly Brian Moore, their confrontation becomes a subtle, provocative parable of doubt and faith"

    PBS level quality, but the story is topical and thought provoking.

    1. Is that not "Catholics" starring Martin Sheen?

    2. Yes. It may go by both titles. That's the book's name. I read the book first which I liked better. But the movie's faithful to the story.

  8. "The Island" is a great movie from a Russian Orthodox perspective that still deals with spiritual trials.

  9. Quo Vadis (1953)

    Sign of the Pagan (1954)

    Catholics (aka The Conflict) (1973)

    Joan of Paris (1942)

  10. Monsieur Vincent (1947)

    Mary Queen of Scots (1971)

    Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952)

    Head of A Tyrant (1959)


  11. "I Confess"

    "The Trouble with Angels"

    "The Sound of Music"

    "The Shoes of the Fisherman"

    "The Bells of Saint Mary's"

    "Come to the Stable"

    "The Quiet Man"

    "Darby O'Gill and the Little People"

    "Quo Vadis"

    "Going My Way"

    "Sally and Saint Anne"

    "St. Teresa of the Andes"

    "The Little World of Don Camillo"

    "The Return of Don Camillo"

    "Don Camillo's Last Round"

    "Don Camillo: Monsignor"

    "Don Camillo in Moscow"

    "Miracle of Marcellino"

    "Blessed John Duns Scotus"

    1. Great suggestions, many that I was going to mention. I'll add to your list....
      "St. Francis" (by Michele Soavi)
      "Conspiracy of Hearts"
      "Jesus of Nazareth" (by Zeffirelli)
      "I Confess"
      "Scarlet and the Black"
      "On the Waterfront"
      "The Assisi Underground"

  12. I have nothing to add, but I do have quite a few to add to my reading list, so thank you, Bear.

  13. The Reluctant Saint. Story of St Joseph of Cupertino starring a young Ricardo Montalban.

    The Third Miracle with Ed Harris.

    Seattle kim

  14. Odd man out starring a young James Mason. The ending is a heartbreaker and Fr. Tim is portrayed as a fine man.

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  16. "So long, children" (Au revoir les enfants) a French movie based on a true story. Very moving. . .and well acted.

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  18. "The Way" is a good road picture with Martin Sheen, about hiking the Santiago de Compostela trail. "The Mission" is good, despite the presence of Liam Neeson, in a deservedly minor role.

  19. There are certainly some good movie night suggestions in here. Fun for part of the whole family! JP2's film list ( has some peculiar but interesting suggestions, as well.

    I'm still waiting for somebody to adapt the old "Golden Legend" into a series of animated shorts.

  20. The Bells of St. Mary's - a wonderful portrayal of Catholic faith. Loved the sibling-like interaction of Ingrid Bergman's nun and Bing Crosby's priest.

    For Greater Glory - I also did not know about the Cristero War. But had to stop watching when they were about to torture the boy. Great acting by Andy Garcia.

    Jesus of Nazareth - Best portrayal of Jesus by an actor I've ever seen. But by today's standards, overlong and drawn-out. Although originally made as a mini-series (remember those?)

    The Cardinal


    Song of Bernadette

    El Cid

    The Sound of Music

  21. I thought "Calvary" (2014) was perhaps the best Catholic movie I've seen since 'The Passion of the Christ". Yes, it deals in adult themes, and includes a shocking opening scene in the confessional, and plenty of coarse language. But none of it is gratuitous, and if you persevere you'll be rewarded with the a powerful reflection on sacrifice and redemption. It has some dark humor too, and great acting by the main character.

  22. I am surprised no one mentioned one of my favorites, "The Nativity Story", that just came out about five years ago, and to me, is a must see. To Catholics it's a familiar treatment of the time leading up to the birth of Jesus. What I found most impressive about this film was the depth of the characters and the sets and cinematography. You feel you have an opportunity to really see Our Lady and dear St. Joseph, who you will love even more after this film. Many of the religious films are too violent for me, I can't watch them. This film avoids that, but is not sugary. I also greatly enjoyed a documentary about one of my favorite priests, Solanus Casey. I think the name of it was "Priest, Porter, Prophet"? It was very good! He was quite the man, and I can't imagine he would not be canonized at some point.
    I love Into Great Silence. It's like having a mini-retreat at a monastery.
    Song of Bernadette, a classic, just incredibly well done.
    The Exorcist, which scares the heck out of me still, is oddly enough also a very Catholic film. It demonstrates the reality of Satan and demonic forces, which we know are very real, and that the only one to contend with these forces are ordained Catholic priests. Why that is not compelling to more people is a mystery to me. Catholicism is unique. The priesthood is unique. Despite what the diabolical innovators do, we need to stay the course. Thanks to Bear and all for these lists. I will be looking these films up.

  23. One more comment about The Nativity Story. It's so beautiful! The colors of the film, the backgrounds, it's a very pleasing visual film. Just loved it.

  24. I've watched Ikiru and Dryer's silent The Passion of Joan of Arc. I found Hulu is about the only place you can find a lot of the old movies streaming, so I added it, eleven bucks without commercials.

  25. Oh, I also watched Tokyo Story, which is another great Japanese classic. It tackles the unusual theme about how little elderly parents can expect from their grown-up, rotten, self-centered kids.

  26. We have a lot of the films mentioned, but I'll add:

    Father of Mercy (Venerable Don Carlo Gnocchi)
    Padre Pio Miracle Man
    St. Teresa of Avila miniseries
    St. Teresa of the Andes miniseries
    Going My Way

  27. Babette's Feast -- an remarkable meditation on the Heavenly Banquet. And it's on Hulu!

    1. Ah! Pope Francis reported Babette's Feast to be his favourite film. I fear it leaves me deathly cold.

      I believe the actress who played the lead in Babette's Feast also played in the 1981 television series, Brideshead Revisted...a stellar Catholic production! Can't believe I'd forgotten to mention it previously.

    2. Yes, and PF is a "fan" of mercy (whatever that means). And does the fact that Bergoglio took the name of Francis reflect badly on that great saint?

      Just as in those examples, could it be that he misconstrues the film? I see it as a severe critique of the austere, non-sacramental worldview of protestant pietism. Babette represents catholic spiritual life and culture. She and the feast, symbolic of the Eucharist, flood parched and desolate lives with divine grace.

    3. Then there is Chocolat, which is about the liberating power of temptation and rejection of religion. Didn't care too much for that one, either.

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  29. Another recent entry into the field I think is the movie "Ida". It's about a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland trying to discern her vocation to the religious life, after a shocking revelation along the way. Solid.

  30. I heard a lot about catholic movies. Friends were suggesting me to watch it. Thanks for sharing the information. list of good movies to watch


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