This year is the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Vatican’s list of 45 great films. The list was complied by the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications in 1995 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the film industry. The list is divided into three categories containing 15 films each: Religion, Values, and Art. This article, in which we address films in the Religion category, is the second part of our series on the Vatican’s Favorite Films; for Part One, which is on Values films, see here.
If you’re like us, you might often have trouble finding movies to watch that are both worthwhile and entertaining. We’ve found that nearly all the films on the Vatican Film List fit those descriptions. Though many of the films are not specifically Christian, they all deal with themes relevant to Christians, and are all beautiful examples of film as art. The list also exposed us to films made all over the world.
In this article, we’ve ranked the films on the list of great Religion films, the first being the one we think most worth seeing, and the fourteenth (while still worth seeing) being the least worthwhile. We found the fifteenth film on our list to be entirely not worthwhile, and it is unclear to us why it is on the list, especially when compared to the other fourteen. As for the top nine films, we found them to be all outstanding films and excellent religious films. It was difficult to rank them.
For each film, we briefly discuss its main themes, but we want to emphasize that films have a level of depth and artistry that are not reducible to themes or message. Since it is the Religion category, we will discuss the particularly religious elements of each film as well.
We don’t rate these movies according to moral content (though here is a link to the Catholic Bishops’ ratings). Most of the films have mature content, so we recommend looking into that before showing them to children.
1) The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
We consider this silent film directed by Carl Dreyer to be one of the best movies ever made. It is based on the transcript of the actual trial of Joan of Arc. It is powerfully acted without any melodrama, being largely shot through close ups on the faces of the characters, a technique that works especially well in a silent film.
The film is really about the struggle between Joan’s sanctity and the worldly power of the bishops and priests who accused her. Joan shows her sanctity in being entirely conformed to Christ as she is entirely alone before her persecutors, who use the teachings of the Faith hypocritically against her. But the work of God is clear in her in her clever responses to their questions, which are designed to trap her. And despite the failings of the Church leaders, Joan never stops loving the Sacraments and the Church, persisting in this love to the point of her dramatically depicted martyrdom.
2) Andrei Rublev (1969)
This film by director Andrei Tarkovsky, whose title in Russian literally means The Passion According to Andrei, portrays the life of the medieval Russian iconographer and monk Andrei Rublev. The film depicts a series of episodes in his life with great poetic symbolism. As Rublev travels throughout Russia to paint cathedral and monasteries, he encounters temptations by worldly beauty and fame, pagan ritual and political intrigue, and the scourge of terrible violence. Through these events, he is revealed as a Christ-figure, progressively stripped of all that he possessed and has accomplished, except for his fidelity to his artistic vocation and his sanctity. While other characters seek fame and fortune through their artistic abilities, Rublev emanates a constant calm, as he awaits God’s inspiration to paint his icons.
3) Ordet (1954)
This Danish film, whose title means “The Word” in English, is, like The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Dreyer. It tells the story of a farming family in Denmark in the early 20th century. It starts off as a study in contrasting characters: a self-professed “joyful” Lutheran grandfather and a dour Puritan tailor, an agnostic husband and his virtuous Christian wife, and a young man who thinks he is Jesus. The tension among the characters mounts over the course of the film as a series of tragedies befall them. The ending depicts the overwhelming majesty and sublimity of Christian faith and God’s work in the world in a shattering way, unlike any ending of a film we have ever seen.
From a lesser director the characters and situations would come off as melodramatically pious, but Dreyer brilliantly constructs a beautiful, compelling film. You have not seen anything like it, we promise.
4) A Man for All Seasons (1966)
This is an excellent film about St. Thomas More, scripted and expanded from his classically-constructed play by Robert Bolt, and directed by the English director Fred Zinneman. More is played brilliantly by Paul Scofield. The film is quite relevant in the context of our contemporary battle over Christian marriage, showing us a saint who deeply respects his government but honors the Church’s teachings above all else.
More was made chancellor of England by Henry VIII, but refused to support his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. He considered Church teaching and the rights of conscience worth defending even at the cost of his life. More is a reluctant martyr, and tries to work humbly within the established system of government, even though it has serious faults. Due to his conservative respect for the government and its traditions, he is only condemned through false testimony. One of the finest aspects of the film is the contrast between More, who refuses to compromise his morals in any way, and his condemner, who opportunistically compromises his conscience entirely for self-gain.
5) The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
The next three films (5-7), each embody a key elements of Christian sanctity, which we call the comic aspect of sanctity, the erotic or romantic way that saints relate to Jesus, and social action. Together, these elements bring an essential balance to the Christian life.
In the Italian neo-realist film The Flowers of St. Francis, director Roberto Rossellini used a cast of Franciscan monks as actors to depict the joyfulness, closeness to nature, love of poverty, brotherhood, zeal for preaching, and childlikeness of the life of St. Francis and his followers. (Neo-Realism was a film movement that used mostly non-professional actors.) There is nothing in this beautifully shot film of the “hippie” ideology or eco-religion that often pollutes portrayals of St. Francis; rather, Rosselini just shows us St. Francis himself. Based on the book The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, we consider this to be the best movie about St. Francis that we have ever seen. The comic element of sanctity is shown joyfully in the daily lives of the brothers, of St. Clare and her sisters, and of the poor they serve, but perhaps most emphatically in an encounter between a friar and a warlord: the worldliness of the warlord is made to look ridiculous in comparison to the simple Christian life of the friar.
6) Therese (1986)
Even though it was shot by an atheist director, Alain Cavalier, this French film captures beautifully the “Little Way” of St. Therese of Lisieux. The Minimalist cinematography and sets reflect the simplicity of the Carmelite life, in which all creaturely objects and images are stripped away in one’s relationship to God. Over the course of the film, we see St. Therese leave all things for her love for Jesus. Her love and the other sister’s love for God is shown as so all-consuming, so much like romantic or erotic love, that it looks strangely like madness. As a result, the worldly characters in the film cannot understand this beautifully tender love that the sisters have, not only for Jesus, but also for each other, but to watch this film with the eyes of faith is to see the deep, total tenderness and self-surrender with which we ought to love our Lord.
7) Monsieur Vincent (1947)
This French film, directed by Maurice Cloche, depicts the adult life of St. Vincent de Paul in 17th century France. It begins at the point when the already holy St. Vincent decides to leave a life of comfort ministering to the rich in order to do everything that he can to help the poor. No matter how much he does, St. Vincent always feels that love of God required him to do more for the poor.
The film does a wonderful job of contrasting the terrible plight of the poor with the luxury of the rich, and showing how St. Vincent navigated between the two worlds, while showing his living of the Gospel in a wholly plausible way. He realized that to do his work, he had to show the rich the duty that they have to the poor, without forcing them and leading by his own example. Because of his intense love, the characters that follow him have trouble living up to his ideal.
This film understands what sainthood is about, and does an excellent job of calling the viewer to long for sainthood, to feel that he or she is not yet doing enough for God and for His poor. His life as shown here reveals the way in which we are called to Christian sanctity through social action in accord with our vocations.
8) The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966)
This Italian neo-realist film was directed by the atheist director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini first read the Gospel as an adult and was moved to make a movie of the film; his film is a powerful, straightforward, and fresh approach to the Gospel: to watch it is like reading the Gospel for the first time. Pasolini used untrained actors and took all of the spoken dialogue directly from the Gospel of St. Matthew; he interpreted the Gospel scenes by staging them based on famous paintings of the Gospels, and by using religious music from around the world.
We found this film to be the best film depiction of the Gospel that we have ever seen; there is nothing melodramatic or Americanized in this depiction of Jesus. Pasolini captures the urgency and intensity of Jesus in his preaching and in his intentional provoking of the Pharisees, and shows the impact that Jesus’ words made on his followers and enemies through his use of close-up shots on facial expressions.
9) The Sacrifice (1986)
This Swedish film, directed by exiled Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (who also directed Andrei Rublev) is about a retired professor spending his birthday with his family at home in isolated Sweden near the coast. The professor has a special relationship with his young son of his old age, but has fractured relationships with the rest of his family. The film opens with a series of conversations about God and the emptiness of modern life, though none of the characters are religious. Before the birthday festivities can begin the family hears a nuclear missile fly over and then hears a radio report of the outbreak of nuclear war.
The film then follows the very different, extreme reactions of the different members of the family. The most important religious content of the film arises in the reaction of the professor: seeing the extreme horror that grips his family, he makes a vow to sacrifice everything he has, even his life or morality, if it could be the case that the nuclear war never began. Through the professor’s desire to save his family, even those with whom he has strained relationships, and the ensuing disturbing course of action he takes, we are posed with the question of what is worth sacrificing for loved ones or even the world. The film is extremely well made, leaves lots of room for interpretation, and has a very intriguing and ambiguous ending, all of which make it quite worthwhile.
10) Babette’s Feast (1988)
This film by Danish director Gabriel Axel takes place in 19th century Denmark. It tells the story of two sisters, the daughters of a leader of an austere, puritanical form of Lutheranism. In their youth they both fall in love, one with a soldier and the other with a French opera singer, but they choose to not pursue relationships with these men, for the sake of their father. When their father passes away, they take on the leadership of his community. After the 1870 French revolution, a woman named Babette takes refuge in their home and works for them as a housekeeper and cook, and the bulk of the film depicts her influence on this community, especially through the meals she prepares.
Like Andrei Rublev, this is in part a film about the vocation of being an artist; in this case, it is Babette’s cooking that is the art. But in the context of the strong religious community and traditions, her meals take on a sacramental significance. Throughout the film, a key set of themes is reconciliation and mercy. Through the mediation of Babette’s meals and hospitality, nearly all the characters experience a recovery of lost goods through unexpected mercies.
11) Ben-Hur (1959)
This famous American film, directed by William Wyler, is a classic epic film with impressive sets and costumes, and exciting scenes of chariot races and sea battles. The story is that of a Jew, Judah Ben-Hur, a contemporary of Christ from a family of privilege and influence.
Through a series of unfortunate events, Judah finds himself seeking revenge for wrongs done to him, but also intrigued by the person of Christ, whom he encounters at crucial points in both of their lives. He finds revenge to be unsatisfying, and ultimately realizes that forgiveness will satisfy his heart. Throughout Judah’s hardships, one sees the working of providence guiding his life.
But despite this powerfully depicted set of messages, the film has the unfortunate drawback that its characters are basically mid-twentieth-century Americans placed in first-century Israel, without the actions or feelings of genuine first-century Jews or Romans.
12) Nazarin (1958)
This artistic, well-shot Mexican film was directed by the Spanish born, Mexican citizen and athiest Luis Bunuel. The story is set in 1905 Mexico and tells a story of a priest seeking to live the Gospel as radically as possible. He has a radical trust in divine providence and does not care for material goods. But everywhere he goes trying to live the Gospel, society is disrupted, and all his endeavors turn out badly.
While the film is worth watching, we were unconvinced by the characters, especially compared to the films higher on this list, which portrayed the lives of real saints radically living out the Gospel. The priest’s attitude when compared to St. Francis and St. Vincent does not look like that of a saint: he is too self-confident and proud, and his motives are undeveloped and unclear. The film could be interpreted as either saying that the Gospel is unlivable or that any attempt to live the Gospel in a fallen world leads to problems. Despite the film’s faults, it does show how the life of a saint could be seen by a non-Christian as pointless.
13) La Passion de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ (1905)
This French silent film, directed by Ferdinand Zecca, shows scenes of the life of Christ. There is no dialogue and the scenes are introduced by title cards naming each event. We found each scene to be like a holy card with very pious characters, and think it would be very nice to show to children (even very young children) who are familiar with the Gospel stories.
We found the scenes to be very Catholic in interpretation, showing the influence of the angels in Christ’s life in nearly every episode and showing the birth of Jesus in the manner of St. Bridget’s visions in which Jesus passes out of Mary painlessly maintaining her virginity. However, it did seem that a lot of the scenes were chosen to show what kind of special effects early film making was capable of.
14) The Mission (1986)
This film, directed by Roland Joffe, takes place in 1750’s Paraguay and depicts the historical struggle between missionary Jesuits, the secular powers of the Spanish and Portuguese, and the powers of the Church over the lives of the members of the native Guarani tribe. There is also a personal struggle between a spiritually focused Jesuit and a worldlier Jesuit, who are both trying to protect the native people from slavery and other losses of freedom.
The film shows well how the Jesuits were able to give the natives a genuine enculturation of the faith without watering it down. It also is a powerful depiction of the evils of worldliness in the Church and the evils that can arise when the Church is forced to choose between worldly power and fulfilling the mission of the Gospel.
But we are critical of many aspects of this film. Fr. Gabriel is an extremely spiritual man, but the movie does not understand Catholic religiosity, reducing him to his struggle for the freedom of the native people. Indeed, all the characters are caricatures, and the historical and personal struggles depicted are presented in stark, unnuanced terms.
15) Francesco (1989)
This poor attempt at telling the life of St. Francis was directed by the Italian director Liliana Cavani and shot in English. We are not really sure why it is on this list at all, and in our opinion there is really no reason to watch it at all.
This film is a bio-pic of St. Francis, but it attempts to depict too much without any real sympathy for the character of St. Francis. The first mistake was using Mickey Rourke as St. Francis, which seemed to be an attempt to make him more relatable. But in the attempt to show the entirety of the St. Francis’ life the film does not convincingly portray any of his religious experiences and does not clearly show what St. Francis stands for or why so many people followed him. Further the film is poorly scripted and filmed and includes a very modern portrayal of relationship between St. Clare and the other Franciscans and is full of half-veiled attempts to criticize the Catholic Church. You would be better off watching Brother Sun, Sister Moon, or, really, just watching the above-reviewed Flowers of St. Francis.
[See also: QUIZ: Can You Identify These Liturgical Objects?]