A Tour of the Vatican’s Favorite Movies, Part 3: “Art”

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Stanley Kubrick, YouTube / SuperUnknown, YouTube / Época Cine, YouTube / ChurchPOP

This year is the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Vatican’s list of 45 great films.

The list was compiled 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 Art category, is the third part of our reviews of the Vatican’s Favorite Films; in Part One we ranked the Values films, and in Part Two we ranked the Religion films

[See also: The Ancient Christian Chant Hiding In All Your Favorite Movies]

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The final category, Art, was a much different experience than the other two categories.

It seems that the Commission did not pick the best 15 Art films ever made, but chose what they considered best film from various genres, such as science fiction, horror, comedy, prison breaks, heists, dystopian societies, adaptions of novels, animation, musicals, westerns, and so on.

It is hard to rank such a wide variety of films, but we did it.

We ranked them 1-14, the first being the one we think most worth seeing, and the last being (in our opinion) the least worthwhile. Unfortunately, one of these films, Napoleon, is unavailable (legally) on DVD or streaming in the United States (and we don’t own a VHS player), and so we were unable to watch it for this project.

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) La Strada (1956)

This Italian film, La Strada, directed by Federico Fellini follows the fortunes of a poor, simple girl, Gelosomina, after her impoverished mother sends her off for money with a traveling strongman, Zampano. He uses her as a show assistant and tells others that she is his wife. He is a cruel employer, continually frightening and using her for his own ends. She on her part tries to be loyal to him, but eventually seeks to escape his cruelty.

This is a heart-wrenching tale of human failure. Gelosomina merely seeks to be loved and is eager to love, but her simplicity and desire for joy is crushed by Zampano’s selfish cruelty. Artistically, it brilliantly and beautifully portrays the human condition of sin and selfishness, but also how those who are the most childlike are the dearest to God.

2) Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu is a silent, German Expressionist, horror film directed by F.W. Murnau. It was based on the book Dracula, but the vampire’s name was changed in the film due to fact that the director did not have rights to adapt the book. The film begins when the young couple, Thomas and Ellen Hutter, happily married and in love, learns that Thomas is being sent by his employer to Transylvania to see a Count Orlok. Thomas leaves his wife in the care of friends and the story of horror ensues.

While this film is not particularly scary, as far as vampire movies go, we found it to excel in conveying a sense of the uncanniness of reality, a sense that Christians and non-Christians alike would do well to foster. Images of the vampire are juxtaposed with scenes from nature – such as crawling spiders and storms at sea – which extend the sense of dread inspired by the vampire to the natural world as a whole.

Without any moralizing or sensationalism, this film manages to convey a deep sense of a supernaturalist worldview, in which evil and grace are palpable, dangerous, real forces.

3) Citizen Kane (1941)

It is striking how different American films are from films made in other countries; there is always that Hollywood feel. Citizen Kane, directed and starring Orson Welles, takes the American film, and makes it great. The film follows a reporter trying to understand the deathbed word, “rosebud,” of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane.

Kane had the rags to riches story of the American dream, but after he is ripped from his childhood play to be groomed into wealthy society, he spends his whole life searching for happiness in his wealth but never really finding it. The result is a quintessentially American morality tale, complete with the innocence of childhood, the need to fight for the little guy, and the corruption of power.

Artistically, the film is flawlessly structured. The characters are strong and real, and their moral and personal struggles are poignantly portrayed. The lighting and cinematography are innovative and perfect. It is a true work of art.

4) 8 ½ (1963)

Italian director Federico Fellini certainly knows how to show the comic bleakness of life, which he does in a completely different way in 8 1/2 than in La Strada. Guido Anselmi is a film director suffering from writer’s block, but planning to make a film about himself and his memories and fantasies. Caught between his wife and mistress, he increasingly tries to escape reality into his self-absorbed dreams.

It is an interesting and beautifully constructed film of self-examination and self-mockery, but also about a man trying to find meaning in life after abandoning his Catholic upbringing and indulging, without satisfaction, in the pleasures of life.

Fellini cannot take his Catholic identity out of his films even though he has little or no faith. Indeed, there is a liturgical sensibility running through his films, a deep awareness of the importance of festivity, even if it is a celebration of nothing.

5) Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion is a French prison break film directed by Jean Renoir set in World War I. It begins with two french officers of different social classes being shot down, captured, and sent to a German POW camp. Once in the camp, they are quartered with a group of other officers who are working on digging a tunnel to escape the camp. The movie follows these two men throughout several camp moves, where escape is always their end goal.

Throughout there is a running commentary on the unavoidable loss of the aristocratic class throughout Europe after the war. The film depicts well the possibility of genuine respect and noble actions between enemies, so long as those enemies have a sense of the value of human life and culture.

6) The Leopard (1963)

The Leopard was directed by Italian Luchino Visconti based on the novel by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa. The story is about the nobleman Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina in 1860 in Sicily during the unification of Italy. We learn the prince’s impressions of what is going on in society, seeing that times are changing for him as an aristocrat, but also for the Church.

We see how the Church loses influence in everyday life when class distinctions in society collapse. With the nobleman to lead the way in faith, the peasantry follow, but when the nobleman is no more, everyone goes their own way.

Artistically, the film beautifully depicts the Italian landscape, the architecture of the homes that are falling to pieces like the positions of their owners, and the splendid balls of the Italian aristocracy. The Leopard is a reflection on social change and the loss it causes in society, for better or for worse.

7) Modern Times (1936)

Not having seen a lot of silent films before we started watching the list, we have been impressed with the universality of the medium of silent films. In some ways the silent film is a different sort of artform than the spoken film.

The story is presented more through acting and picture than dialogue; title cards give some dialogue but do not tell the whole story. Because of this, silent films emphasize facial expression, lighting and mood more than spoken films.

8) Stage Coach (1939)

Stage Coach is the representative Western film on the list, but it is also the first Western that was taken seriously as art by film critics. Directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne it has the essential parts of a western: the shootouts, the danger, the excitement, the damsels in distress.

But it also has the very human story of a group of unlikely people, many of them previously failures, coming together to overcome danger. What results is a universal human drama transcending the stereotypical Western genre film.

9) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

One might wonder why 2001: A Space Odyssey was one of Pope St. John Paul II’s favorite films, and then one remembers that he was a philosopher. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this film examines humanity’s desire for contact with what is beyond us. The film opens with the dawn of man, and humanity’s discovery of both war and religious transcendence. It continues on into the space age, presenting the conflict between artificial, human, and super-human intelligences as a group of astronauts travel into space.

Artistically, the film has incredible visual effects. The music is chosen perfectly for the film and complements the action of the film well. It is a better visual interpretation of orchestral music than Fantasia, reviewed below.

10) Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

What would a list of art films be without the heist movie? The Lavender Hill Mob directed by the British director Charles Crichton and starring Alec Guinness is one of the classic crime films. It has all the essential elements of complex schemes, sneaking to accomplish the crime, chase scenes, and possibly even the scheme working – all very humorously.

The film is well shot, including a scene of impressive camera work. While not profound in the manner of some of the films on this list, it is a very enjoyable film to watch. And the heist genre of film makes the Christian reflect in a unique way about sin, for the plot causes one to want the criminals to succeed in their robbery.

11) Little Women (1933)

Directed by George Cukor, Little Women was one of the earliest American films based on a novel and was received very well. Most movies of the time had a hero and a villain, but Louisa May Alcott’s novel does not contain that dynamic at all. Rather, it is a series of vignettes about four sisters and their family life. Perhaps a film along those lines is what 1930s America needed.

Having both grown up loving the 1994 film version of Louisa May Alcott’s much loved book, it was hard to give this film a fair chance; the acting is frequently melodramatic and strained. But clearly Katherine Hepburn’s performance as Jo in this film positively affected Winona Ryder’s performance in the 1994 version.

Being one of cinema’s early attempts at character development, we felt that the film did not show the character development and their motivations very clearly. But nevertheless this film is an important chapter in the development of cinema as an art form.

12) Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis is a German silent film directed by Fritz Lang. We found it to be the most disappointing of the silent films on the list.

It is melodramatic to a fault; the message is always told and not shown. It tells of a futuristic dystopia where the social classes are extremely separated, the lower classes are crushed below the power of the upper classes. It is critical of industry and wage slavery, but the solution it presents – that a man with strong social feelings can unite the interests of the upper-class brains with the lower-class muscle – is, as presented in the film, ridiculously unrealistic.

A lot of the scenes of the film have been lost, but even with the missing scenes, the film could have been done better. Yet, it is still an interesting early attempt at a science fiction film.

13) Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming, was certainly a groundbreaking and impressive film, and seems to fill the role of musical and neat visual effects in the Art List, but it does not quite match the quality of the rest of the Art list.

Most people have seen the movie and are familiar with it. The use of sepia tones, bright colors, the munchkins, the flying monkeys, the tornado sequence are all classic parts of American film, but put up as a whole against a film like the top ten on the list, we wonder why it is seen as so good if not just for sentimental reasons.

14) Fantasia (1940)

We grew up watching Fantasia, but what was strange and wonderful as a child is now to us just another example of the way Disney waters down everything it gets its hands on. Walt Disney’s Fantasia has an intriguing concept – animation put to classical music – but it ends up trivializing the greatness of the music, reducing it to film soundtrack, accompanying what is often trite animation.

The best sequence in the film in our view is the Sorcerer’s apprentice, while the worst is the Greek myth sequence, which reduces the human and cultural greatness of classical mythology to flirtatious centaurs and giant-eyed cutesy pegasus babies.

Not ranked: Napolean (1927)

As we said above, this film is not available online or on DVD in the USA, so we have been unable to view it at this time. It is a very significant silent film in the history of movie making. If we are one day able to view it, we will definitely review it and give our opinion to ChurchPOP.

[See also: A Tour of the Vatican’s Favorite Movies, Part 1: “Values”]

[See also: A Tour of the Vatican’s Favorite Movies, Part 2: “Religion”]

Susanna and Mark Spencer
Susanna and Mark live in St. Paul, MN with their four children. Susanna earned her MA in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and spends her time going to beautiful liturgies, cooking, reading literature, home schooling her children, and writing all about it at her blog Living With Lady Philosophy. Mark earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and now is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. Some of his other writings are online here.