Twitter user Ian St. recently asked for a list of favourite Catholic movies, leaving interpretation of the question open-ended, and folks were happy to offer up their top choices:
What’s your favorite Catholic movie?
— Ian St. (@IanStFrance) August 31, 2021
These aren’t exclusively pro-Catholic movies (although most are). Some ask uncomfortable questions; they’re challenging, and uncomfortable. Several users mentioned Dogma, which I’ve not included in this list because, oddly enough, it’s not currently streaming anywhere.
Also interesting: Although many users referenced Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, no one offered up Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, suggesting that the cultural war ignited way back in 1988 never quite died down. Some users interpreted the question as a request for films with broadly Christian themes, leading to some…interesting suggestions, including at least one Old Testament epic and a couple of films that are more overtly Protestant.
Anyway, here’s what Twitter came up with.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
With one of the most expressive faces in cinema history, Renée Jeanne Falconetti portrays the title martyr during the trial in England that led to her execution. The religious themes are obvious, though Joan’s faith seems like something apart and beyond easy categorization. Equally relevant is the film’s evocation of the chattering crowds, full of righteous rage only exacerbated by Joan’s refusal to respond to their taunts. Almost a century after the film’s premiere, that bit seems rather familiar. Recommended here.
There are no easy answers in Martin Scorsese’s Silence…hardly any answers at all, really, and that’s part of its power. The story follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Tokugawa-era Japan in order to search for their missing (or perhaps merely silent) mentor in a time when Christians were violently repressed in the country. Evoking complicated ideas about persecution and colonisation, as well as the extent of faith in the face of God’s silence, it’s one of Scorsese’s best. Recommended here.
Of all the mentioned films, Calvary is probably the toughest to classify: it has comic elements, both subtle and absurd, as well as deeply tragic ones alongside more thoughtful notes. It’s deeply uncomfortable, as the set-up will make clear: A man enters the confessional of Father James (Brendan Gleeson) and recounts a tale of horrific sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. He promises that, in exchange for the destruction of his own innocence, he’ll kill a good priest, Father James, specifically, in one week. It’s fascinating, often eloquent movie without any easy answers. Recommended here.
Miracle of Marcelino (1955)
Wildly popular in Spain, and successful in the U.S., as well, Miracle of Marcelino dramatizes a Medieval legend involving a coarse orphan abandoned at a monastery. Though he causes trouble, he’e ultimately the one who is able to communicate with the statue of Christ in the attic. Recommended here.
Lilies of the Field (1963)
Sidney Poitier won an unprecedented Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Homer Smith, an itinerant handyman who goes to work for a group of nuns in Arizona. Conflict soon develops between the Baptist Homer and his Catholic employers, but the film’s openhearted spirit of acceptance and mutual understanding ultimately holds sway. Recommended here.
The Exorcist (1973)
Catholic priests are a handy plot device in many a horror movie, but never more effectively or memorably as with the film’s title exorcist, Father Merrin played by the great Max von Sydow. Recommended here.
The Way (2010)
A passion project from Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, the film follows a small group of travellers following the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in northwestern Spain, with Sheen’s character planning to scatter the ashes of his son along the way. Wisely, the earnest film tells its story in such a way that it appeals to a broader audience. Recommended here.
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
A Man for All Seasons dramatizes the story of Sir Thomas More, who, as Lord Chancellor of England in the 16th century, refused to countenance King Henry VIII’s break with Rome — first by refusing to sign support for the annulment of his marriage from Henry’s marriage from Catherine of Aragon and then, more egregiously in Henry’s eyes, by refusing to swear an oath to the King as supreme head of the church in England as a matter of conscience. At the time, this was more of an inter-Catholic rivalry, as Henry had no intention of departing from the traditions of the Catholic Church — only to undercut the power of the Pope. History, of course, played out even more dramatically. Recommended here.
Olympia Dukakis leads an Italian-American family in the Bronx that’s both proudly Catholic and also obsessed with death. There are overtly religious moments here, absolutely, but it’s also a film that feels very culturally Catholic, and imagines a family that you can believe has been soaking in Roman Catholic tradition for generations. Recommended here.
Dead Man Walking (1995)
Susan Sarandon plays Sister Helen Prejean, a real-life Catholic sister known for her advocacy of the abolition of the death penalty; Sean Penn plays a fictional character based on two convicted murderers Prejean had counseled. The movie makes a compelling case for compassion and humanity, even in the face of inhuman behaviour. Recommended here.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Given Mel Gibson’s history of problematic comments, the intervening years haven’t done anything to dull the accusations of antisemitism that surrounded the film’s release, and it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, the film remains, for some viewers, the definitive film version of the crucifixion of Jesus. Recommended here.
It’s impossible to consider the Catholic Church in the modern era without reckoning with a global child sex abuse scandal, as this Best Picture Academy Award-winner attempts to do, covering decades, and using The Boston Globe’s reporting as a way into the crisis. Recommended here.
The Song of Bernadette (1943)
The great Jennifer Jones plays Bernadette Soubirous, posthumously known as Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, whose visions of Mary in 1858 inspired the sanctuary and devotional cult at Massabielle. The film plays fast and loose with history, but it’s effective nonetheless, and it won four Oscars, including a Best Actress award for Jones. Recommended here.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Fellowship is standing in for the entire trilogy here, so you’ll have to watch the whole almost-dozen-hours of the LOTR movies to tease out all of the subtext. I’m not sure J.R.R. Tolkien would appreciate the placement here, actually. While there’s no doubt that his work was informed by his strong faith, he also felt strongly about avoiding direct allegory, even castigating his friend C.S. Lewis for being far too on-the-nose when it came to religious matters in his works. Recommended here.
The Trouble with Angels (1966)
Rosalind Russell plays the cool Mother Superior who runs an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Pennsylvania. It’s a cute, entertaining movie directed by Ida Lupino, one of the very, very few women directing big Hollywood movies at the time. It also co-stars Mary Wickes, who (among many great roles), would go on to play a similarly memorable nun in Sister Act. Recommended here.
I Confess (1953)
Though not Hitchcock’s best, I Confess is an unfairly underrated noir with Montgomery Clift as a priest who accepts the confession of a church caretaker who accidentally killed a lawyer. Refusing to break the confessional seal, Clift’s character is himself ultimately accused of the murder. Recommended here.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Several users listed Old Testament epic The Ten Commandments…perhaps not fully understanding the assignment. Recommended here.
Wise Blood (1979)
One of John Huston’s later works, the film sort of disappeared for a time, but upon being rediscovered, it feels like a nearly essential work of 70s-era auteur filmmaking, even coming from a Hollywood giant who ought to have been past his prime. Which is to say it’s equally fascinating and bonkers. Faithfully adapting the Flannery O’Connor’s, it follows Brad Dourif’s Hazel Motes, who founds an anti-God religious sect in a town full of wild eccentrics, only to find that he can’t quite escape the best aspects of the Catholic faith. Recommended here.
The Mission (1986)
Here Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons play South American colonials with competing goals: De Niro’s character, Mendoza, is a slave trader with no other ambition than gold, while Irons plays the head of a missionary settlement looking to convert the locals to Christianity. The film’s focus on white characters deciding the fate of the indigenous population, while based on real events, makes it less interesting than it perhaps ought to be. Recommended here.
Babette’s Feast (1987)
Several users mentioned Babette’s Feast, which is interesting, given that the film takes place among a specifically Lutheran assembly. It’s possible, I suppose, that some of the film’s more sumptuous imagery evokes a high-church spirit, or it might just be that viewers of a particular religion will tend to see echoes of their on faith in a beloved film. Recommended here.
Agnes of God (1985)
One of the more complicated films in its Catholic themes, Agnes of God stars Meg Tilly as a novice nun who, upon giving birth, insists on her own virginity. Jane Fonda plays a psychiatrist investigating what appears to be a case of abuse, while Anne Bancroft completes the powerhouse trio of leading women as the mother superior. Recommended here.