How about a family movie night during Lent? On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of cinema in 1995, the Vatican compiled a list of “great films.” Here’s a partial listing, along with where they can be obtained.
Andrei Roublev (1969) Russian production about a 15th-century monk (Anatoli Solonitzine) who perseveres in painting icons and other religious art despite the civil disruptions and cruel turmoil of his times. Director Andrei Tarkovsky visualizes brilliantly the story of a devout man seeking through his art to find the transcendent in the savagery of the Tartar invasions and the unfeeling brutality of Russian nobles.
The Mission – In the 1750s, the large and prosperous Jesuit Indian missions were divided between Spain and Portugal. In dramatizing these events, Robert Bolt’s screenplay focuses not on the religous but on the sociopolitical dimension of the colonial era and its injustices. The epic production is visually splendid but Roland Joffe’s direction is erratic and bogs down in contrasting a nonviolent priest (Jeremy Irons) and one (Robert De Niro) who leads the Indians against a colonial army. Although dramatically flawed, the work recalls a past that provides a context for current Latin American struggles.
The Passion of Joan of Arc – (1928) Silent screen masterpiece portraying the heresy trial, confession, recantation and execution of the Maid of Orleans (Maria Falconetti) in a performance of such emotional power that it still stands as the most convincing portrayal of spirituality on celluloid. Directed by Carl Dreyer, the work is essentially the interior epic of a soul, consisting largely of close-ups of Joan’s face and those of her interrogators accomplished in a fashion which is never static as the camera explores the inner struggle between human frailities and spiritual strength.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew – (1966) Straight-forward Italian dramatization of the evangelist’s account of the life of Jesus and His message of salvation succeeds exceptionally well in placing the viewer within the Gospel events, avoiding the artificiality of most biblical movie epics. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini is completely faithful to the text while employing the visual imagination necessary for his realistic interpretation.
Therese - (1986) French dramatization of the life of St. Therese de Lisieux from age 15 when she joined a cloistered convent of Carmelite nuns to her death there 9 years later of tuberculosis. Director Alain Cavalier’s impressionistic account of the young woman (luminously portrayed by Catherine Mouchet) who found personal joy, spiritual liberation and the sanctity of selfless simplicity within the restrictive traditions of an austere religious community will challenge contemporary viewers and confound some. The young may find its picture of 19th-century religious life more confusing than inspiring.
Available on: Netflix
Ordet – (1954) Challenging Danish production about different kinds of faith and various sorts of miracles, one of which restores a dead woman to life. Directed by Carl Dreyer, the austere narrative centers on a farming family troubled by the madness of a son (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who believes he is Jesus Christ until, regaining his balance, his faith in God achieves the miracle which brings the story to a positive though less than convincing conclusion some may find disappointingly ambiguous.
The Sacrifice -(1986) Swedish production in which a group of adults and a child pass through a night of confusion and fear, including portents of a nuclear-devastated landscape. Director Andrei Tarkovsky’s murky religious allegory about an aging writer’s bargaining with God to save others relies upon long silences, ritualized dialogue and beautiful but static photography.
Ben-Hur -(1959) Director William Wyler’s classic Hollywood epic follows the Jewish prince of the title (Charlton Heston) after he’s betrayed by his boyhood Roman friend (Stephen Boyd) and subjected to much misery until finally achieving retribution for all his suffering. The narrative’s conventional melodrama is transformed by the grand scale of its spectacle, especially the chariot race, and by the stirring performances of its principals who manage to overcome the story’s cliches and stereotypes.
Babette’s Feast – (1988) Screen version of a story by Isak Dinesen, set in a rugged fishing village in 1871 Denmark, shows the impact of a French housekeeper (Stephane Audran) on two pious sisters who carry on their late father’s work as pastor of a dwindling religious flock. Danish director Gabriel Axel’s understated but finely detailed work centers on the preparation and consumption of an exquisite Gallic meal, a sensuous labor of love which has a healing effect on the austere sect and the Frenchwoman who prepared it.
Monsieur Vincent – (1947) Lucid, moving account of St. Vincent de Paul’s work among the poor and the oppressed in 17th-century France, from his first labors in a plague-ravaged village and his appeals to the conscience of the aristocracy to the founding of an order devoted to charitable works and his death in 1660. Director Maurice Cloche portrays the poverty of the times and the cruelty of the regime in starkly convincing fashion, providing a solid historical framework within which Pierre Fresnay’s performance in the title role shines with a warm compassion and spiritual intensity which most viewers will find irresistably compelling. Subtitles. High on the list of great religious movies.
A Man For All Seasons – (1966) Engrossing drama of the last seven years in the life of Thomas More, Henry VIII’s chancellor, who met a martyr’s death rather than compromise his conscience during a period of religious turmoil. Robert Bolt’s script is masterfully directed by Fred Zinnemann, with a standout performance by Paul Scofield in the title role, among other notable performances from a uniformly fine cast. The historical dramatization achieves an authentic human dimension that makes its 16th-century events more accessible and its issues more universal. Profoundly entertaining but heavy-going for children.
Au Revoir, Les Enfants – (1988) When the Gestapo discover that a priest has hidden three Jewish youths in a Catholic boys’ school, he and the boys are arrested and deported to concentration camps. French writer-producer-director Louis Malle re-creates a painful memory from his own youth in a restrained, humbling, well-acted dramatization of a boy’s firsthand experience of the Holocaust.
Dersu Uzala – (1978) Russian production about the friendship that grows between a turn-of-the-century explorer in Siberia and his guide, an aging Tungus hunter whose name gives the film its title. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa concentrates on evoking the vast remoteness of the Siberian wilderness, a world the Russian finds forbidding but one in which the hunter is perfectly at home. Subtitles. Finely acted, beautifully photographed, it is an admiring portrait of a man living in harmony with nature and with his fellow hunters.
The Bicycle Thief (1949) Simple yet compelling study in desperation as a worker (Lamberto Maggiorani) must find his stolen bicycle or lose his new job. Ignored by the police and others, the man and his young son (Enzo Staiola) search the streets for it until, in despair, he himself tries to steal a bicycle. Scripted by Cesare Zavattini and directed by Vittorio De Sica, the result is an engrossing picture of the human realities of life on the edge of poverty, shot on the streets of Rome with a cast of non-professionals that brought a new realism to the postwar screen and a new emotional honesty to the stories it told.
The Burmese Harp (1956) Badly wounded in Burma at the end of World War II, a Japanese soldier (Shoji Yasui) is nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, then devotes himself to searching the jungle battlefields for the abandoned remains of dead soldiers to give them a decent burial. Directed by Kon Ichikawa, the Japanese production takes a strong anti-war stance through a series of flashbacks to the horrors of battle, but uses hauntingly poetic imagery to convey the main theme of life’s value and the need to atone for its loss.
Chariots of Fire (1981) Two young Englishmen (Ben Cross and Ian Charleson) overcome quite different obstacles to win gold medals at the Paris Olympics of 1924. One is a Jew determined to beat the anti-Semitic establishment at its own game and the other is a devout Scot who runs for the glory of God. Directed by Hugh Hudson, it is a richly entertaining and highly inspiring movie for the whole family.
On the Waterfront (1954) Classic labor film about a punched-out boxer (Marlon Brando) who, despite the machinations of his shifty brother (Rod Steiger) and with some encouragement from the woman (Eva Marie Saint) he loves as well as a waterfront priest (Karl Malden), decides to stand up to the criminal boss (Lee J. Cobb) of a corrupt union of dock workers. Budd Schulberg’s fact-based script is directed by Elia Kazan with stand-out performances and a gritty realism grounded in a working-class milieu, abetted by Leonard Bernstein’s rousing score and Boris Kauffman’s atmospheric photography. Much menace and some violence.
Open City (1945) Composite picture of the resistance movement in German-occupied Rome focusing on an underground leader (Marcello Pagliero) hidden by a widow (Anna Magnani) until he’s betrayed to the Gestapo, then tortured and executed along with a partisan priest (Aldo Fabrizi). Director Roberto Rossellini began filming while German troops were still in the city and the result has a documentary quality giving a sense of immediacy to the period portrayal of events by a cast whose naturalistic acting captures the fervor and determination of diverse social types united in their opposition to fascism.
Schindler’s List (1993) Sobering account of an opportunistic German businesssman (Liam Neeson) out to make his fortune by exploiting Jewish labor in occupied Poland but the increasing barbarism of Nazi racial policies and the sadistic perversions of the local commandant (Ralph Fiennes) cause him to risk his life trying to save the Jews in his employ. Director Steven Spielberg restages this Holocaust story on an epic scale that gives horrifying dimension to one man’s attempt to save some innocent lives, though providing little insight in the German’s moral transformation or the individual lives of his Jewish workers.
Citizen Kane (1941) When a Hearst-like newspaper tycoon (Orson Welles) dies, a reporter (William Alland) interviews the man’s former associates (Joseph Cotton and Everett Sloane among them) and wives (Ruth Warrick and Dorothy Comingore) in an effort to pin down the essence of the contradictory, larger-than-life millionaire by discovering the meaning of his dying word, “Rosebud.” Also co-written (with Herman J. Mankiewicz), produced and directed by Welles, the movie is a landmark in American cinema, notable both for its superb use of film technique and its intriguing story of a man who came from nothing, acquired fame and fortune but died without the love he sought.
Fantasia (1940) Walt Disney’s only excursion into the world of the fine arts presents eight selections of classical music, including Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with Mickey Mouse and a bucket brigade of brooms, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with its massive, earthbound images and the macabre vision of Musorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Using different approaches and animation styles for each piece of music as performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Leopold Stokowski, the imaginative work was not only Disney’s most ambitious undertaking but it remains an enjoyably creative introduction to fine music, especially for youngsters.
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) British comedy classic in which a timid bank employee (Alec Guinness) concocts a scheme to hijack a shipment of gold bullion with the aid of professional crooks (Sidney James and Alfie Bass), then melt it down in the foundry of an accomodating sculptor (Stanley Holloway) and recast it as Eifel Tower souvenirs for export to Paris. Scripted by T.E.B. Clarke and directed by Charles Crichton, the tongue-in-cheek depiction of a perfect crime has one hilarious flaw after another, culminating in a wild police chase through London and a neat twist ending in South America.
Grab some popcorn and enjoy the show!