Films to Watch During Lent

Lent is a time for taking stock. It is a spiritual workout consisting of prayer, fasting and alms giving. We pray, read spiritual books, and give something to someone in need. But too often we get distracted, we forget to pray, and lose interest in the books we have earmarked for the season whilst suddenly realizing we don’t have as much spare cash as we thought. We have all been there. But fear not. Lent is a series of starts, some false, but many genuine. The secret, as with all things spiritual, is to begin again, begin often, and never cease to keep beginning.

The other day, I overheard two young friends discussing Lent. It was all about “giving up.” The list of possible “sacrifices” seemed interminable. By the time the conversation had ended, I’d almost given up so I interjected saying: “…of course, you could take something up….”

And this is where this article comes in. Take up watching movies—but ones tailored for the Lenten season. Watch them alone, with family, with friends, with your Guardian Angel—you decide. But watch them closely for, you never know, they may just be saying something relevant.

Enough introduction; on with the show….

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
First up is a film with no talk: The Passion of Joan of Arc. This 1928 movie has a history almost as fantastic as the performances on screen. The film’s director, Carl Dreyer, became interested in the Maid of Orléans just after her canonization in the early 1920s. Today Dreyer is regarded as one of Europe’s greatest directors even if he made but a handful of movies, all of them worthy of note, some classics. This movie is just that. In fact, I would go further and say that its portrayal of the interior life is one of the greatest ever captured on screen. Its plot is that of the saint’s trial and subsequent martyrdom, the script the actual transcript of the court proceedings with every word historically authentic. It needed to be, for the performance Dreyer gets from Falconetti in the central role is equally so. Now the stuff of legend, the actress entered into character in a way that was unnerving—living the part to the extent that at one point she endured some form of break down, and, as she did so, so too did most of the film crew. Such was the intensity of what was being created. This was to be her only major screen appearance, and after its completion she retreated from the public gaze; perhaps understandably, for at times this movie has a documentary feel, with the last scenes, in particular, notably shattering. Needless to say, in regard to the penitential aspect of Lent, here is a worthy cinematic contender. Watch it and marvel.

Into Great Silence (2005)
If we are to talk less during Lent, it is so we can pray more. And prayer is the theme of our next film: Into Great Silence. First some background. Its director, Philip Gröning, had asked the Carthusian monks of Grande Chartreuse if he could come and film their life at the monastery. Sixteen years later he got his reply: come. He went, and with only basic camera equipment, captured something quite remarkable. It is nothing less than life on the “inside” lived in its simplicity and stillness. The film is over two and a half hours long and has its own pace. During the first 20 minutes or so “nothing happens,” the screen is almost completely dark, and then we realize that we are in the cell of a monk in the early hours of the morning and have been praying with him. This is the film’s secret: it is not a “film” at all, not in any recognizable sense; what it is instead is a meditation. Through this documentary the audience not only goes beyond the walls of the monastery but also—somehow—enters into the monk’s hidden life of contemplation. If anyone doubts the role of cinema in the New Evangelization then this movie is a case study. Upon its release in 2005, it did surprisingly well at the European box office, and on the night it opened in London I was turned away on account of it being sold out. Perhaps, not so surprising after all, for in these days of dubious on screen “spiritualities,” here in all its beauty is the real thing.

The Bicycle Thief (1948)
So what of alms giving? There are many films about greed and its effects, few about altruism in its purest form. But what Lent asks us to look at is that which holds our hearts, and this is often something material, and so no better film to watch in this regard than The Bicycle Thief. This 1948 classic is timeless even if set in the austerity of post-war Rome; where there is little of anything to go around save human affection. A poor family is at the movie’s center; they are struggling to make ends meet, but they are not alone in this, as the whole city seems desperate. Slowly their fortunes change for the better, but not for long, and, thereafter, we observe their very ordinary, if all too real, tragedy. In this movie we find something that makes us think. No matter how many times it is viewed, its dilemma and its ending never fail to move—definitely a movie to put things in perspective. The message embedded within it, however, is not simply about material possessions, for it sings of human love: husband for wife, wife for husband, child for parent—altogether priceless.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
This time we have entered into is not about us, however. It is about Christ. Have a look again at The Greatest Story Ever Told. After Mel Gibson’s The Passion, it seems that all other such films have been discarded from the public consciousness, perhaps none more so than this 1965 movie. It has too easily been derided as nothing more than a Sunday School play with a walk on cast of movie stars that distracts the audience trying to identify who’s who as they appear and disappear with rapidity. This would be a mistake, as there is majesty about this film. If you doubt this then watch the sequences just prior to the Baptism at the Jordan when we have a Palestine riven with violence and hopelessness juxtaposed with an ongoing lament for the Messiah. In the middle of this, observing all, and in a scene so understated it is easy to miss, there is indeed that longed for figure now come at last if still concealed in the shadows. It sets the tone for Max von Sydow’s central performance, which is that of the Man of Sorrows. There are, of course, the set pieces—the raising of Lazarus being particularly noteworthy. But there are many subtle touches too, not least the accompaniment of the devil throughout it all, similar to what Gibson did later, but here more prosaic and all the more sinister for it. In that parade of star names, worth a mention is the much-mocked cameo of John Wayne, here playing the centurion with his one line of dialogue. Nevertheless, it is always “dangerous” to pray on screen, and Wayne’s celluloid declaration on Calvary was to have an all too real response some 14 years later when, now on his deathbed, he returned to the foot of the Cross and with a similar declaration was received into the Church.

If Lent is to be a time of reflection, is there a better way to do so than in the “conscious dreaming” of cinema?

Whatever you choose to “take up” this Lent, I hope it edifies—and dare I say too, I hope you enjoy it.

K. V. Turley


K. V. Turley is a London-based freelance writer and filmmaker.

  • GaudeteMan

    Looking forward to Joan of Arc! I might add that La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) would be golden for this time of year. The extremes to which a loving father goes to console and encourage his young son in a WWII concentration camp are inspiring. It also has one of the more powerful scenes I can remember when the Catholic wife orders the Nazis to halt the train full of Jews so that she can get on board with her condemned husband and son.

    • Mary Mann

      I loved Life is Beautiful, and The Miracle of Marcelino. Where is The Passion of the Christ, though? (Based on wonderful books written about Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions.)

  • ColdStanding

    Or one could spend 30 minutes a day blindfolded to as a mortification of the eyes for so many misuses, like spending one’s time watching mindless pap on the boob tube.

  • Kathleen Gavlas

    I highly recommend “Ben Hur.” For a Hollywood epic it has real heart and more gritty realism than most biblical films. And there is no rule that says we can’t laugh during Lent. A little gem I watch every year at this time is “What About Bob?” Richard Dreyfuss gives an outstanding performance as a self-obsessed psychologist. A warning: contains some vulgar language.

  • Howard

    Whenever I hear this talk about how “I’m not giving anything up, I’m taking something on,” all it reinforces to me is how difficult and necessary it is to give something up. If you won’t mortify the flesh at least during Lent, you won’t mortify it at all, and that is a problem.

    • GaudeteMan

      You must not be from the US. Its commonplace here to give something up.

      • Howard

        Just because it is commonplace does not mean it is unnecessary.

        • GaudeteMan

          Quite right.

  • Leslie Gyulay

    Great choice on “The Bicycle Thief.”

  • Jerry Rhino

    A very inspiring film, without any overt religious themes, is Departures, a Japanese film dubbed in English.

    • gsk

      Wonderful film, true. First funeral might be a little … off-putting, but stick with it–the movie is tremendous.

  • ForChristAlone

    and for real action – Ben-Hur

  • phranthie

    One of my most memorable films was ‘Marcelino, pan y vino’ (The Miracle of Marcelino), a Spanish film which impressed me greatly in my youth. The film came from a work of fiction but was still credibly touching. Any supporters?

    • JoseProvi


    • GaudeteMan

      Good call! Fantastic film! My kids love it. The antithesis of ‘mindless pap.’

  • Tantem Ergo

    Great article, and thank you Holy Spirit as I was browsing Netflix and looking for Lenten Films! I “The 10 Commandments” (the original with Charlton Heston) in my queue. Another great one is “Jesus of Nazareth” which was aired every year as a mini series on TV, and if you can watch the crucifixion with your eyes open you’re braver than I. Will check out “The Bicycle Thief” and for you Americans in the present day oddly enough I watch “Bruce Almighty” once a year. Secular as it is with huge pro left Hollywood cast it is a GREAT film about bowing to God’s will.

  • I would recommend The Island (Ostrov). Also Of Gods and Men (Des Dieux et des Hommes) both are very beautiful and moving films about faith taken to its limits.

  • Objectivetruth

    “Changing Lanes”, Ben Afflek, Samuel L. Jackson.

    Lenten themes throughout: sin, suffering, repentance, forgiveness, reparation. It has it all.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    IKIRU by Kurosawa. A dying Tokyo bureaucrat (stomach cancer just like Bernanos young priest) spends his last days turning a cesspool-swamp into a children’s playground. Inspired by Tolstoy’s ‘Death of Ivan Illyich’ but entirely another story. One of the greatest films by one of the greatest directors – sobering in a very ‘Lent’ sort of way. And heartbreakingly beautiful.

    • hedwig

      Not sure if you will be checking back, but it was with delight that I read your
      recommendation of Ikiru. It is a movie I will never be able to forget and have purchased a copy to watch regularly. In every way it is, as you note, heartbreakingly beautiful.

      • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

        The end with the old man on the swing is one of the high points of movie art. Hard to believe that the actor who played the lead of Ikiru played the leader of the Seven Samurai!

  • St Donatus

    An oldy but a goody is ‘The Miracle of the Bells’. It reminds me a lot of the Catholicism in my childhood and shows the true damage that can be done by our prejudices. Yet it is not one of those bleeding heart lefty movies. It shows true Catholicism in action by a non-Catholic who converts .


    I have ‘Into Great Silence’ but for some reason I have not mustered up the wherewithal to watch it in full – I’ve gotten about 30 minutes into it and stopped.

    I recommend ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ from 1978.

  • roger s.

    It may seem odd to some, but I just watched “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” again, after ten years. A very Catholic movie with a bravura performance of Emily, but I didn’t catch the actress’ name. U.K. actor Tom Wilkinson is superb as the Priest conducting the exorcism. It is set in the U.S., but the true story is somewhat different; it’s based on an incident in Germany. And very lenten, in that Emily, the subject of the exorcism, suffers so terribly, but at or near the end, she is visited by the Blessed Virgin, who strenthgens Emily in her resolve to be a “victim soul” for others, offering up her incredible suffering to convert others. Much scary stuff in it, a little over the top at times, but all in all, very inspiring, and worth the time.

    • SnowCherryBlossoms

      That was one of the most accurate movie out there..And actually, the demonic activity in the movie wasn’t so much over the top, it’s just the best Hollywood can do- and it isn’t even close.

  • Jane Kosco

    No one has mentioned Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ. Great film to watch esp. during Holy Week; or even during the three hours on Good Friday.

  • squishee

    Sorry to say Mr. Turley, but St. Joan is not canonized as a martyr but a Virgin. A great Saint for sure, but not a martyr.

  • SnowCherryBlossoms

    ‘Into Great Silence’ is a really good movie. But at today’s pace I don’t know that too many would be willing to sit through it 🙂 It put me into a peaceful place, I loved it! I hope it comes on EWTN again so I can record it.

  • kam counts

    Great piece but for me its the magnificent seven, these brave souls gave up their freedom to fight for the villagers freedom.

    With the church of the village taking main stage.