The best religious films, and therefore the best Catholic films, convey the great truths of Christianity implicitly rather than explicitly, not unlike the mystery of incarnation itself, in which the Word became flesh in the person of an obscure carpenter from a hick town in a minor province. In addition, this list consists primarily of films that deal with Catholic characters, Catholic society, and the Bible in ways that are not hostile to the Church. Most of them were made by Catholic directors.
It is interesting to note that the three best directors who ever worked in Hollywood, Frank Capra, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock, were all practicing Catholics. So much for the detrimental effects in these times of the Church upon art.
[Editor’s note: This piece — one of the most talked-about in the history of Crisis Magazine — is now ten years old, and there a few new titles that should be added to the list. We encourage you to share your suggestions in the comments section. ]
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
♦ ♦ ♦
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)
Directed by Martin Scorcese: Here Scorcese transforms Edith Wharton’s satire on New York during the Gilded Age into a compassionate tale of love and sacrifice. It’s a woman’s film in that the hero (Daniel Day-Lewis) just doesn’t get it; he’s not morally up to the divorcée (Michelle Pfeiffer) with whom he falls in love, neither does he fully appreciate the wisdom of his seemingly naive wife (Winona Ryder). The women, however, understand all and agree (though they never speak to one another about it) to aid him in keeping his matrimonial vows. The opening at the opera, appropriately Faust, and the following ballroom scene are among the greatest ensemble pieces ever filmed in Hollywood, worthy of Capra and Fellini. Presently underrated, this work is a masterpiece.
ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938)
Directed by Michael Curtiz: Why Curtiz is not more admired remains one of the mysteries of film history. Among his credits one finds Robin Hood, Four Daughters, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Mildred Pierce. In Angels, good gangster Cagney, at the request of his old pal, the priest Pat O’Brien, pretends he’s yellow so as to warn the Dead End Kids against a macho life of crime. Cagney is at his mannered best, and the play of light, the pace, and rhythm of the editing remind us once more of the greatness of the Hollywood studio system.
THE ASSISI UNDERGROUND (1984)
Directed by Alexander Ramati: It is always a pleasure to find a film dealing with the Holocaust that is not hostile to the Church. Shot on location in Assisi, this film shows the work of Father Ruffino (Ben Cross), one of the “Righteous Gentiles,” in sheltering Italian Jews and transporting them to safety during the Nazi occupation. Unlike many World War II melodramas, this one rings true because it is true, and its good acting (James Mason is the bishop) and simple direction add to the authenticity. As a sign of the film’s charity, Maximilian Schell plays a sympathetic German officer who is also trying to be a Catholic and who deliberately interferes with the atrocious work of the SS.
AU REVOIR, LES ENFANTS (1987)
Directed by Louis Malle: Based on Malle’s own experience of Pere Jacques Bunel’s school, Au Revoir tells the story of several Jewish boys being hidden in a French Catholic boarding school during World War II. The opposite of sentimental, it shows not only the arrogance of the boys but the harshness of the prevailing class system. It is a school employee, a lower-class lackey ridiculed by the wealthier students, who turns informer. Conscious of the ironies that wars produce, the film in one scene has a German officer protecting an upper-class Jew from being hassled by the French police. But it is just this honesty and complexity, as opposed to a simplistic good guys vs. bad guys scenario, that give the film its punch when the priests and the Jewish boys are led off to the camps.
BABETTE’S FEAST (1987)
Directed by Gabriel Axel: The delightful story of two Danish spinsters who hire a French cook (Stephane Audran). Though bearing their unjust suspicions, Audran decides to reward them with her love and goes about preparing, at her own expense, a sumptuous banquet. As the film develops, we realize this is nothing less than a eucharistic celebration, consisting of an enormous sacrifice for those unworthy of the price.
BACHELOR MOTHER (1939)
Directed by Garson Kanin: Among the great comedies of the ’30s, Bachelor Mother should be better known. In it Ginger Rogers is mistakenly assumed to be the mother of an abandoned baby, and accepts this role in order to keep her job. In one of the niftiest comic scripts ever written, David Niven, the playboy heir to the department store where Ginger works, begins by preaching to the “fallen” Ginger, only later to assume the fatherhood of the child. While promoting male responsibility, the film also serves as a wonderful antidote to the pro-choice ethic of “reproductive rights.”
BICYCLE THIEVES (1947)
Directed by Vittorio de Sica: Perhaps the greatest of all “Neo-realist” films, it tells the all-too-human story of a family, particularly a father and his young son, who suffer unemployment in postwar Italy. When on the first day of his new job his bike is stolen, the bike on which the job depends, he in turn steals another and is caught. A simple story, yet so movingly told that it evokes, even from the most hard-hearted of us, the sympathy for others that the Church and our Lord desire.
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski: This film is part of a trilogy, the other two being White and Red. Beautifully photographed and supremely intelligent, it tells of a woman (Juliette Binoche) who, after losing her husband and child, attempts to withdraw from life. But suffering and truth bring her back, with greater understanding, to a more meaningful existence.
Directed by Michael Curtiz: Let’s be honest. Although this is a typical studio work, reluctantly acted, improvised as it went along, it’s one of the most enjoyable pictures ever made. It’s not just Bogie at his best, Ingrid Bergman at her most appealing and vulnerable, and Claude Rains at his wittiest; it’s not just Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and a superb cast; it’s not even World War II and “As Time Goes By.” No, what makes Casablanca a great film is that all of these contribute to a story of conversion and sacrifice, in which the big, cynical ego of Rick surrenders itself to a higher cause. In any roundup of suspects for great cinema, Casablanca must be included.
BEN HUR (1959)
Directed by William Wyler: My favorite scene: As Jesus gives water to the enslaved Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), a Roman guard starts to say, “Who do you think you…” and looking into the face of God cannot finish his sentence.
THE CHAMP (1931)
Directed by King Vidor: If City Lights fails to make you cry, The Champ certainly will. An over-the-hill, drunken prizefighter (Wallace Beery) deliberately alienates his loving son (Jackie Cooper) so that the kid will have a better life with his upper-class mother, then wins his last fight for the boy, knowing his own life is at risk. Not unlike the theme of Vidor’s later Stella Dallas, this film, while remaining positive, captures the ambivalence and problems in parent-child relationships. Many ’30s films take on these Dickensian subjects, not the least of which are the early ones starring Shirley Temple.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)
Directed by Hugh Hudson: In the spirit of Ut Unum Sint, we should acknowledge at least one
Catholic film with a Protestant orientation. Such is this epic of the 1924 Olympics, in which Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) overcomes anti-Semitism, and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) sticks to his religious convictions. Happily, the Flying Scot gives full credit to God for making him the fastest man alive.
EL CID (1961)
Directed by Anthony Mann: By far the best of the medieval epics.
CITY LIGHTS (1930)
Directed by Charles Chaplin: The Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and sets out to raise money so she can afford an operation. For his efforts, which include a supremely comic prizefight, he’s falsely accused of robbery, but not before he gets the money for her cure. When he returns, down and out, ridiculed by nasty boys, she sees him from her prosperous new flower shop, laughs at him, and gives him a rose. In touching him, she recognizes that he, not a millionaire, is her benefactor. The last shot of the Tramp, with the rose in his mouth, is nothing less than a representation of divine love, a figure of one rejected by men who unselfishly saves us.
UN CONDAMNE A MORT S’EST ECHAPPE (1956)
Directed by Robert Bresson: All of Bresson’s films qualify for a best Catholic list. This one stands out because it dramatizes the interaction of free will and providence as a man condemned to death escapes from prison. Austere and meticulous in its details, it becomes a breathtaking allegory of Christian life.
DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1950)
Directed by Robert Bresson: Austere and profound, like the Bernanos novel on which it is based, this film presents the daily struggles encountered by a sympathetic priest.
GOING MY WAY (1944)
Directed by Leo McCarey: A sentimental favorite. Earlier Hollywood films about priests worked, like this one, to show they are regular guys and good social workers. Here McCarey has not yet lost his comic touch, and he uses it to convey some genuine spiritual truths, aided by a fine performance from Bing Crosby. If Pope Pius XII enjoyed Barry Fitzgerald taking a snip of whiskey, who am I to complain? It was followed by an even more popular sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), also Directed by McCarey.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1964)
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini: Simply the best of all the life of Jesus films.
GRAND ILLUSION (1937)
Directed by Jean Renoir: One of the great antiwar films, Grand Illusion illustrates the brotherhood of all mankind. Yet as Renoir presents a constant play of divisive boundaries-of class, of race, of sex-all of which can be broken down, he also shows how our fallen human nature reconstructs them. Thus as sexual barriers tumble in the all-male musical revue, national ones are erected when the cast stop the show to sing “The Marseillaise.” Complex and profound, this film contains great performances by Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Eric Von Stroheim.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)
Directed by John Ford: Ford improved on Steinbeck and translated his sometimes didactic and heavy-handed writing into a great humanist work. It achieves what so many works of art in the ’30s aspired to: the raising of the working man to heroic dignity. Instead of the all-too-common stereotyping and abstraction of the period, Ford invests each character with his or her unique individuality. Is it an accident that the most effective left-wing film of the decade, if not the century, was made by a Catholic?
GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)
Directed by Harold Ramis: Groundhog Day reverses the proposition of Ikiru. Instead of being informed that he will soon die, the protagonist, Bill Murray, a nerdy, narcissistic, condescending Pittsburgh TV weatherman, discovers that he cannot die, that he is trapped, seemingly forever, in February 2nd, Groundhog Day, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the site of the National Groundhog Festival. Murray, sent to cover this event, must continually relive it until such immortality as this provides him teaches him how to be mortal. Like the hero of Ikiru, Murray tries out, in a comical manner, the worldly pleasures of indulgence, sex, and money, and when they do not work, he turns to despair. But after hundreds if not thousands of attempts either to live a fun day or annihilate himself, he begins to sanctify the time. Whereas Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life discovers what Bedford Falls would have been like had he never lived, Bill Murray discovers how Punxatawney can be turned into a better place. I do not know the religious affiliation of Danny Rubin, the writer of this film, but I do know that his picture embodies the message taught and lived by many saints.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa: An older bureaucrat discovers he has terminal cancer, and in the last six months of his life also discovers how to live, which is what “ikiru” means in Japanese. The first half of the film shows his journey toward the truth; the second half, at his funeral, shows through flashbacks what happened when he found it. In case you don’t already know, the truth is to love your neighbor. If only one film of the twentieth century could survive, this would be my choice.
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)
Directed by Frank Capra: The original “screwball comedy,” it belongs on the best fifty list of films of any category. Like so many class-conscious pictures of the ’30s, it reconciles the “screwball” rich with the common people. It also reconciles father and daughter. Best of all it tames a spoiled brat (Claudette Colbert) and cuts down to size a self-centered male chauvinist (Clark Gable) and fits them both for a lasting marriage. One of the few films that actually deserved all its Academy Awards.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
Directed by Frank Capra: If any film can top It Happened One Night, this is it. Seldom has the pope’s favorite theme of the importance of each person’s life been so effectively dramatized. Perceived when it was released as too sentimental, it has taken its place as one of the most profound and beloved films of all time. Joseph Walker, the great cinematographer, filmed this so beautifully in black and white that it is a sin to watch the tacky colorized version.
THE LAST SUPPER (1976)
Directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea: Unlike The Seventh Seal, which looks Christian on the surface but is actually existential, The Last Supper looks existential but is actually Christian. In it the great Cuban director Gutierrez Alea, who gave us Memories of Underdevelopment and Up to a Certain Point, presents an anatomy of slavery in eighteenth-century Cuba. When an enlightened and pious aristocrat attempts to celebrate the Last Supper with his slaves, all chaos breaks loose. Though on the one hand the film exposes the hideous relationship between the class system and the religious establishment, it also reveals Christianity as the true basis for human freedom.
LATE SPRING (1949)
Directed by Ozu: This film tells a story of the conflict of generations: of traditional Japan and westernization, of father and daughter. It’s a wonderful antidote against those “essentialists” who believe in the relativity of cultural values. This film illustrates the natural (and divine) law of paternal sacrifice and love. In it an aging professor, a widower, feigns a romance so that his daughter, who wishes only to take care of him, will be free to marry. Every shot, every composition contributes to the beauty and poignancy of this great film.
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann: A superb account of the trial of St. Thomas More, brilliantly acted by Paul Scofield and better than Bolt’s play of the same name. Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story marks the beginning of Hollywood’s negative portrayal of the Church. And Bolt’s screenplay for The Mission looks at the Church from the point of view of Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” which makes this film a happier combination of their talents.
THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962)
Directed by Arthur Penn: Films that portray people overcoming handicaps or finding grace through them make up an important genre of Hollywood and TV movies. These range from Pride of the Yankees to Lorenzo’s Oil. To my mind the best ever made is The Miracle Worker, the true story of Annie Sullivan’s (Anne Bancroft) efforts to teach the deaf and dumb Helen Keller (Patty Duke) how to communicate.
MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S (1969)
Directed by Eric Rohmer: In the third of his “Six Moral Tales,” Rohmer daringly shows a middle-class protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in search of a good Catholic wife. En route he spends a night with the tempting divorcée Maud (Francoise Fabian), but does not consummate the relationship, much to the dismay of many critics, who see him only as a wimp. Marrying a more conventional woman (Marie-Christine Barrault) at the end of the film, he takes upon himself the burden of her guiltier past. Set in Clermont, the birthplace of Pascal, the film integrates the Pensées into the drama.
THE NAZARIN (1951)
Directed by Luis Bunuel: Although Bunuel was anticlerical most of his life, in this film, based on a novel by Galdos, he captures what it means to bear the cross.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock: Considered by the less astute as a potboiler thriller, this is actually one of the greatest “comedies of remarriage” ever made. The reverse of Vertigo made the year before, here the flawed hero and femme fatale save one another. Instead of romantic and obsessive love, it comically advocates an honest relationship and explores the notions of truth, identity, and the nature and purpose of art. When that impeccable villain James Mason remarks “real bullets, not very sporting,” he announces the theme of the film, namely that through the play of art, we can discover our true selves and abandon the false fictions by which we erroneously live.
ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)
Directed by Elia Kazan: For once in a Hollywood film, a priest (Karl Malden) does good for the sake of Christ and says so. Marlon Brando, at the height of his career, deserved his Academy Award in this literate, superbly directed film. Some critics claim that Kazan and Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter, made On the Waterfront to justify their own informing on the Communist Party, but this film is more remarkable in that Kazan and actors such as Lee J. Cobb, distinguished alumni of the leftist Group Theater of the ’30s, should see as an enemy of the people not the banks, but a corrupt labor union.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928)
Directed by Carl Dreyer: The austerity and intensity of Dreyer’s work resembles that of Bresson’s, and like Bresson, he centers his films on religious experience. In this silent film, Dreyer follows the text of Joan’s trial, making his version of Joan the most accurate we have. Maria Falconetti as Joan conveys the anguish of the maid before her English inquisitors. As color is to the great black-and-white films, so spoken dialogue would be to the great silent ones.
Pickpocket (1959) , Directed by Robert Bresson: Like Ford and Capra, Bresson excelled in making Catholic films. In Pickpocket, he provides his version of Crime and Punishment. In this case the hero is not a murderer, but an intellectual who picks pockets with Nietzschean rationalizations. The Sonia figure, a young woman who has helped his ailing mother, leads him, when caught, to the threshold of redemption. After a few exposures to the current Hollywood style of explosion and shattered glass, one appreciates the aesthetic and religious economy of Bresson.
Directed by Ben Sharpstein and Hamilton Luske: Although Snow White has a better score, Pinocchio, the second of Disney’s animated features, is the most beautifully drawn. In excitement and invention, the scenes in the whale’s belly surpass anything ever done by the Disney studio, even with the aid of computer graphics. Like the story of Jonah, its distant ancestor, Pinocchio graphically portrays both the consequences of sin and the grace of redemption.
THE QUIET MAN (1952)
Directed by John Ford: Almost all of Ford’s best films qualify for this list. Here he shows an Irish-American prizefighter (John Wayne) who, having killed a man in the ring, attempts to retire peacefully to rural Ireland. But having wooed and won Maureen O’Hara, he discovers he must fight her bully brother, Victor McLaglen, to liberate her and win the respect of the community. Filmed in a lyric, comic style, this film, like My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, explores a favorite Fordian theme: the uneasy relationship between civilization, or law, and violence.
QUIZ SHOW (1994)
Directed by Robert Redford: Countless films reveal the folly of the world, but among recent ones Quiz Show stands out. Its script by Paul Attanasio, who also wrote Donnie Brasco, accurately depicts the process by which all of us, however well meaning, are capable of sliding backwards on the plane of life.
ROME, OPEN CITY (1945)
Directed by Roberto Rossellini: Shot in part before the Nazis had even left Rome, this film poignantly shows partisan and priest in their efforts at resistance. The death of the pregnant Anna Magnani and the martyrdom of the priest remain two of the most memorable moments in all cinema.
THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille: Max von Mayerling said that there were three great directors, himself, D. W. Griffith, and Cecil B. DeMille. When one sees this epic, one understands why. It combines the style of the best silent films with the intelligence of the newly imported Broadway writers, in this case Sidney Buchman, future creator of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jordan. It is so visually stunning that it might be mistaken for a work by Von Sternberg or Lubitsch, the other two creators of the famed Paramount style of the early ’30s. Claudette Colbert’s sensual bath in asses’ milk seems decorous today, and the film has the virtue of rewarding its hero and heroine, Fredric March and Elissa Landi, with martyrdom. The prurience of the original version helped form the Legion of Decency, but the version shown on TV is the one cleaned up by the Production Code Administration and omits gratuitous sensuality while retaining the story’s essential Christianity.
THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (1943)
Directed by Henry King: Hollywood’s most Catholic film, a fact that I attribute to wartime suffering and austerity. As Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) goes off in a cart to the nunnery, her suitor kneels by the roadside, left at home to keep the faith, not unlike the reversed situation of women saying final farewells to their men going off to war.
Directed by Alain Cavalier: Done in the style of Dreyer and Bresson, this film succeeds in presenting the essence of the life of the Little Flower.
THREE GODFATHERS (1948)
Directed by John Ford: This work by Ford is not as admired as it should be, perhaps because it is so obviously a Christmas story. In it Ford already pays homage to the whole history of the western, as he tells the story of two desperados who, joined by John Wayne, try to keep a baby alive as they cross the desert pursued by a posse, led by a non-killing sheriff (Ward Bond). Sophisticates may sneer, but it made me cry.
VOYAGE TO ITALY (a.k.a. The Strangers) (1953)
Directed by Roberto Rossellini: An English couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) travel to Italy in an attempt to repair their failing marriage. As Emerson warned, they carry “ruins to ruins,” and the film captures, through the beauties of Naples and the surrounding countryside, the emptiness of their relationship and the reasons for it. At the end, when they witness a miracle, they rediscover their love for one another. Some critics think the ending ironic, as in La Notte. But Rossellini, unlike Antonioni, consistently made profound Catholic films. Bergman, possibly the greatest of all movie actresses, appears here at the height of her powers.
YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)
Directed by Frank Capra: Capra improves the Kaufman and Hart play, which reconciles class conflict through zaniness and the marriage of children. The scene in which Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold play “Polly Wolly Doodle” on their harmonicas may be the essence of “Capracorn,” but the music conjures up the lost children and is the closest thing I know in film to the resurrection of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock: The best of all film noir, Vertigo acts more as a warning than as an example. Though Hitchcock has been accused of being a misogynist, in this film he deconstructs an all-too-familiar male obsession with women and reveals it for the destructive, hideous, and narcissistic thing it is. It’s an exposé of that sort of false romantic love that seeks the ideal in a woman, then goes berserk when the object of love turns out to be a flesh-and-blood human being. Hitchcock perceived the dark side of Stewart and brought it out in this, their greatest collaboration.
This article originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.