Four and a Half Kinds of Catholic Films

I’m not certain whether it reflects well or badly of us moderns that, while we are terrified of labeling any of the sciences as religious (despite the fact that science is often clung to religiously), we have no qualms doing the same with art. More than a few eyebrows would be raised if someone were to wax on about Catholic chemistry or Catholic geography, the assumption being that any effort to co-opt science, something purportedly true and universal, for a particular group will necessarily distort that truth and render it false. After all, isn’t Catholic chemistry merely alchemy, and doesn’t everybody know that Catholic geography has something to do with the earth being flat?

No one, on the other hand, has the same hesitation in speaking of Catholic music or art, not only for the obvious reason that there are such things, but also because we who live in the wake of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche see art more as an assertion of the will than as a signpost for truth. This is a shame because art, sometimes even bad art, can tell the truth as nothing else can. And cinematic art is no exception: Not only can good film tell the truth, it can even tell the truths proclaimed by the Catholic Church.

In the spirit of an ancient Greek or Roman naturalist, I think it is possible to wade through the array of “good” films—films that, loosely following the host’s criteria in the Canterbury Tales, both edify and delight—and accurately locate among them a genus of “good Catholic” movies. These two adjectives, it should be noted, are not necessarily synonymous. Not every artistically or morally sound movie is automatically Catholic (or vice versa), nor need it be in order for us Catholics to enjoy, admire, and learn from it. There are, needless to say, a vast number of films that point to important truths about human existence without necessarily tapping into something that is quintessentially Christian or Catholic.

This can be true even of films that are bleak and godless—literally. If so many movies today are depressing and desperate, it is because they are an accurate (and hence instructive) mirror of the hell that is life bereft of grace or hope. As Pope John Paul II is reputed to have said, “We owe secular artists appreciation for showing us what the world without God looks like.” Anyone, for example, who has seen the original 1966 version of Alfie (starring Michael Caine), with its realistic portrayal of an abortion, knows exactly what that statement means.

What, then, can be called good Catholic film? Within this broad genus there are at least three distinct species, along with a dubious “half” species of quasi-Catholic film and even a spurious or sham species of the pseudo-Catholic. After all, it would not be ancient naturalism without a griffin or two to complicate our classifications and mercifully blur the lines between the empirical and the fantastic.

Explicit Catholicism

Films that have conspicuous Catholic characters or themes may safely be designated explicitly Catholic. Examples include the 1926 silent film classic The Passion of Joan of Arc; Becket (1964), starring Richard Burton as the martyred archbishop of Canterbury; A Man for All Seasons, either the 1966 classic with Paul Scofield or the 1988 remake with Charlton Heston; Thérèse (2004), the touching film about the Little Flower; and, of course, the unforgettable Passion of the Christ (2004).

Explicitly Catholic movies, however, are not limited to the communion of saints or the life of Our Lord. The Mission (1986) and Black Robe (1991) both deal with Jesuit evangelization in the New World, while The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) is a beautiful portrait of the inner workings of the Vatican and an uncanny foreshadowing of the election of John Paul II. Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and On the Waterfront (1954) both tell powerful Catholic stories of loss and redemption in the ghettoes and dock slums of yesteryear; on the other hand, Catholics (1973)—the story of Irish monks who return to the Mass in Latin after the Vatican apparently sells out to an interfaith pantheism—masterfully dramatizes some of the deepest issues confronting the postconciliar Church today.

Though explicitly Catholic movies are the most easily identifiable kind of good Catholic film, there are still gray areas. How much Catholicism, for example, does there have to be in order for a film to be recognized as a member of this species? Take, for example, the 1965 family favorite The Sound of Music, which favorably portrays all of its Catholic characters, from the heroine, Maria, to the sagacious Mother Superior of her convent. Nevertheless, the Faith is not the primary subject of the plot, and Hollywood arguably does an injustice to Maria von Trapp, who was an intelligent and staunch convert to Catholicism, not the lovably flighty “cloud” that needed “pinning down” played by Julie Andrews. But do these considerations, valid though they may be, disqualify the film from this grouping?

And what are we to make of the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast? In many ways this cinematic masterpiece, with its undercurrents of Protestant-Catholic tensions, may be read as an allegory of the Eucharistic banquet, yet Babette’s climactic lines pay tribute to her art rather than her faith. Or what about Changing Lanes (2002), starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson? The movie is a well-crafted suspense about an escalating feud between two men involved in a traffic accident. The characters are not Catholic (presumably), but the entire movie takes place on Good Friday, a fact made significant not only because one of the characters stumbles into a Catholic church during the Good Friday liturgy, but because the resolution is cleverly consistent with the meaning of the day. Such details are explicit, but are they sufficiently salient or crucial to render the whole explicitly Catholic?

Similarly, we may wonder how decisive a movie’s portrayal of Catholicism needs to be in order for it to be ranked with the likes of, say, the inspiring Song of Bernadette (1943) or the charming Lilies of the Field (1963). Millions (2004) and the Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) are both fine, provocative movies dealing with explicit (albeit extraordinary) Catholic topics, but they remain agnostic on whether the phenomena in question (apparitions in the one, demonic possession in the other) are real. To my mind, this differentia should not exclude them from the category of explicit Catholicism, for there is much to be gained by simply raising the right question in an honest way.

Finally, does the filmmaker of an explicitly Catholic movie even need to be Catholic? M. Night Shyamalan is Hindu, yet he tells a solid Catholic story in Wide Awake (1998)—so much so, in fact, that the New York Times virtually panned the movie as Romanist propaganda. If all of these uncertainties illustrate anything, it is the taxonomical principle that categories with murky boundaries can nevertheless remain valid.

Implicit Catholicism

Implicitly Catholic movies, on the other hand, do not tell an overtly Catholic story but nevertheless reflect a Catholic sensibility or worldview. This is a category on which contributors to crisis have written well. Maria Elena de las Carreras Kuntz has illustrated Frank Capra’s artistic debt to the Sermon on the Mount (see “The Catholic Vision of Frank Capra,” February 2002), while her article on John Ford shows how the filmmaker’s cinematography reflects a sacramental love of creation (see “John Ford’s America,” October 1996). A more recent example of indirect Catholicism would be the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), which operates out of an Augustinian understanding of good and evil—specifically, the understanding of the latter as a privation of the former.

One should also mention Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, which, while often toying with neo-Freudian psychology, shows a steady recourse to Catholic natural law theory. Notice, for example, that in several of Hitchcock’s thrillers, a rupture in the natural order is preceded by one in the moral order. In The Birds (1963), it is only when Mitch and Melanie, whom we first see flirting over a pair of birds in a pet store, are meeting for a weekend fling that the skies grow “fowl”; in Psycho (1960), the lovely Janet Leigh would never have been in that shower were she not on the lam after absconding with her employer’s funds.

Interestingly, no direct link between the two violations is ever made, but their mere juxtaposition is enough to heighten the audience’s sense of foreboding. Indeed, Hitchcock is relying on our natural discomfort with immorality, our instinctive recognition that there is an order to things that cannot be transgressed without consequences, in order to exploit our fears. (This, incidentally, may also explain the decline of Hitchcock’s movies in the 1970s. After the Sexual Revolution, he could no longer rely on the audience’s willing cognizance of the natural law, at least where Venus was concerned.)

As can be seen from the cases of Capra, Ford, and Hitchcock, implicitly Catholic cinema is usually a result of the Catholic formation of the screenwriter, director, etc. There are, however, interesting exceptions to this rule, Shyamalan again coming to mind. On the surface, his Signs (2002) is a sci-fi thriller about alien invasions and a lapsed Episcopalian priest, but at its core lies a brilliant and lucid lesson on the Catholic understanding of providence in the face of tragedy and happenstance.

Cribbed Catholicism

Movies that draw from the Catholic-Christian narrative or from Catholic symbols for the purpose of extolling a non-Catholic or even anti-Catholic hero or theme may be dubbed “cribbed.” The pejorative connotation of this adjective makes it a suitable label for this category: Cribbed movies ride on Christianity’s coattails, often with the intention of picking its pockets. Examples include the notorious Da Vinci Code (2006) and Dogma, the 1999 mishmash of angelology and asininity featuring Alanis Morrissette as God—though its skewering of modernist, happy-clappy Catholicism with the cardinal who wants to replace all crucifixes with a statue of “Buddy Jesus” is, one must admit, wickedly funny. Also coming to mind is the less-known Saint Ralph (2004), the religious equivalent of Dead Poets Society, insofar as its sanctimonious deconstruction of holiness masquerades as a nostalgic 1950s school yarn.

To be fair, not all cribbed Catholic movies—category “two and a half,” if you will—are pernicious. Some, such as Superman Returns (2006), may be ambivalent or even useful pedagogical tools. Bryan Singer, director of the new movie, has spoken openly of Superman’s debt to “Judeo-Christian allegory.” From his inception in the 1930s, Superman has been a Christ figure: He is from another world, he has an earthly foster father and an otherworldly father; the only parts of his earthly biography that we know are his infancy and his adulthood, etc.

Though this profile also fits Moses in some ways (hence the memorable title of Rabbi Simcha Weinstein’s book, Up, Up, and Oy Vey), according to Rev. Raymond J. de Souza, Superman Returns develops the “caped Messiah’s” Christological features to an unprecedented degree, portraying him as a suffering servant who, in response to a commission from his father, intercedes on behalf of mankind in order to save it, but at his own peril.

Should we Catholics hail such fiction as a testimony to the ubiquitous power and appeal of the Christ story—or should we sue for trademark violations? Many Christians are as enthusiastic for the movie as is Stephen Skelton, author of The Gospel According to the World’s Greatest Superhero and a designer of guidelines on how to incorporate the movie into a pastoral homily. For my own part, if Superman Returns illustrates anything, it is that (1) our society continues to be moved by the example of the Christian Savior, and (2) it prefers to find Him in any place other than the person of Jesus Christ.

Projected or Spuriously Catholic Movies

On the opposite side of this coin, incidentally, is a pseudocategory—films that may not even bother to crib Catholicism but which we nevertheless construe as Catholic because we find certain elements in them congenial. Usually this labeling is a result of Catholics’ projecting their own moral or theological framework onto a not-so-blank screen. Projection is a potentially dangerous activity, mostly because it encourages bad habits of perception and discernment, but also because it misleadingly groups together things that have superficial affinities at best. Such an act has the same intellectual merit as putting roses and passion flowers in the same botanical family because both are red.

The proclivity to project, however, remains a strong temptation for Catholics, who are heirs to an impressive tradition of appropriating profoundly alien things, from Greek philosophy to heathen customs (though, of course, not without significantly modifying those things in the process). Unfortunately, in our own age, this genius for “baptizing” what was not previously one’s own is a principle much abused. Contemporary Catholic intellectuals, for example, often see something attractive in a Kant or a Marx (or an Adam Smith) and then conclude that with just a few adjustments they can make these thinkers good Christian servants. The same thing happens with film criticism. A prominent and orthodox Catholic critic, for example, once called the lesbian film Chasing Amy (1997), with its Pelagian message, a “story of Catholic redemption.”

And while acknowledging room for honest disagreement about this, I would argue that something similar is occurring with the Harry Potter movies—though they are less egregious than the books on which they are based. Rowling’s stories have many imaginative strengths and even some moral ones as well, yet the overall narrative presupposes a metaphysic that is at odds with a Judeo-Christian cosmology. Pace its Catholic apologists, and mindful of the salutary ingredients that are there, the witch’s brew as a whole does not taste of a recognizably Catholic vision of the Good.

Unintentional Catholicism

That said—and at the risk of indulging in some projection myself—I do believe there is an additional species of good Catholic film, one that can tentatively be called unintentionally Catholic. By this I mean films that are not directly or even indirectly Catholic, that do not necessarily draw from Catholic symbols or life, but nevertheless adumbrate the distinctive truths of Catholicism.

For example, the popular Groundhog Day (1993), starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, was directed by Harold Ramis, an agnostic Jew married to a Buddhist. Nevertheless, the movie’s plot, in which an obnoxious weatherman is condemned to live the same day over again until he develops genuine moral and intellectual virtues, is most fruitfully understood as a sort of Catholic-Aristotelian Pilgrim’s Progress. To paraphrase the movie, Phil Connors (Murray) undergoes a remarkable transformation from “vile wretch” to “great catch” that climaxes with his literally being redeemed, or purchased, by Rita (MacDowell). And Rita, as her name suggests (margarita being the Latin for “pearl”), is the pearl of great price, the happiness that only God can give. Even the custom of the groundhog seeing his shadow, an important component of the plotline, is derived from Catholic observances of the Feast of the Purification on February 2, and echoes the film’s movement from shadow to light.

Similarly, the New Zealand director and producer Andrew Niccol is not, as far as I have been able to determine, Catholic, yet two of his films, Gattaca (1997) and The Truman Show (1998), are astonishingly Catholic in meaning. Gattaca chronicles the travails of a man who lives in a genetically obsessed world that discriminates against his poor biological makeup at every turn, and yet who ultimately triumphs over it. The movie successfully exposes the sinister rationale undergirding contemporary eugenic thinking, which employs not only genetic engineering but abortion as a means of ensuring the reproduction of the best offspring.

The Truman Show, on the other hand, is generally praised for upholding the “right to privacy,” but this story about a man who unknowingly grows up as the star of a television show does far more than that: It retells Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from a Catholic perspective. The protagonist, Truman Burbank, is the “true man” trapped in an artificial cave; while his antagonist, the TV producer Christof, is “Christ-off,” the antichrist or false god who has created this world in an attempt to keep Truman from beholding reality. In one of the turning points of the movie, Truman undergoes a cruciform baptism in the open sea (in which he appears for a moment to be dead), only to rise again and reach his destination. Truman is in part eager to escape his fabricated milieu in order to woo Sylvia Garland—who, as her name suggests, is a personification of nature and whose distinguishing ornament is a rosary-like bracelet.

Where the Truth Leads .. .

Of all the species of Catholic film we have examined, it is the fourth that strikes me as the most intriguing. First, it is the label most susceptible to abuse. Marking out a category of hidden Catholic films easily engenders an uncritical enthusiasm, a zeal to baptize or project onto whatever strikes our fancy, like the Catholic high school teachers who try to teach theology with Star Wars films. Hence, asserting the mere existence of hidden Catholic cinema can swell the ranks of the projected or spuriously “Catholic.”

Nevertheless, acknowledging the reality of this category is important, not only because it exists, but because of its implications. The fact that non-Catholic filmmakers, with non-Catholic intentions to tell a non-Catholic story, can still make a great Catholic film is a testimony both to the veracity of Catholicism and to the integrity of the artist. Serious artists endeavor not simply to entertain but to unveil the truth, and they are willing to let that desire inform their craft and guide it to wherever it would go, perhaps in a way that they would never allow in their own personal lives. In at least several cases, it has been the search for that truth that has produced so many surprising testimonies to the beauty of the Catholic Faith.

  • Michael P. Foley

    Michael P. Foley teaches in the Great Texts Program at Baylor University. He is the author of Drinking with Your Patron Saints (Regnery, 2020) and the Politically Incorrect Guide to Christianity (Regnery, 2017), among others.

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