Vatican’s Favorite Films

Last fall an important announcement appeared in both the Catholic and secular press. Observing the one hundredth anniversary of cinema, the Vatican judged forty-five full length films to have special artistic and religious merit. The list, compiled by the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, can provide a stimulus for some serious reflection among film buffs.

Many have claimed that cinema is the art form of the twentieth century, enveloping within itself all other art forms. If this alone is not sufficient reason for Catholics to take film seriously, there is another reason closer to the Christian faith. Cinema at its best is an extension of the Incarnation, a continuation of the enfleshment of God in time and place. The risen Christ is everywhere, inviting people to open up in love and to say “Yes” to the Father’s self-gift.

Wherever there is genuine personal growth, the Incarnate God is present and is the ultimate source of that growth. Cinema, when it depicts and dramatizes the human mystery, has a special power to touch people profoundly, to invite them to self-reflection, to spur them to serious social criticism, and to call them to a deeper level of hope and love. After watching Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, I want to be a better person; after viewing Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest or Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, I want to be a better priest. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal calls me to reflect on faith, Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast to reflect on friendship, Federico Fellini’s 8fi to reflect on art.

Whether it is the conscience of Thomas More in Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons, the commitment of the young Scottish minister in Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire, the faith of St. Joan in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the charity of St. Vincent in Maurice Cloche’s Monsieur Vincent, or the courage of Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s deeply moving spectacle, movies have an astonishing ability to challenge us. The Vatican’s list should convince Catholics that, for better or worse, movies can shape and form audiences. Producer David Putnam was right on target when he said that one film will not change anyone’s life, but a constant diet of the same type of film has to shape people one way or the other.

The Vatican divided its list into three categories, Religion, Values, and Art, a division probably as good as any. Possibly no one who has seen all or most of the films on the list will agree with every entry, and probably some will wish that some favorite film had made the list. I think immediately of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. More important than the inclusion or exclusion of a particular film is that the list can remind us how difficult artistic judgments and moral judgments can be concerning film.

Though the experience of any work of art involves a subjective component, I strongly believe that there are objective artistic standards. We cannot dispute matters of taste, about what someone likes. If someone tells me that he likes a Batman movie more than Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, we don’t have an argument; but if he says that the Batman film is a better film than Citizen Kane, he is wrong. Aside from any person’s taste or preference, there are cinematic, artistic standards that some films meet better than others.

The moral classification of films can change, even though moral judgments should be objective. The moral classification of films is made for a specific audience at a specific time. Years ago, three films on the Vatican’s list, Open City (1945), The Bicycle Thief (1949), and La Strada (1954), were given a B rating by The Legion of Decency which meant that they were morally objectionable in part. Judging that cinema as an art form has matured and that audiences have become more sophisticated, the United States Catholic Conference Office for Film and Broadcasting, formerly The Legion of Decency, would not give those films that rating today. Morality has not changed, but the emphasis and approach of the Catholic Office for Film has changed. There was formerly a tendency to give a film a rating because of a particular scene rather than for the work as a whole. The shift in emphasis, not any change in objective morality, can account for a change in classification.

In making judgments about film, aesthetic criticism should be united with moral criticism. While we should be concerned about explicit sex and horrific violence on the screen, we should also be concerned about the enormous amount of artistic junk being sold to audiences. The artistic deterioration of film may ultimately be as harmful as the cinematic exploitation of sex and violence. Cinema at its best can signify the presence of the divine mystery and invite us to open ourselves to that mystery. Catholics cannot afford not to take films seriously.



La Passion—Ferdinand Zecca (France, 1903)

The Passion of Joan of Arc—Carl Dreyer (France, 1928)

Monsieur Vincent—Maurice Cloche (France, 1947)

Flowers of St. Francis—Roberto Rossellini (Italy, 1950)

Ordet/The Word—Carl Dreyer (Denmark, 1955)

Ben-Hur—William Wyler US, 1959)

Nazarin—Luis Builuel (Mexico, 1959)

The Gospel According to St. Matthew—Pasolini (Italy, 1964)

A Man for All Seasons—Fred Zinnemann (Britain, 1966)

Andrei Rublev—Andrei Tarkovsky (USSR, 1966)

The Sacrifice—Andrei Tarkovsky (Sweden/France, 1986)

The Mission—Roland Joffe (Britain, 1986)

Thérèse—Alain Cavalier (France, 1986)

Babette’s Feast—Gabriel Axel (Denmark, 1987)

Francesco—Liliana Cavani (Italy, 1988)


Nosferatu—F .W W. Murnau (Germany, 1922)

Metropolis—Fritz Lang (Germany, 1927)

Napoléon—Abel Gance (France, 1927)

Little Women—George Cukor (US, 1933)

Modern Times—Charlie Chaplin (US, 1936)

Grand Illusion—Jean Renoir (France, 1937)

Stagecoach—John Ford (US, 1939)

The Wizard of Oz—Victor Fleming {US, 1939)

Fantasia—Walt Disney (US, 1940)

Citizen Kane—Orson Welles (US, 1941)

The Lavender Hill Mob—Charles Crichton (Britain, 1951)

La Strada—Federico Fellini (Italy, 1954)

8fi—Federico Fellini (Italy, 1963)

The Leopard—Luchino Visconti (Italy, 1963)

2001: A Space Odyssey—Stanley Kubrick (Britain, 1968) A Man for All Seasons


Intolerance—D .W W. Griffith (US, 1916)

Open City—Roberto Rossellini (Italy, 1945)

It’s a Wonderful Life—Frank Capra (US, 1947)

The Bicycle Thief—Vittorio Di Sica (Italy, 1948)

On the Waterfront—Elia Kazan (US, 1954)

The Burmese Harp—Kon Ichikawa (Japan, 1956)

Wild Strawberries—Ingmar Bergman (Sweden, 1957)

The Seventh Seal—Ingmar Bergman (Sweden, 1957)

Dersu Uzala—Akira Kurosawa (USSR/Japan, 1975)

The Tree of Wooden Clogs—Ermanno Olmi (Italy, 1978)

Chariots of Fire—Hugh Hudson (Britain, 1981)

Gandhi—Richard Attenborough (Britain, 1982)

Au Revoir les Enfants—Louis Malle (France, 1987)

Dekalog— Krysztof  Kieslowski (Poland, 1988)

Schindler’s List—Steven Spielberg (US, 1993)

  • Rev. Robert E. Lauder

    Rev. Robert E. Lauder is a Brooklyn diocesan priest and professor of philosophy at St. John's University, Jamaica, New York.

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