Holy Week is upon us. What a perfect time to enjoy good religious movies, especially with so many of us homebound due to the coronavirus lockdown.
The movies that follow aren’t all overtly religious, like “Angels With Dirty Faces.” But hidden within the drama is a profound, Christlike message.
A good religious movie makes me want to be a better person as it entertains, and as a Roman Catholic, draw me nearer to Christ. It reveals a Truth, with a capital T.
My list of top religious movies for Lent changes from year-to-year. Classics like the Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur come and go, replaced by something more recent offering a fresh, new way of telling a story, like an “A Quiet Place.” You’ll find everything from biblical epics to horror films, musicals to ‘whodunits’ on this list.
I sincerely believe you will enjoy these films. Let me know your favorites.
#10: ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. I haven’t seen this 1938 classic in years. Jimmy Cagney turned in an Academy Award-winning performance as a local gangster, Rocky Sullivan, who has become the role model for a group of young, fledgling hoodlums. Pat O’Brien is Cagney’s boyhood chum who escaped a life of crime by turning to God and becoming a priest. O’Brien’s character doesn’t give up on Rocky, even as he faces the electric chair. To appreciate the dramatic final scene below, you have to see the entire film. Was it enough to save Rocky’s soul?
#9: THE MISSION. This film was written by Robert Bolt. It follows the lives of 18th century Jesuit missionaries in South America. Jeremy Irons and Robert Deniro turn in riveting performances as two very different priests. Their relationship is beautiful and complex. Ennio Morricone wrote one of the great musical scores of all time. The theme song all by itself is enough to make a doubter believe in God. (Mr. Morricone also wrote the film score for “The Scarlet and the Black,” #6 on my list.
#8: THE CASE FOR CHRIST. I loved the book upon which this movie is based, and I loved the premise: Lee Strobel is an award-winning investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune. He and his wife are comfortable living their lives as atheists until their daughter almost dies. Strobel’s wife becomes a Christian to his considerable chagrin. He sets out to disprove the resurrection of Christ, and it’s a fascinating journey. This is a good movie for people of little or no faith because Strobel approaches his task as an investigative journalist with shocking results. The movie is simply excellent. I encourage you to watch it this Lent.
#7: RISEN. “Risen” approaches the Jesus narrative from an entirely fresh perspective. Joseph Fiennes, who you may remember from “Young Shakespeare in Love,” portrays the powerful Roman centurion, Clavius, at the time of Christ. He returns from battle only to be immediately deployed by Pontius Pilate to the site of three crucifixions in progress. One is Jesus. Clavius looks directly into the dead eyes of Jesus (a unique twist, Jesus’ eyes are typically depicted as being shut) as He hangs on the cross. To ensure that He is dead, he commands a soldier to lance His side. When the corpse goes missing from a sealed tomb the next, day, Pilate orders Clavius to find it. What a mystery! Clavius’ investigation takes him on a journey he never expected. The casting was outstanding with the great Peter Firth as a convincing Pontius Pilate, young Tom Felton (Malfoy in Harry Potter films) as Lucius, an aide to Clavius; and Cliff Curtis as an effective, if unconventional Yeshua (Jesus). Maria Botto made a great Mary Magdalene.
#6: THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK. Get ready for a tense game of cat and mouse as a Vatican priest and a German Lieutenant Colonel clash in Nazi-occupied Rome. This film is based on true events. Gregory Peck portrays Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty who heroically saved the lives of thousands of Jews and escaped Allied POWs by hiding them from the Nazis. Christopher Plummer portrays the Nazi officer in charge of rounding them up. The battle of wits between the two antagonists makes for great cinema, especially in the hands of two pros like Messrs. Peck and Plummer. Be sure to watch the ending credits for the remarkable epilogue to this great story!
#5: A QUIET PLACE. A Quiet Place restores the horror genre to its proper place with a smart and surprisingly pro-life movie. Even more, the film abounds with religious imagery. A Quiet Place is another in a long line of post-apocalyptic movies. The premise: Most of the earth’s human population has been wiped out by unstoppable monsters who move quickly and kill you before you can say “Planned Parenthood.” The monsters are blind, but they have hypersensitive hearing. If you utter a peep, you’re dead within minutes, thus the movie’s name. No one talks. Communication must be done by sign language. The movie is terrifying without being a gorefest. You can read a more complete review here, along with a link to a video commentary from Bishop Robert Barron who delves into the religious symbolism of the film in more detail.
#4. LES MISERABLES (The Musical). “Do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men?” That line makes me think of the seething passions roiling in America as I type. This is a movie about the human condition and the drama of human life in an unjust world. The themes are as immediately relevant today as they were in 19th century France as depicted by Victor Hugo in his classic novel on which it is based. The protagonists, Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, each rely on God in remarkably contrasting ways, leading to a dramatic denouement. This is a remarkable musical. The actors sang their parts ‘live,’ creating such a sense of authenticity. In other words, they didn’t dub in their singing later. I love this musical and have seen it on stage some five times, including twice on Broadway. Kudos to director Tom Hooper for creating a film that lived up to the musical by presenting the complexity of our Christian faith.
#3: THE PASSION of the CHRIST. This was more than a movie, it was an event that either united or divided people, much like Christ Himself. Mel Gibson’s movie was controversial. The violence is grotesque. It is not a fun movie to watch. I have seen it twice, and I will see it again … someday. Jim Caviezel was perfect as Jesus. The movie is important because it gives modern man an inkling of what Christ did for us. I heard Fr. John Riccardo once say about Christ’s crucifixion: “If this is the cure, can you imagine the disease?” This movie forces us to think about that question seriously. The scene of Christ’s scourging is horrendous. Do you know why He was lashed 39 times? Because 40 was considered “death” by the Romans. It was unsurvivable. I would recommend the edited version with some of the violence excised. After watching this film, fall to your knees and thank Christ for what He did for us.
#2: THE CHOSEN: Not a movie, but rather the first original TV series about Jesus Christ. I’ve only seen the first four episodes, and I’ve been blown away. What’s interesting is this was made outside of the Hollywood system. It was financed via crowdfunding. The writers let us get to know Jesus through the eyes of key players from scripture. So far, I’ve met Simon Peter, Mary Magdalene, Andrew, and Nicodemus as they encounter this mystery man, Jesus, portrayed with authenticity by Jonathan Roumie. There’s an episode devoted to a group of children who meet and are taught by Jesus. It is a delight. Jesus is wonderful with the children, just as you would expect, and the children are spot on in their portrayals. You can watch it free on Youtube. I HIGHLY recommend it based on what I’ve seen. The director is Dallas Jenkins, son of Jerry Jenkins, author or The Left Behind series. My only beef with the production is the opening theme song, which to me doesn’t fit. However, I suspect it connects with the evangelical Christian market, which is the primary market. As a Roman Catholic, I’m being a little nitpicking on this point. Nonetheless, I love the production so far and hope they are able to pull off the multi-season story arc to which they aspire.
#1: JESUS of NAZARETH. Nothing touches this film. It is the best Jesus film. It is the best Christian film. And it is the best religious film. Ever. Robert Powell is the best Jesus ever, even better than Jim Caviezel. (Although I do love Jonathan Roumie in The Chosen) . This film was a 382-minute mini-series on television in 1977. Every single minute of this film is worth it. Nothing is wasted. Director Franco Zeffirelli has created an artistic masterpiece. He is true to the Gospels and creates an ancient Holy Land that seems real to modern man. His presentation of Jesus’ telling of the Prodigal Son is a work of genius, surely inspired by the Holy Spirit! Interestingly, one of the writers was Anthony Burgess, also the author of “A Clockwork Orange.” What a cast. Each star was at the top of their game. In addition to Mr. Powell, James Farantino was a Peter for the ages. Ian McShane was a complex Judas whose motivations are slowly revealed in his deft political maneuverings. Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary, and Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene both shine. The list is endless: Christopher Plummer fleshes out the human weakness of Herod Antipas. You can’t stand him in the end. And James Mason brings Joseph of Arimathea to life. The conversation he has with Jesus about the idea of being “born again” draws you irresistibly into the essence of the Gospels. That’s why this film is so good. You feel like you’re walking right alongside of Jesus. Everything seems so authentic.