For the nerdy cinephiles with a penchant for black and white classics, who don’t balk at the sight of subtitles and can appreciate the deliberate pace of films from ages past, I bring you a list of ten classics with overtly Catholic themes. While there are films from present-day that address existential questions of faith, none do so quite with the unabashed freedom as filmmakers of the mid-20th century. It was more common for critically acclaimed filmmakers to make films with explicitly religious themes or characters. And thus cinema routinely presented questions of devotion, doubt, existential crises and other questions that were part of the common human experience. This generation left a rich fount of cinema for Catholic film snobs to revel in. I’ve chosen ten that were critically acclaimed in their time but have perhaps fallen under the radar in present day.
Ordet by Carl Dreyer
“I believe a lot of little miracles happen secretly.”
Many know his masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc but relatively unknown is Dreyer’s Ordet, a film set in 1920’s rural Denmark centered around a devout widower, Morten Borgen, and his three sons. His youngest son Anders shares his father’s faith but his oldest son, Mikkel, has no faith, a point of frequent contention. Yet Mikkel’s wife is a beautiful devout woman and happily expecting their third child. His middle son, Johannes, who went mad studying Soren Kieerkegaard, believes he is Jesus Christ and regularly condemns the family for their lack of faith. When Mikkel’s wife faces a life-threatening childbirth the entire family undergoes a transformation of faith.
Winter Light by Ingmar Bergma
“God why did you desert me?”
The duty of the pastor is to imbue life with purposeful meaning and offer a divine channel, but what if the pastor is struggling to believe? This is the premise of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. The duties of a small-town Swedish pastor have become almost mechanical. He says the daily service to a small handful of people and very little else is demanded of him until he is asked to visit an eccentric parishioner locked in his home with paranoia. As the events of the day unfold the pastor is forced to reckon with his debilitating uncertainty about God, and find insight from a most unsuspecting person.
Ashes and Diamonds by Andrzej Wajda
“So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames of burning rags falling about you flaming, you know not if flames bring freedom or death. Consuming all that you must cherish if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest. Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond.”
We meet our “hero,” Maciek Chelmicki, on the last day of World War II. Nazi Germany has just surrendered and German soldiers are vacating Poland while the remaining Soviet forces and Polish are left to construct a new government in Communist Poland. Maciek has been given orders to assassinate a Russian soldier but a fortuitous postponement of the attack brings him face to face with Krystyna, a beautiful barmaid, which throws him into moral anguish. He finds himself wishing for a life free from the violence he’s known. The problem is, it just may be too late to change.
Rome, Open City by Roberto Rossellini
“I believe that those who fight for justice and truth walk in the path of God, and the paths of God are infinite.”
The first film of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy follows the members of an underground partisan resistance group in Nazi-occupied Rome. Throughout the film German intelligence officers are tracking down Giorgio Manfredi, the leader of the resistance, and the man who has offered him great assistance, the priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini. The film looks at the daily trials facing Italians during this moment in history, whether they are storming bakeries to feed their starving children bread or postponing marriages until a more peaceful time, and a look at the momentary gems of virtue that pour out in light of daily horror.
Odd Man Out by Carol Reed
“In my profession there is neither good nor bad. There is innocence and guilt. That's all.”
A botched robbery by a clandestine Irish organization sends wounded leader Johnny McQueen scuttling through the back streets of Belfast in this Oscar-nominated noir by Carol Reed. The city is in lock-down, the police are fully engaged in this manhunt for Johnny, but they’re not alone. Trying to beat them in the hunt are Kathleen, the young woman he loves, and the subversively merciful priest, Fr. Tom. Set over the course of one night, the film follows Johnny’s tense run from the police chief, while interiorly running from himself.
Diary of a Country Priest by Robert Bresso
“Our hidden sins poison the air that others breathe.”
A young priest arrives at his first parish in a secluded French country village in this Robert Bresson film based on the book by George Bernanos of the same name. He is confronted with the anti-clericalism, suspicion and hostility of its jaded congregation, all while silently battling his own personal illness. Through vulnerable diary entries we see him endure his own crisis of faith and the burden of the spiritual fate of his villagers with the urgency of a man who senses he hasn’t much time left.
La Strada by Frederico Fellini
“Everything serves a purpose, even the stones.”
It’s no surprise that Pope Francis has called this his favorite movie. Frederico Fellini’s Oscar-winning film follows the life of a simple, guileless woman, Gelsomina, after being sold by her impoverished mother to be the wife and partner of the brutal traveling sideshow strongman, Zampano. Gelsomina, playing the part of a clown for Zampano’s show, quickly becomes a crowd favorite. She captures the hearts of all who see their show and the attention and friendship of Zampano’s rival, the Fool, who teaches her that, “everything serves a purpose, even the stones.” A lesson Zampano will soon have to learn all too well.
The Informer by John Ford
“I have a queer feelin' there's going to be a strange face in heaven in the mornin'.”
John Ford fans will appreciate watching one of his earliest films about a former IRA man, Gypo, eager to escape his dreary Dublin life to America with his girlfriend. The only thing standing in his way is the money, which seems fortuitously available to him when British authorities start offering reward money in exchange for information about his best friend, a current IRA member. He cooperates with the authorities, something that leads to the death of his friend. And as an angry city and sorrowful family wonder about who the possible “informer” could be, Gypo is eager to escape his guilt in the bottle and lavish purchases. But he can only run so long before he winds up at the doorstep of the Church, and face to face with his guilt.
M by Fritz Lang
“This monster has no right to live. He must disappear. He must be exterminated, without pity, without scruples.”
There’s a monster in this Berlin city, a serial killer who preys on children. Fritz Lang’s German thriller “depicts” a city-wide manhunt that rouses even the seedier criminals from the city underbelly into the chase for this man deemed inhuman. All is fair in the hunt for this man. M is for monster. M is for murderer. But Fritz Lang stuns by making audiences realize that M is for man, by humanizing even the most ugly among us and revealing that perhaps they too, however abhorrent, have some inherent dignity within them.
Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa
“How tragic that man can never realize how beautiful life is until he is face to face with death.”
Ikiru is an excellent reflection on Jesus’ words, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” Kenji Watanabe, a middle-aged beaurocrat, has spent his life making other people’s lives harder in order to advance his career. When he discovers he has terminal stomach cancer, he instantly realizes he has wasted his entire life without once considering its larger meaning, and spends the rest of it trying to make up for his critical error. Like a Japanese “A Christmas Carol,” we are led through the slavery of self-interest to the freedom and joy of selflessness.
Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.
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