Films to Watch During Lent

Lent is a time for taking stock. It is a spiritual workout consisting of prayer, fasting and alms giving. We pray, read spiritual books, and give something to someone in need. But too often we get distracted, we forget to pray, and lose interest in the books we have earmarked for the season whilst suddenly realizing we don’t have as much spare cash as we thought. We have all been there. But fear not. Lent is a series of starts, some false, but many genuine. The secret, as with all things spiritual, is to begin again, begin often, and never cease to keep beginning.

The other day, I overheard two young friends discussing Lent. It was all about “giving up.” The list of possible “sacrifices” seemed interminable. By the time the conversation had ended, I’d almost given up so I interjected saying: “…of course, you could take something up….”

And this is where this article comes in. Take up watching movies—but ones tailored for the Lenten season. Watch them alone, with family, with friends, with your Guardian Angel—you decide. But watch them closely for, you never know, they may just be saying something relevant.

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Enough introduction; on with the show….

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
First up is a film with no talk: The Passion of Joan of Arc. This 1928 movie has a history almost as fantastic as the performances on screen. The film’s director, Carl Dreyer, became interested in the Maid of Orléans just after her canonization in the early 1920s. Today Dreyer is regarded as one of Europe’s greatest directors even if he made but a handful of movies, all of them worthy of note, some classics. This movie is just that. In fact, I would go further and say that its portrayal of the interior life is one of the greatest ever captured on screen. Its plot is that of the saint’s trial and subsequent martyrdom, the script the actual transcript of the court proceedings with every word historically authentic. It needed to be, for the performance Dreyer gets from Falconetti in the central role is equally so. Now the stuff of legend, the actress entered into character in a way that was unnerving—living the part to the extent that at one point she endured some form of break down, and, as she did so, so too did most of the film crew. Such was the intensity of what was being created. This was to be her only major screen appearance, and after its completion she retreated from the public gaze; perhaps understandably, for at times this movie has a documentary feel, with the last scenes, in particular, notably shattering. Needless to say, in regard to the penitential aspect of Lent, here is a worthy cinematic contender. Watch it and marvel.

Into Great Silence (2005)
If we are to talk less during Lent, it is so we can pray more. And prayer is the theme of our next film: Into Great Silence. First some background. Its director, Philip Gröning, had asked the Carthusian monks of Grande Chartreuse if he could come and film their life at the monastery. Sixteen years later he got his reply: come. He went, and with only basic camera equipment, captured something quite remarkable. It is nothing less than life on the “inside” lived in its simplicity and stillness. The film is over two and a half hours long and has its own pace. During the first 20 minutes or so “nothing happens,” the screen is almost completely dark, and then we realize that we are in the cell of a monk in the early hours of the morning and have been praying with him. This is the film’s secret: it is not a “film” at all, not in any recognizable sense; what it is instead is a meditation. Through this documentary the audience not only goes beyond the walls of the monastery but also—somehow—enters into the monk’s hidden life of contemplation. If anyone doubts the role of cinema in the New Evangelization then this movie is a case study. Upon its release in 2005, it did surprisingly well at the European box office, and on the night it opened in London I was turned away on account of it being sold out. Perhaps, not so surprising after all, for in these days of dubious on screen “spiritualities,” here in all its beauty is the real thing.

The Bicycle Thief (1948)
So what of alms giving? There are many films about greed and its effects, few about altruism in its purest form. But what Lent asks us to look at is that which holds our hearts, and this is often something material, and so no better film to watch in this regard than The Bicycle Thief. This 1948 classic is timeless even if set in the austerity of post-war Rome; where there is little of anything to go around save human affection. A poor family is at the movie’s center; they are struggling to make ends meet, but they are not alone in this, as the whole city seems desperate. Slowly their fortunes change for the better, but not for long, and, thereafter, we observe their very ordinary, if all too real, tragedy. In this movie we find something that makes us think. No matter how many times it is viewed, its dilemma and its ending never fail to move—definitely a movie to put things in perspective. The message embedded within it, however, is not simply about material possessions, for it sings of human love: husband for wife, wife for husband, child for parent—altogether priceless.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
This time we have entered into is not about us, however. It is about Christ. Have a look again at The Greatest Story Ever Told. After Mel Gibson’s The Passion, it seems that all other such films have been discarded from the public consciousness, perhaps none more so than this 1965 movie. It has too easily been derided as nothing more than a Sunday School play with a walk on cast of movie stars that distracts the audience trying to identify who’s who as they appear and disappear with rapidity. This would be a mistake, as there is majesty about this film. If you doubt this then watch the sequences just prior to the Baptism at the Jordan when we have a Palestine riven with violence and hopelessness juxtaposed with an ongoing lament for the Messiah. In the middle of this, observing all, and in a scene so understated it is easy to miss, there is indeed that longed for figure now come at last if still concealed in the shadows. It sets the tone for Max von Sydow’s central performance, which is that of the Man of Sorrows. There are, of course, the set pieces—the raising of Lazarus being particularly noteworthy. But there are many subtle touches too, not least the accompaniment of the devil throughout it all, similar to what Gibson did later, but here more prosaic and all the more sinister for it. In that parade of star names, worth a mention is the much-mocked cameo of John Wayne, here playing the centurion with his one line of dialogue. Nevertheless, it is always “dangerous” to pray on screen, and Wayne’s celluloid declaration on Calvary was to have an all too real response some 14 years later when, now on his deathbed, he returned to the foot of the Cross and with a similar declaration was received into the Church.

If Lent is to be a time of reflection, is there a better way to do so than in the “conscious dreaming” of cinema?

Whatever you choose to “take up” this Lent, I hope it edifies—and dare I say too, I hope you enjoy it.


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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