If, as Simone Weil maintains, all great works of art are implicitly religious, the twenty best Catholic films are the twenty best films as well. That list would include, among others, Ikiru, The Grand Illusion, 8-1/2, North by Northwest, and The Searchers. All of them dramatize the great subjects of human nature, natural law, sacrifice, redemption, and grace. This list, however, consists only of those films which deal primarily with Catholic characters, Catholic society, or the Bible; and those films which are not hostile to the Church. Most were made by Catholic directors; and it is interesting to note that the three best directors who ever worked in Hollywood—Frank Capra, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock—were all practicing Catholics. So much for the supposed detrimental effects of the Church upon art.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) directed by Frank Capra. We begin with an exception. George Bailey (James Stewart) is presumably a WASP who lives in a small, upstate town, where Catholics are a minority, a recent minority, for we see George helping the Martini family move into their new tract house. Although one could claim this as a film for all Christian sects (which it was meant to be), we put it at the top of our list because it features a disarmingly comic guardian angel, and was made by a Catholic director. Seldom has the present pope’s favorite theme of the importance of each person’s life been so effectively dramatized. This is all the more so because the film vividly portrays a life of despair, and a life of feeling like a “sucker” for always having sacrificed for others. Joseph Walker, the great cinematographer, filmed this so beautifully in black and white that it seems a sin to watch the tacky colorized version.
My Night at Maud’s (1969) directed by Eric Rohmer. In the third of his “Six Moral Tales,” Rohmer daringly shows a middle class protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in search of a good Catholic wife. Along the way, he spends a night with the tempting divorcee Maud (Francoise Fabian), but does not consummate the relationship— much to the dismay of many critics who see him only as a wimp. Marrying a more conventional woman (Marie-Christine Barrault) at the end of the film, he takes upon himself the burden of her guiltier past. Set in Clermont, the birthplace of Pascal, the film integrates Pascal’s Pensees into the drama.
Rome, Open City (1945) directed by Roberto Rossellini. Shot in part before the Nazis had even left Rome, this film poignantly shows the resistance efforts of partisans, and priests. The death of pregnant Anna Magnani and the martyrdom of the priest remain two of the most memorable moments in all cinema.
Voyage to Italy (a.k.a. The Strangers) (1953) directed by Roberto Rossellini. An English couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) travel to Italy in an attempt to repair their failing marriage. As Emerson warned, they carry “ruins to ruins,” and the film captures, through the beauties of Naples and its surrounding countryside, the emptiness of their relationship and the reasons for it. At the end of the film, they rediscover their love for one another when they witness a miracle. Some critics think the ending ironic, as in La Notte. But Rossellini, unlike Antonioni, consistently made profoundly Catholic films. Bergman, possibly the greatest of all movie actresses, appears here at the height of her powers.
Un Condamme a Mort S’est Èchappe (1956) directed by Robert Bresson. All of Bresson’s films qualify for a best Catholic list. This one stands out because it dramatizes the interaction of free will and Providence, as a man condemned to death, through his own efforts and “chance,” escapes from prison. Austere and meticulous in its detail, it becomes a breathtaking allegory of Christian life.
The Wrong Man (1956) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Although he never made a bad film, this is not Hitchcock’s best. I prefer Vertigo for its expose of male obsessions and how they can mutilate women, but that film is not as explicitly Catholic as this one, in which Henry Fonda is a condemned murderer, who through a miracle, is proven to be the wrong man. Here the characters and the theme of providential redemption are explicitly Catholic. Here, I could also mention Hitchcock’s I Confess, a film in which a Catholic priest (Montgomery Clift) is accused of a murder of which he cannot clear himself because the true murderer confessed the crime to him in sacramental secrecy. Although a great concept, the resulting film lacks the power of The Wrong Man and is far below Hitchcock’s average.
Three Godfathers (1948) directed by John Ford. Like Robert Bresson and Hitchcock, most of Ford’s work would qualify for this list. This one is a sleeper, and much underrated, perhaps because it is so obviously a Christmas story. In it, Ford tells the story of two desperados who, joined by John Wayne, try to keep a baby alive as they are pursued across the desert by a posse, led by a sheriff (Ward Bond) who doesn’t believe in killing. Photographed by Winton Hoch, written by Frank Nugent, it includes the entire Ford company, including a young Ben Johnson. Sophisticates sneer at this one, but it made me cry. The Quiet Man and Seven Women are close runners-up.
Babette’s Feast (1987) directed by Gabriel Axel. Two Danish spinsters hire a French cook (Stephane Audran), who enduring their unjust suspicions, decides to reward them with her love, preparing for them a sumptuous banquet at her own expense. As the film develops, we realize this is nothing less than a eucharistic celebration, consisting of an enormous sacrifice for those unworthy of the price.
Blue (1992) directed by Kryzynztof Kieslowski. This film is part of a trilogy, the other two being White and Red. Beautifully photographed and supremely intelligent, it tells of a woman (Juliette Binoche) who, after losing her husband and child, attempts to withdraw from life. But suffering and truth (and the cross) bring her back, with greater understanding, to a more meaningful existence.
A Man For All Seasons (1966) directed by Fred Zinneman. This superb account of the trial of St. Thomas More, brilliantly acted by Paul Scofield, is better than Bolt’s play of the same name. Zinneman’s The Nun’s Story (1958) marks the beginning of Hollywood’s negative portrayal of the Church, and Bolt’s screenplay for The Mission looks at the Church from the vantage point of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor; this film is a happier combination of their talents.
El Cid (1961) directed by Anthony Mann. This is by far the best of the medieval epics. Though many would include The Seventh Seal, Bergman is anti-clerical, and his knight is nothing more than a secular existentialist—even Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood exhibits more Christianity.
Samson and Delilah (1949) directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Biblical epics, though popular, are probably the worst of all film genres: stagy, pretentious, and over-long. Here DeMille surpasses himself and creates a lively drama with Victor Mature, an underrated actor, playing a convincing Samson to Hedy Lamarr’s best role as Delilah. George Sanders compliments them well as the cynical priest of Dagon.
Ben Hur (1959) directed by William Wyler. My favorite scene: as Jesus gives water to the enslaved Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), a Roman guard starts to say, “Who do you think you . . . ” and looking into the face of the Son of God cannot finish his sentence.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Simply the best of all the films on the life of Jesus.
Nuns and Priests
The Song of Bernadette (1943) directed by Henry King. This is Hollywood’s most Catholic film, a fact which I attribute to wartime suffering and austerity. As Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) goes off in a cart to the nunnery, her suitor kneels by the roadside, left at home to keep the faith, not unlike the reversed situation of women saying final farewells to their men going off to war.
Diary of a Country Priest (1950) directed by Robert Bresson. Austere and profound, like the novel on which it is based, this film presents the daily struggles encountered by a sympathetic priest.
The Scarlet and the Black (1983) directed by Jerry London. Gregory Peck plays a priest in the Vatican during WW II who shelters escaped Allied airmen and Jews. Sir John Gielgud is Pius XII. This film serves as a good antidote to all the abuse heaped on that pope and the WW II Vatican. Also worth mentioning is The White Rose, a film about the German Catholic anti-Nazi resistance. Both are true stories.
The Nazarin (1951) directed by Luis Builuel. Although Bunuel was anti-clerical most of his life, in this film, based on a novel by Galdos, he captures what it means to bear the cross.
Therese (1986) directed by Alain Cavalier. Done in the style of Dreyer and Bresson, this film succeeds in presenting the essence of the life of the Little Flower. Beautifully photographed, it is somewhat more edifying than Dreyer’s Passion of Joan, which should be included on a longer list.
Going My Way (1944) directed by Leo McCarey. A sentimental favorite. Earlier Hollywood films about priests worked, like this one, to show that they are regular guys and good social workers. Here McCarey has not lost his comic touch, and he uses it to convey some genuine spiritual truths, aided by an especially fine performance from Bing Crosby.
I wish to thank my colleagues, Gilberto Perez and William Shullenberger, and the film historian, Tag Gallagher, for their suggestions for this list. All manifestations of bad taste are my own.