Top 13 religious movies for Lent

By Tom Quiner

I’m just back from a beautiful Ash Wednesday service.

I am always overwhelmed by the realization that I came from dust and will return to dust.

I am overwhelmed that God can breathe life into that dust to make me and you.

And I am overwhelmed that even after I die, I will enjoy eternal life made possible by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

Lent has begun. I particularly enjoy watching faith-based movies over the next six weeks. There are some I come back to time and time again. There are others I don’t come back to, and yet they had such a profound impact on me that I still recommend them.

Here are my top 13 religious movies to watch this Lent. Why thirteen? Because 13 is a lucky number for Christians, since it represents the Holy Trinity, one God in three forms.

#13: SHOES of the FISHERMAN. A great story by Morris West of an unlikely Pope. Great performance by Anthony Quinn as the new Pope faced with a world in crisis. Also stars Sir Lawrence Olivier. (For a great read, Morris West wrote a little know book called “The Clowns of God” about another fictional Pope who has an apocalyptic vision of the coming end of the world. This is the most creative pro life story I have ever read.)


#12: A MAN for ALL SEASONS. The story of Sir Thomas More who refuses to compromise his faith by sanctioning King Henry VIII’s divorce, even though it will cost him his life. Very relevant in light of the Obama Mandate that demands that modern day Catholics compromise their faith or be fined, bankrupted, or jailed. Very relevant in light of Catholic bishops saying they will go to jail rather than honor this presidential edict. This 1966 film won six Academy Awards including best actor for Paul Scofield who played More. This film also featured Robert Shaw, Orson Wells, and Susannah York. It was based on a play by Robert Bolt.


#11: THE MISSION. This film was also 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.


# 10: BARABBAS: What an epic story! This 1961 film stars Anthony Quinn as Barabbus, the criminal whom the Jewish mob spares and has Jesus crucified in his place. Based on the Gospels, the film traces the story of what might have happened to Barabbus after he was spared. Very dramatic crucifixion scene and riveting gladiator battles in an era before special effects. You’ll love the star-studded cast.


#9: SAVING GRACE. This is a little-known 1986 film that I found to be very entertaining. It stars Tom Conti as the newly-elected Pope Leo XIV. A strange thing happens to the fictional Pope: he accidentally gets locked out of the Vatican while he is out walking. He takes advantage of his “freedom” to embark on a heart-warming adventure in a small Italian village.

# 8: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, 30th ANNIVERSARY EDITION. Here’s the deal: this Broadway-based production by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice is great theater and lousy theology. I didn’t like JCS until I saw the Des Moines Community Playhouse perform it in the late 90s, and then I was hooked. I later saw it at the Civic Center (which wasn’t as good as the Playhouse’s version.) I didn’t like the 1973 movie starring Ted Neely, but I loved the 2001 version that was broadcast on public television. I thought Jerome Pradon made a particularly compelling Judas. The Christian faith is a dramatic one. This version of JCS dramatizes Holy Week in a very entertaining and thought-provoking way. It is a performance I watched with my kids on many occasions, and that counts for a lot.


#7: SHADOWLANDS: C.S. Lewis was one of the most influential men of the 20th century. His writings converted, and continue to convert, people to Christianity by the thousands, maybe even by the millions. What was he really like? Shadowlands tells the true story of his touching romance with American poet, Joy Gresham, who becomes his wife. The film deals with a difficult issue, terminal illness, a theme I usually avoid like the plague. Not this time. This is a beautiful film. Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as Gresham are convincing as a couple. It was nominated for two Academy Awards including Ms. Winger for Best Actress.


#6: THE CHRONICLES of NARNIA: THE LION, WITCH, and the WARDROBE. C.S. Lewis wrote one of the most beloved set of children stories ever with the Chronicles of Narnia. This 2005 film is simply magical with Liam Neeson’s voice as Aslan the Christlike Lion. I went to the theater to watch it with my kids who ranged from their teens to the twenties at the time. This is a film that brings families together. It reaches across age barriers.


#5: 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 cruxifixion: “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.


#4: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: I never tire of seeing Charleston Heston playing Moses. This epic movie won four Oscars and dramatizes the life of one of the most important characters of the Old Testament. And what a cast!


#3: BEN-HUR: Mr. Heston returns in another epic story. This 1959 film won 11 Oscars. It tells the story of a Jewish prince sold into slavery by his Roman friend. His “comeback” leads him into the most famous chariot race scene ever made in the movies. Jesus’ appearance is brief and beautiful. Just writing this makes me want to run out and rent it!


#2: THE GOSPEL of JOHN: This is a unique film. It utilizes the exact text of the Gospel of John as it presents this beautiful slice of sacred scripture dramatically. Christopher Plummer’s narration is exquisite. Henry Ian Cusick makes a wonderful Jesus. I love this film and have seen it three times. In fact, I’ll watch it again in the next few weeks. This is what movie-making is all about, to take an important subject and present it beautifully, artistically, and theatrically while remaining true to the material. The Gospel of John does all of that and more. I love the way the Woman at the Well is handled. There are two versions: be sure to watch the long one, which is 3 hours. The two hour version leaves out too much.


#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 and Henry Ian Cusick. 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.


Those are my picks. What are yours? Please let me know. I want to watch some great, new faith-filled films this Lent, starting this weekend. So let know your favorites right away!


  1. Embattled Farmers on February 23, 2012 at 3:24 am

    Great choices! Thanks for putting this together. I would recommend that anyone who hasn’t read Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing read it this Lent. It made a huge difference in my life. When I first met with my priest about becoming a Catholic and going through the RCIA process, which I did in 2006-2007, he gave me this book.

    • quinersdiner on February 23, 2012 at 6:40 am

      Thanks for the tip. I’ll check it out.

  2. momofsix on February 23, 2012 at 8:42 am

    These are all very good recommendations. I’ve read “Shoes of the Fisherman” but have never seen the movie!
    I really like “Lilies of the Field”. It’s entertaining and very good.
    Thanks, Tom.

    • quinersdiner on February 23, 2012 at 8:59 am

      Yes, Lilies of the Field was excellent with Sidney Poitier. Thanks for sharing it. If you liked the book Shoes of the Fisherman, be sure to read The Clowns of God, also by Morris West. Quite a story and so relevant to today.

  3. The MAD Jewess on February 23, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    “Jesus of Nazareth” the BEST.
    God bless and be with the Catholics that love our God.

    • quinersdiner on February 23, 2012 at 2:28 pm

      As my favorite “Mad Jewess,” what are your thoughts about Christ’s resurrection?

  4. Lindsay on June 21, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Great list! Shamefully, I hadn’t heard of Shoes of the Fisherman or Shadowlands. Now I have a couple more for my must-see list.

    • quinersdiner on June 21, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      If you want to read a pretty unique apocalyptical novel, try “The Clowns of God” which is written by the same guy who wrote The Shoes of the Fisherman (Morris West). Mr. West is a former reporter on Vatican affairs. It’s about a Pope who has an apocalyptical vision. It has a whole lot more meat to it than some of the more recent Second Coming novels.

  5. Hector Rafael on February 26, 2013 at 4:30 am

    Wao!! amazing! I have to go back to 1980’s when the movies were very well made and very central on the True Passion of Spreading God’s word. God bless.

  6. rowena on July 20, 2013 at 6:59 am

    Thanks for sharing your favourites. Do you know films on lives of saints?

    • quinersdiner on July 20, 2013 at 9:02 am

      I’ve seen some good ones. I may write a post on it at some point. I really enjoyed the film recently made about St. Augustine, I think it was called “Restless Heart.”