By Tom Quiner

Lent is a good time to revisit some of the great religious movies made down through the years.
I have a number of favorites, which I’ve listed below. My list this year has been expanded to fifteen movies (from 13 last year) to accommodate a couple of new entries: “Son of God,” which is in the theaters right now, and “Faustina.”
#15: SON of GOD. I liked the way this film developed the political tensions swirling through Judea in the time of Jesus. The portrayals of Pilate and Caiaphas were especially riveting. This is a well-done movie, worth watching on the big screen this Lent.
#14: FAUSTINA: Protestant movie-goers may not know of Faustina Kowalska, or St. Faustina, as she is know in the Catholic Church. Faustina lived in the early part of the 20th century. She was a nun in Poland who experienced profound visions of Christ, who revealed in a special way to her His Divine Mercy. This movie beautifully tells her story and the mission Jesus presented to her: ”  “I desire that the whole world know My Infinite Mercy.” This film was artistically filmed and acted, and supported with a dramatic music score that conveys the drama of Faustina’s Catholic/Christian faith. This film can be viewed on YouTube with English subtitles. I’ve posted the first installment below to give you a sample.
#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. You can watch the entire film on YouTube. I’ve posted the first scene below:
# 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!

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  1. Linda Ill on March 11, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    Tom: I’m with you on some of these movies, but not on others! One thing that bothered me about “Jesus of Nazareth” is that Robert Powell NEVER smiled, NEVER had that warm, affectionate nature that Jesus MUST have had, or He would have never attracted so many followers! Jesus had to have had a sense of humor, and an outgoing, welcoming personality, which I think Robert Powell totally lacked in the movie. Powell always had that superior, somber look on his face. I remember the scene where he was stepping into Peter’s boat when they went fishing (before the big storm came up), and “Jesus” kind of stiffly stepped into the boat, never changing his stern, dour facial expression. In my humble opinion, I think Jesus actually jumped into the boat just like Peter and the other apostles did, with a lilt in his step, and interacting with His apostles in a warm, friendly, loving manner!
    As for “Son of God”, I have the same opinion of that movie as I do of “The Nativity” which came out a few years ago, and was touted as the most accurate and moving depiction of the birth of Christ. The main problem with both of those movies is this: Mary is portrayed as giving birth to Jesus Christ with intense labor pains, with her screaming and grunting and sweating and heaving, etc.
    This portrayal is blasphemous of the Mother of God! Mary was exempt from all the God-ordained consequences of Original Sin by virtue of her Immaculate Conception! One of those consequences, as predicted by God Himself to Eve was: “You will bring forth children in pain and suffering”. But Mary was preserved from that curse because, as God stated to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman; between your seed and her seed. She will crush your head, while you strike at her heel.” (original Latin translation by St. Jerome).
    So the Blessed Mother brought forth Jesus at the stable in Bethlehem, “as light passes through crystal”, as one ancient theologian puts it. There’s a Mass in honor of the Blessed Mother that has the verse: “You delivered the Savior without pain or suffering, and without violation of you holy virginity”.
    So that’s why I just can’t bear to watch any “Jesus movie” that depicts Mary suffering in painful labor delivering Jesus! It’s simply blasphemy!
    On a lighter note, there are a couple of movies that I hope you will be able to watch over Lent. One is “The Fourth Wise Man”. If you can overlook the pro-abortion, pro-“gay marriage” actor Martin Sheen, and just get involved in the plot, you’ll love it, and you’ll need a Kleenex for the last scene! It’s a beautiful story about the 4th Magi who was supposed to meet up with the other three in their journey to find the Messiah, but he keeps getting side-tracked. EWTN used to run this movie (only one hour long) at Christmas and Easter.
    The other faith-filled Catholic movie perfect for Lent is an old one from the early 60’s called “The Scarlet and the Black” starring Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer. It’s the true story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a Vatican-based priest during the Nazi occupation of Rome, who took on a mission to save as many Allied POWs, Jews, and others that he could, who were targeted for death by the Nazis in Rome. Christopher Plummer is awesomely evil in his portrayal as Col. Kappler, the Gestapo chief stationed in Rome during the occupation. The ending of this movie is stunning! PLEASE watch it!
    One other movie that I think is really good for Lent is an old one starring Richard Burton called “The Robe”, which is based on an extremely famous and best-selling book. It’s about the centurion who wins the seamless robe of Jesus at the foot of the Cross when the soldiers were “casting lots” after they decided not to tear His garment, but to bet on who would win it. It follows the soldier (Richard Burton, who’s fabulous in the movie, but I can’t remember his character’s name) as he carries the robe of the crucified Jew over the next few years, and loves a woman who has become Christian. It’s really a great Lenten movie!
    Tom, if you don’t have “The Scarlet and the Black” or “The Fourth Wise Man”, I have both of them! I’d love to lend them to you, if you like. I have a feeling you won’t be able to rent them at RedBox or plug them in on Netflix! I don’t have “The Robe”, but TCM (Turner Classic Movies) usually runs it during Easter time.
    Thanks for inviting people’s opinions of religious movies to watch during Lent! I enjoyed your analysis of your favorite movies and hope you might be interested in the ones I mentioned!
    Blessed Lent,
    Linda Ill

    • quinersdiner on March 12, 2014 at 10:21 am

      Linda, thanks for the great input and film recommendations. I will certainly seek them out. “The Fourth Wise Man” is available for free on Youtube. I’ll let you know if I have trouble finding “The Scarlet and the Black.” Although I don’t agree with your assessment of Robert Powell’s performance as Jesus, it points out the challenge to filmmakers of making movies about Jesus. Jesus is so personal to His believers, that no actor can ever really pull the role off in a universally accepted way. I look forward to following up on your suggestions.

  2. Linda Ill on March 12, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    Thanks, Tom! I guess any film maker trying to capture the essence of Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, is going to have lots of problems making his “Jesus” appeal to each Christian person who will see his movie! As you say, how could any actor pull it off and receive universal acceptance!
    My favorite “Jesus” is Jim Caveziel in “The Passion of the Christ”. He was noble, yet warm and demonstrative, had a little sense of humor (I love the scene when Jesus is making the table and he splashes water on Mary, and then gives her such a darling son-to-mother hug!). But, as you say, it’s all personal preference. I wasn’t a big fan of Robert Powell, but I did like “Jesus of Nazareth” very much. I thought Olivia Hussy was the best Mary ever! She was young, innocent, beautiful, and her acting was so delicate and real!
    I’d be more than happy to lend you my copy of “The Scarlet and the Black” to watch during Lent. Talk about the Corporal Works of Mercy! And, as you will see, the Spiritual Works of Mercy! My friend Jennifer watched it with me the other night, and she said it’s the best movie she’s ever seen!
    My cell # is: 201-7631. Give me a call, if you want to borrow it.
    Well, God bless you and your family!

    • quinersdiner on March 12, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      Got to agree with you Olivia Hussey as Mary. I really liked Caveziel as Jesus, too. I’m writing a follow up post on the subject which quotes you. I really like the Passion of the Christ. I think Gibson is a brilliant director. I loved the way he focused on one critical aspect of the sprawling Jesus story, namely the Passion. Spielberg did a similar think with Lincoln by focusing in on the efforts to ban slavery. Check in later tonight for more on the subject. If I can’t fine “The Scarlet and the Black” on Netflix, I’ll meet you at Mass so I can borrow your copy. By the way, have you seen “The Gospel of John?”

  3. The Garners on March 12, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    What a great round up! I read Quo Vadis last year, and went looking for it on video, and sure enough there is an MGM epic with Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr. It is a great post resurrection, early church persecution story that contrasts the emptiness of stoicism and aestheticism against the hope of Christ. Now I’m reading The Silver Chalice by Thomas Costain. The film version of this book stars Paul Newman, and has mixed reviews. Hoping to see both this Lent!

    • quinersdiner on March 13, 2014 at 7:24 am

      I haven’t seen Quo Vadis in years. I may have to revisit it. Let me know if you see The Silver Chalice. Thanks for the input.

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