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!