By Tom Quiner
I love movies that depict the power of faith.
There is no one magic formula for a successful religious movie. Sometimes, it is an historical epic. Other times, it is a story of faith in action. Or it could be a docudrama on the life of a saint.
I especially love to dig into these films during Lent and let the beauty of God’s love wash over me.
Here is my updated top ten list of religious movies I like to watch during Lent:
#10: BECKET: Another clash of an English king named Henry with a future saint named Thomas. This time, it is King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) vs. Thomas Becket (Richard Burton). It is based on the play, “Becket, or the Honor of God,” by Jean Anouilh. Just like A Man for All Seasons, it tells the story of a man of conscience, Thomas Becket, who refuses to compromise his faith, even if it costs him his life. The dialogue is simply riveting with tour de force performances by O’Toole and Burton.
#9: 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.
# 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: LES MISERABLES. Victor Hugo’s masterpiece made the remarkable transition from book to Broadway, and then to new heights as a movie. Director Tom Hooper captured the drama of a broken cast of characters, each with complex relationships with God. Hooper made the decision to film the drama with live singing, something unheard of for the genre. It works, giving the film a grittiness and authenticity that serves to amplify the role of faith in the lives of the characters. You’ve heard the saying, “when you sing, you pray twice.” In this all-sung musical, the singing sharpens and intensifies man’s relationship with God far beyond what spoken word can do. The main character, Jean Valjean, models the conflicted consciences most of us have at some time or other when he sings remarkable lyrics like these:
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
Who am I? Who am I?
I am Jean Valjean!
#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!