By Tom Quiner
This is the season to experience quality movies.
I love a good religious film. Sadly, there aren’t enough of them. Religious filmmakers often lack a deft touch and club you over the head to get their faith-based message across.
Although I’m receptive to the message of faith, I still appreciate and expect artistry, nuance, and good writing in films that address these subjects.
My list of favorites evolves from year to year. The films that follow are artistic, nuanced with great scripts. The Gospel of John (#2) is unique because the script is based verbatim on the Gospel of John. Christopher Plummer’s voice is perfect as the narrator. Interestingly, the versatile Mr. Plummer appears in two other films on the list (“The Scarlet and the Black”) as a Nazi, the antagonist of the Vatican, and “Jesus of Nazareth” as the spineless Herod.
I sincerely believe you will enjoy these films.
#10: THE MISSION. This film was 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. (Mr. Morricone also wrote the film score for “The Scarlet and the Black,” #7 on my list.
#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. I could see Pope Francis doing something like this. You can watch the entire film on YouTube. I’ve posted the first scene below:
#8: RISEN. This new film is in theaters right now. Go and see it. “Risen” approaches the Jesus narrative from an entirely fresh perspective. Joseph Fiennes, who you may remember from “Young Shakespeare in Love,” portrays the powerful Roman centurion, Clavius, at the time of Christ. He returns from battle only to be immediately deployed by Pontius Pilate to the site of three crucifixions in progress. One is Jesus. Clavius looks directly into the dead eyes of Jesus (a unique twist, Jesus’ eyes are typically depicted as being shut) as He hangs on the cross. To ensure that He is dead, he commands a soldier to lance His side. When the corpse goes missing from a sealed tomb the next, day, Pilate orders Clavius to find it. What a mystery. Clavius’ investigation takes him on a journey he never expected. The casting was outstanding with the great Peter Firth as a convincing Pontius Pilate, young Tom Felton (Malfoy in Harry Potter films) as Lucius, aide to Clavius; and Cliff Curtis as an effective, if unconventional Yeshua (Jesus). Maria Botto made a great Mary Magdalene.
#7: THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK. Get ready for a tense game of cat and mouse as a Vatican priest and a German Lieutenant Colonel clash in Nazi-occupied Rome. This film is based on true events. Gregory Peck portrays Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty who heroically saved the lives of thousands of Jews and escaped Allied POWs by hiding them from the Nazis. Christopher Plummer portrays the Nazi officer in charge of rounding them up. The battle of wits between the two antagonists makes for great cinema, especially in the hands of two pros like Messrs. Peck and Plummer. Be sure to watch the ending credits for the remarkable epilogue to this great story!
#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 today. So let me know your favorites right away!