Some Catholic films, briefly noted

December 19, 2017

I’ve been going over the list of films I saw this year, preparatory to drawing up a list of favourites. I’ve noticed that I saw a healthy handful of films that were, in one respect or another, about Catholicism. Some of these will make my Top 10 list, but today I am grouping together those that will not, with a few brief comments on each.


Bresson’s Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962) follows the trial of St Joan of Arc, apparently with a relatively firm grounding in the surviving records. It cannot escape comparison with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a contest from which it does not emerge triumphant. The problem, for me, was the flat — characteristically flat, I am tempted to say — visual and dramatic sense Bresson brought to the material. Although I did appreciate it, in the end I thought it would have worked about as well as a radio-drama, and that is surely not a compliment to a film.

I also saw Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), a film that I was primed to love, as I loved the book on which it is based, but my Bresson Blockade continued. Certainly scenes worked very well, but overall I found him cold as ice, despite a good lead performance. This is essentially a story about a man’s inner life, and to tell it through the medium of film is, arguably, to start with an insurmountable handicap. However, this is by reputation a great film; the fault is mine.

I watched The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) because of the anniversary of Fatima this year. It’s not bad, exactly. It has some sparkle, and I did appreciate Big Hollywood’s effort to make something to honour ordinary Catholic devotion, which is not something we can count on anymore. But it played much like an ordinary homily: pious, inoffensive, and, in the end, rather forgettable. One character was strikingly irritating. The film’s epilogue, showing real footage from a ceremony at Fatima in 1951, with a million pilgrims on hand, was for me the best part.

No Greater Love (2009) is a documentary that takes us inside a community of nuns in London, mostly during the events of Holy Week. We see them doing the ordinary work of the community: washing the floors, ringing the bells, ordering food, dancing. We meet several of the sisters in interview segments; they tell us something about themselves and about the challenges and rewards of the life they have chosen. All of this is excellent. The film is, unfortunately, marred by poor lighting and sound through much of the production. I’m still glad I saw it, but I wish it had been up to the exemplary standard set by its kindred predecessor Die Große Stille, which is this film’s superior in pretty much every respect.

I hardly know what to say about Silence (2016), a film that suffers many of the same troubling ambiguities and confusions as its source material, but which nonetheless, I think, deserves to be in a conversation about important religious films. It was moving, it was vexing, it nearly cracked under the strain, and so did I; a difficult movie to watch, and probably too long for its own good.

Set in Poland in the months after WWII, as the Allies were cleaning up and the Soviets were moving in, Les Innocentes (2016) centers on a convent of cloistered nuns who suffered horribly in the waning days of the war, and on a young French nurse who befriends and assists them.  The plot, beyond that setup, is best left quiet. Thematically it is a rich stew: God, evil, suffering, family, love, and compassion. The religious life is neither romanticized nor demonized; on one hand, some of the nuns have doubts, some even commit terrible acts, but others are devout and authentic in their faith, and their distinctive way of life is shown as one having its own integrity. My main reservation is that the film’s denouement draws a rather too-sharp contrast between the vocations of Mary and Martha, and is too ready to grant advantage to the latter. That said, it tells a compelling story about how good can come from evil, and is well worth seeing.


I expect to post my list of favourite films from 2017, including a few with Catholic themes, in a week or two.

6 Responses to “Some Catholic films, briefly noted”

  1. I’m sort of pleased that you reacted as you did to Diary Of a Country Priest. I had more or less the same opinion and was disappointed, because like you I love the novel and had high hopes. I’ll probably watch it again sometime and see if I still think the same.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I have yet to see a Bresson film that I really like, which is sad for me. I also saw Au Hazard Balthasar this year, but I didn’t get it.

  3. Janet Says:

    It’s funny that when I read the book–probably 30 years ago–I thought of the priest as an old man, so when I saw the film 4 years ago, I was surprised to see him as young, which I guess he was. I didn’t love the movie, but made me think about the story differently, so I really want to go back and read the book again.

    I’ve tried to watch Mouchette twice with no success.

    I must say, Craig, that I don’t know anyone else who could right a review of films that he didn’t like and make me want to see two of them.


    • cburrell Says:

      Sorry for the slow reply! I was laid low by a malicious flu.

      To say that I didn’t like these movies, as I did say, was really too strong. Some of them I did like, and probably you’d enjoy them too. I just didn’t like them well enough to put them on my Top 10 list for the year, which is a truly arbitrary standard.

  4. vvelocci Says:

    Hi Craig,
    Merry Christmas! Sorry for being off-topic, but I was wondering if you have any recommendations for books and films about Canadian history.

    • cburrell Says:

      You’re out of luck with me, I’m afraid. Canadian history is a giant black hole for me (if anything so inconsequential can be described as “giant”). I think Pierre Burton wrote a series of well-regarded popular books about Canadian history.

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