A decade of films for Catholics

January 25, 2020

It’s the end of the 2010s, and film buffs the world over are compiling lists of “Best Films of the Decade”. I’m making my own, in fact, but I’ve a number of films still to see before I’m ready to post it here.

In the meantime I’d like to write about the ten films from 2010-2019 that meant the most to me as a Catholic. These are not “Catholic films” in a straightforward sense, but rather “films that could be reasonably thought to be of special interest to Catholics”, or something along those lines, whether because of their themes or subject matter or setting or characters or whatever. Some are focused specifically on Catholicism, some are about Christianity more generally, and some are of wider scope. A few are off the beaten track. Some are about clergy and religious, some not. Some were made by Catholics, some not. Three were made by Terrence Malick, who is not a Catholic, but who is the preeminent Christian filmmaker working today. Few would be appropriate for a parish movie night, but all, I think, are very good films.

By way of prelude, let me run through some candidate films that, for one reason or another, didn’t make my list.

Regrets

These may have had an outside chance of making the list if I’d seen them:

We Have a Pope (2011); The Letters (2015); The Young Messiah (2016); Chosen: Custody of the Eyes (2017); Pope Francis: A Man of his Word (2018); The Apparition (2018); By the Grace of God (2019); The Two Popes (2019); Corpus Christi (2019).

Worst Catholic film of the decade:

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2017) — A prog-rock musical in which Joan alternates between mumbo-jumbo theological speculations and vigorous head-banging in wilderness landscapes. If that sounds bizarrely intriguing, you’ve fallen into the selfsame trap that I did. It is a truly horrendous film, almost unendurable, with absurd choreography and terrible (emphasis on terrible) music, but so committed to its freaky premise that it merits wary acknowledgement. Watch the trailer if you dare!

Honourable mentions: films worth seeing

The Keepers (2017): A Netflix documentary about an investigation into the 1960’s murder of a Baltimore nun that uncovers long-concealed evidence of a predator priest; a good case study in how the establishment — police, lawyers, and the Church — obstructed rather than promoted justice for the victims.

The Way (2010): Martin Sheen walks the Camino!

Lady Bird (2017): Most everybody loved this film; I liked it alright. Lady Bird has a complicated relationship to her Catholic faith, but it means something to her, even if she can’t quite articulate it. A plausible portrait of how many half-lapsed Catholics experience the faith.

The Innocents (2016):  Set in Poland in the months after WWII, as the Allies are cleaning up and the Soviets are moving in, the film centers on a convent of cloistered nuns who have suffered horribly in the waning days of the war, and on a young French nurse who befriends and assists them. A compelling story about how good can come from terrible evil.

Runners-up: films hard to exclude from the Top 10

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019): A stately, melancholic mobster picture that reckons, as Scorsese’s films have not always done, with the toll evil takes on the soul. Of interest to Catholics, I think, specifically for the final act, in which the Church, a loving mother, tries to coax a heart of flesh from a heart of stone.

***

Le Fils de Joseph (Eugène Green, 2016): A weird and winsome tale about a young man in modern France who finds his life bursting with Biblical motifs at every turn; very funny and quite possibly seriously mystical. There’s nothing quite like it; one scene, in particular, rends the veil.

***

Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015): A film I love on many grounds, I include it here not because it’s especially theological — it is not — but because it gives us an attractive portrait of Irish Catholic parish life in New York in the 1950s, a world that has almost completely vanished in the meantime.

***

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012): Presenting us with two contrasting visions of love, one founded on romantic feeling, intense and spontaneous, and another founded on commitment, tenacious and steadfast, Malick invites us to consider which is more attractive, more fruitful, and more likely to bring happiness. Though not the first Malick film I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work — it is elliptical and elusive, with many narrative gaps and almost no on-screen dialogue — it is an incredibly beautiful film that is finally, I think, a loving address to “the love that loves us”.

*****

And now, without further ado, my top ten:

10. Silence
(Martin Scorsese, 2016)

An agonizing and vexing film that nonetheless deserves to be in a conversation about great religious films, Scorsese’s long-meditated adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel follows two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to sixteenth-century Japan, where they are tasked with confirming or refuting rumours that one of their Jesuit brothers has apostatized. Captured by the violently anti-Christian and anti-European political powers, the two undergo horrendous suffering alongside the Christians they are trying to serve. It’s a film about faith under terrible strain, about the heroic sacrifices made by Christian missionaries, about what we owe to God, about living with doubt, and about how we discern God’s presence, or absence. As with the book, most of the vexation is packed into a climactic scene that nearly but, arguably, not quite ruins the whole thing.

***

9. First Reformed
(Paul Schrader, 2017)

Paul Schrader is best known as a screenwriter for Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and is also the author of a minor classic of film criticism (Transcendental Style in Film). These strands, and others, including his Reformed Christian upbringing, come together in this film in which a middle-aged clergyman, Reverend Toller, played with weary sympathy by Ethan Hawke, presides over an historic, but moribund, Dutch Reformed parish. His congregation is so small that First Reformed’s day-to-day operations, including Reverend Toller’s own salary, are paid for by Abundant Life, a friendly evangelical mega-church down the road. First Reformed is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller is beset by troubles, both personal and political.

While it’s not a specifically Catholic film — all the Christians on screen are Protestants of one kind or another — I suppose it’s on this list just because it’s too well-made to pass over in silence, and its concerns about the temptation to see politics as a substitute for faith, or the hazardous byways we can be tempted down in our search for meaning in life, are of wide application. Schrader has described the film as a tribute to his best loved filmmakers, and one can catch the influence of Bergman and especially Bresson, whose country priest is never far away. It takes a wild turn in the final act, so wild that it will confound many viewers, but still very much worth seeing.

***

8. Kreuzweg 
(Dietrich Brüggemann, 2014)

Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Brüggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and in that ‘almost’ lies at least a few cinematic delights.

The film wrestles with the hazards encountered by any group that struggles to retain its own nature and culture in the midst of a hostile, or even merely different, culture. The issue is not about whether these Catholics are right to resist the larger culture — this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be: fraught with loneliness and isolation, and beset by risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s an austere but potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. Of all the films on this list, this is the one most open to an anti-Catholic interpretation, but my view is that it doesn’t force us into that corner. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)

***

7. Ida
(Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)

Set in Poland about a decade after World War II, this quiet film follows a young woman, Ida, who, having been raised in a convent, is preparing to take her vows to religious life. For reasons that are not explained — maybe just as a courtesy, or maybe to test her vocation, or because she knows more than she lets on? — Ida’s Mother Superior sends her out of the convent to meet her only surviving relative, an aunt. The two seem to have little in common, but together they embark on a journey to find the graves of Ida’s parents, who had been killed in the war. In so doing, Ida is exposed for the first time to life outside the convent, and to the opportunities and temptations it presents. For a while the film seems like it might be pitching a simple tale of a naive girl who wises up and escapes from the narrow to the broad path, but it takes an unexpected turn that complicates that story considerably.

The film has been gorgeously shot in black and white, and the director, Paweł Pawlikowski, frames his shots such that the action usually occupies only the lower part of the frame; there is a hovering emptiness — or perhaps a fullness — above, as though there were figures hovering there whom we were just too dull to perceive. Apart from whatever thematic value this might have, it adds something distinctive to the film’s aesthetic qualities. It’s a beautiful, quiet, and tender picture. It won the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Oscars in 2015.

***

6. Calvary
(John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

Another film that contends with the plague of sexual abuse in the Church, Calvary introduces us to a priest in a rural Irish parish who faces, in a very personal way, the painful fallout of the sins of his brother priests. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the priest — a man of substance, feeling, intelligence, experience, and genuine faith — and the theological aspects of the film are richly developed as, over the course of one week, Gleeson’s priest relives, in his own life, the Passion of Christ. Were St Paul a film reviewer, he might describe it as a portrait of a Christian man, under extraordinary circumstances, being conformed to the image of Christ. Lavishly vulgar and unflinchingly violent, it could nonetheless be defensible Holy Week viewing.

***

5. Knight of Cups
(Terrence Malick, 2015)

A high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor, Knight of Cups follows Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

It’s one of Malick’s most difficult films, stylistically. There is little dialogue, intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, multi-layered sound, and discontinuous editing. Images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is difficult to discern; we experience it “under the similitude of a dream”.  And it is gorgeous to look at.

Malick aimed, I think, to capture that universal sense that we are summoned to something higher, that in this world, beautiful as it is, we are exiled from our true native land. To a significant extent he succeeded. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells.

***

4. A Religiosa Portuguesa
(Eugène Green, 2009)

St Augustine said, “My love is my weight.” It is my love that carries me through the world; it is my love that determines where I will go, and where I will end up. The risk is that we can love the wrong things, or love the right things in the wrong way, and end up where we do not want to be. This is the condition of Julie, the lead character in A Religiosa Portuguesa (The Portuguese Nun), as it is your condition and mine.

Julie is a French actress who is in Lisbon making a film. She has a series of mostly ephemeral romantic entanglements with men, but at night she is drawn to a candle-lit church where a young nun sits quietly before the tabernacle. When she finally speaks to the nun, who is already, in a way, her second self (for Julie is playing a nun in her film), she encounters a kindred soul of depth and understanding. What the nun, Sister Joana, says to her is essentially the Gospel: to find one’s life one must lose it; unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it brings forth no life; love means giving oneself away until there is nothing left, and only then does one find happiness. How many films even try to address a question like, “How can I receive God’s love?” and how many fewer can do so without being trite?

What is wonderful is that this elevated spiritual drama fits comfortably into a movie with a sense of humour, and the frank religiosity of much of the film, which might be too on-the-nose from a more conventional filmmaker, is rendered strange by Green’s suite of distinctive directorial tics such that it slips past our defences.

I have cheated slightly; the film was originally released in 2009, but did not premiere in North America until 2010.

***

3. Of Gods and Men
(Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

Based on the true story of nine Cistercian monks who were caught in the crosshairs of Algerian jihadists in the mid-1990s, this is a moving portrait of true Christian martyrdom, which makes such a striking contrast with what is called martyrdom by jihadists. The film focuses on the monks’ earnest and sometimes agonizing deliberations about whether to stay or to leave the country as the violence around them increases, and the screenwriter has allowed not only considerations of safety and human solidarity to complicate the decision, but the monks also wrestle with the nature of the monastic vocation and the demands of Christian discipleship. Few and far between are films in which sound and serious Christian theology has been integrated so naturally into an intensely dramatic and emotionally compelling story. Considered specifically cinematically, this is perhaps leaning to the pedestrian side, but it is a film of high moral beauty. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010.

***

2. A Hidden Life
(Terrence Malick, 2019)

Another true tale of martyrdom, and even more intense than the last. Malick sweeps us into the world of St Radegund, a tiny village high in the Austrian Alps, where Franz Jägerstätter and his wife, Fani, are raising their young family, safe, they hope, from the infernal terror raging below. But it is not to be: in time the tentacles of the state snake up into St Radegund and Franz, like everyone else in the village, is made to decide and declare his allegiances.

I cannot think of another film that plays out so decisively against the horizon of the good — here is a man facing a specifically moral decision, and the course he chooses has no advantages to recommend it apart from the transcendental one: it is good. Franz must be incomprehensible to those who believe goodness is something subjective or conventional or confined to a world of immanence (and so it has proved). It is, despite its earthy textures and grounded characters, a film of the spirit that sees people — by implication, you and me — as spiritual beings governed by laws higher than those of nature or state. It is a grand cinematic exhortation.

What most surprised me about A Hidden Life was its emotional power. We expect Malick’s films to be overwhelmingly beautiful marriages of sight and sound — and that holds true here — but at the heart of this film is another marriage, Franz and Fani’s marriage, that is so richly developed that it gives this film a warm, beating heart Malick’s films have not always had. I think of the moment when Fani realizes that Franz has not just been expressing reservations, but intends to allow himself to be swallowed by the evil maw snapping at them, rather than commit an injustice. We feel the agony that either destroys love or forges from it something adamantine.

By any measure a luminous achievement, I believe A Hidden Life has to be given serious consideration in the conversation about which of Malick’s films is his second best.

***

1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

No surprises here. One need only reason out the syllogism: (A) The Tree of Life is the greatest film of the decade of interest to human beings; (B) Catholics are human beings; and therefore (C) The Tree of Life is the greatest film of the decade of interest to Catholics. QED.

I’ve now seen it seven or eight times, and its beauties do not fade. Its mercies are new every morning. Certain images illuminate my imagination: a mother kissing her sleeping child, a stained-glass Christ, a dance in the air, a child swimming toward the light, a field of sunflowers, a little foot cupped by a father’s hands. Malick’s deep dive into memory has left its mark on me — or in me.

It is not possible to say in short compass just what The Tree of Life is doing — I have written about the film at greater length here and here — but I treasure it, in part, for realizing on screen the secret inner life in which a boy awakens to the world and plunges into mystery, a mystery inhabited by a hidden but alluring God. It is a work of wonder.

***

I’d be happy to hear about good films that I ought to have considered, or to hear reasons why I ought not to have bestowed my praise as I have.

8 Responses to “A decade of films for Catholics”

  1. Rob G Says:

    The first paragraph of your description of Knight of Cups reminds of something I thought of when I first saw it but had forgotten: I wonder if Malick had Kurosawa’s Ikiru in mind at all when he made KoC?

    Re: Pawlikowski. I have not seen Ida but just last night watched Cold War, his latest film, and was somewhat disappointed. It’s beautifully shot, the acting is top notch, and I love the fact that it revolves around music, but I didn’t find the character development very compelling, and I think the tragic nature of the story is compromised somewhat by a descent into something bordering on the sordid.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Yes, Rick and Ikiru are in much the same situation as each film begins, although Kurosawa takes us much further down the road toward recovery than Malick does. Thanks for pointing out this interesting connection between two wonderful films.

    I was disappointed with Cold War too; it left no lasting impression on me. I’d still encourage you to seek out Ida.

  3. Rob G Says:

    While it doesn’t involve Catholicism per se, Small Town Murder Songs (2010) is an engrossing little movie about sin and redemption that takes place in a Mennonite community in Canada. The official synopsis says, “A modern, gothic tale of crime and redemption about an aging police officer from a small Ontario Mennonite town who hides a violent past until a local murder upsets the calm of his newly reformed life.”

    Peter Stormare, in an atypical role, is very good as the police chief, as is Jill Hennessy, in another atypical role. I liked the way the movie treated the “faith” issue — sympathetically but honestly, i.e., not without attention to some of its difficulties.

    Ranging further afield into TV, I’d recommend Breaking Bad, of course, and the outstanding Sundance series Rectify, which is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring, with some absolutely stellar writing and acting. Faith issues play a considerable part, as one major character is a Christian who undergoes a strong test of her faith during the course of the thing, and as in Small Town… they are treated honestly and sympathetically, without condescension.

    For some reason I’ve had a hard time getting people to give Rectify a go, but those people that I know that have watched it are unanimous in their praise. The lead performance by Aden Young is one of the best things I’ve seen on TV ever.

  4. cburrell Says:

    These are good recommendations; thanks. I confess I’ve not heard of Rectify, not having much appetite for TV series, but I’m putting it down on my list.

    I’ll also add Small Town Murder Songs to my list. It sounds like it’s set in the area where we take our summer vacation!

  5. Rob G Says:

    “I confess I’ve not heard of Rectify”

    Few people have, unfortunately. I remember that when it was airing several critics said “this is the best show you’ve never heard of.” I think that if it would have been on a bigger channel (Sundance has a pretty small viewership) it would have gotten more attention.

  6. Rob G Says:

    One other film well worth a look is ‘A Ghost Story,’ (2017)with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. “A singular exploration of love, loss, and the enormity (sic) of existence,” says one blurb. Cinematically it comes across at times a sort of small-scale Malick, but it’s different enough to not fall into pastiche. The Catholic/Christian connection is slight, but director David Lowery’s father Mark is a theology prof at Dallas, fwiw.

    Greydanus gave it a good, thoughtful review:

    https://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/sdg-reviews-a-ghost-story

    • cburrell Says:

      I like that film a good deal. (I love the pie-eating scene!) I didn’t know about that theological background, but I’m not entirely surprised. I’d really like to see the film again, because although all the ingredients were there, I felt it didn’t quite add up as I’d hoped it would. Still, I admire it.

      Lowery’s next film is going to be an adaptation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” — the same script, I believe, or at least a script related to the one Malick was rumoured to be working on many years ago. It’s among my most anticipated films of 2020.

      • Rob G Says:

        Interesting. I hadn’t heard of that. I read somewhere that Lowery’s now an agnostic or some such, despite his Catholic upbringing.

        And I agree about the film — perhaps not 100% “satisfying” but definitely one that stays with you and makes you think. I tend to gravitate towards movies like that — the ones that make you want to watch them more than once.


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