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The Vatican and cinema… a catholic taste in film (ahem)… or surprisingly good as it happens. March 23, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Religion.


Continuing the slightly religious theme of the weekend, while looking up 2001: A Space Odyssey I was intrigued by the following link which led to a list (available on the U.S. Catholic Conference website)of the 45 best movies selected by the Vatican in 1995. And interesting reading it makes not least for the way in which they are divided by Religion, Values and Art.

So, what do we get? There’s a distinctly Italian tilt to the films chosen. No harm one guesses. And under Religion it will come as little surprise that we get Ben-Hur, and The Flowers of St. Francis (Italy, 1950), Francesco (Italy, 1989), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Italy, 1966), Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev about a 15th century monk (USCC description: ‘…who perseveres in painting icons and other religious art despite the civil disruptions and cruel turmoil of his times. Director Andrei Tarkovsky visualizes brilliantly the story of a devout man seeking through his art to find the transcendent in the savagery of the Tartar invasions and the unfeeling brutality of Russian nobles’), La Passion de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ (France, 1905), The Mission, Babette’s Feast, Monsieur Vincent (France, 1947) about St. Vincent de Paul, Nazarin (directed by Bunuel in the late 1950s) about an idealistic priest in Mexico, Ordet (Denmark, 1954), The Passion of Joan of Arc (France, 1928), The Sacrifice by Tarkovsky made in 1986 which is a religious allegory about nuclear war and after and Therese (France, 1986) about the life of St. Therese de Lisieux…

So far, so religious. But few enough on the list I wouldn’t actually want to see (although hey, where is Powell and Pressburgers Black Narcissus?).

Values… ah, a tricky one. Still, we start with Au Revoir les Enfants (France, 1988) about a Catholic priest who hides Jewish boys from the Gestapo and is later sent to a concentration camp. Then there is The Bicycle Thief. Good stuff. The Burmese Harp (Japan, 1956), which has a Japanese soldier ‘nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, who then devotes himself to searching the jungle battlefields for the abandoned remains of dead soldiers to give them a decent burial’. Chariots of Fire. Decalogue (Polish, 1988) which ‘explores the meaning of the Ten Commandments as seen in the lives of various residents of a drab Warsa apartment complex’. Dersu Uzala (Russia, 1978) where Kuroswa considers ‘the friendship that grows between a turn-of-the-century explorer in Siberia and his guide, an aging Tungus hunter’. Gandhi. Intolerance (the D.W. Griffiths film from 1916). It’s a Wonderful Life (it has angels!). On the Waterfront (it has a priest!). Open City (Italian, 1945), a bit of a classic actually about Nazi-occupied Rome which doesn’t end well as I recall. Schindler’s List. The Seventh Seal. The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Italian, 1978) dealing with the life of peasant families. And finally, Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. All about aging.

Again, hardly one which I wouldn’t watch, or in some instances watch again.

And then… there is Art.

Citizen Kane makes the cut. Fellini’s 8 1/2. Fantasia. Grand Illusion by Jean Renoir from 1937 which details life in a WW1 prison camp. Fellini’s La Strada starring Anthony Quinn. The Lavender Hill Mob. The Leopard (Italian, 1963) directed by Luchino Visconti which deals with social change in 1860s Sicily as best it can with Burt Lancaster as the lead and Alain Delon in a supporting role. Little Women (US, 1933) the George Cukor version. Metropolis. Modern Times (hmmm… wasn’t Chaplin a communist? Mind you, presumably Tarkovsky was at one point as well). Napolean (1927). Nosferatu. Stagecoach. The Wizard of Oz. And last, but by no means least 2001: A Space Odyssey (which the additional description from the USCC tells us that ‘The central narrative follows the struggle of two astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) to wrest control of their spacecraft from HAL, a talking computer (voice of Douglas Rain), on a half-billion-mile trip to Jupiter and the unknown’ – it may just be me but I think there’s a bit more to it that that).

So all told quite a creditable selection. One might enquire as to where entertainment sits in all this, but perhaps that’s not important. One might also wonder were these selected, and I don’t mean to be unkind, because these are the sort of broadly mainstream/slightly arthouse movies that mainly Italian priests of a certain age might manage to get along to see. As it happens Tarkovsky directed my favourite film, Stalker, and it does make me also wonder in passing, seeing two of his films on the list, about the function of science fiction or fantasy to operate as a substitute for some of us for religious transcendence. After all look at the choices. 2001, Nosferatu, Modern Times, Metropolis, and so on. Were one to break it down by genre SF does surprisingly well. On the other hand one might point to narratives always incorporating that function, one way or another. It’s confusing. Although mind you, I saw the Russian film Day Watch last night… now what would they make of that?
Well, I haven’t found their thoughts yet, but here is an earlier review from the Catholic News Service on Night Watch, the precursor in the trilogy.

Though decidedly gloomy, “Night Watch” is escapist entertainment which allegorically explores questions of good and evil and the nature of free will. (“Others” must freely choose which side to join.) From a Catholic perspective, however, the film’s dualistic worldview of good and evil — competing but coequal — is incompatible with the foundational Christian truth of God’s supreme goodness and sovereignty.

And while its gore is troubling, and its jumbled plot may confuse some, the seemingly downbeat ending — the hordes of hell have the upper hand — propels viewers toward part two with the hope that light will ultimately triumph over darkness. During the climax, Anton must face his past sins in a confrontation suffused with pro-life undertones. A surprisingly moral message amid such mayhem.

And here are the thoughts of the Catholic New Service on films from 2007. Hmmm… quite a few I’ve seen and liked too…


1. Eagle - March 24, 2008

I haven’t got much of an opinion on the Vatican’s list. I have seen very few Italian movies. However, I’m not that keen on 2001 and Fantasia is overrated. I’m sure it was “great”, but give me Monsters, Inc. any day.


2. WorldbyStorm - March 24, 2008

Ice Age 1 surely?


3. PamDirac - March 25, 2008

What, no Magdalene Sisters?

I’ve seen a fair number of these, and the only movie on the list I’d identify as outright awful is Ben-Hur, one of the most stupefying experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre (a revival house, years ago; I could have walked out but my friend wanted to stay for the chariot race) which is not enjoyable even as camp, Oscars notwithstanding. There are a number I’d characterize as middlebrow guff but even those aren’t really bad. The choices may be a little obvious, but they’re respectable. Which I guess is the goal. “Francesco” sounds terrible, though.

It’s interesting that Alain Cavalier’s fascinating ‘Therese’ is there because in many ways it’s a very dark and harsh film, not easy to take. Not your candy coated life of a saint by any means.

*** (although hey, where is Powell and Pressburgers Black Narcissus?).***

Maybe it had something to do with the sex-crazed nun discarding her habit for a red dress with lipstick to match and hurling herself at the hunky hero before trying to push Deborah Kerr over a cliff? The Vatican folks might also have hesitated over the performance of young Jean Simmons as the local dusky slut, on her knees right in front of Sabu’s crotch. I just love that movie.


4. Starkadder - March 25, 2008

We got shown the “Miracle of Fatima” in primary
school….tedious rubbish.


5. Chris Baldwin - March 30, 2008

I’ve stumbled across this list before. Considering that the main criterion for inclusion seems to be ‘it has a priest in it’ (On the Waterfront, Open City, Au Revoir les Enfants), I was a little surprised that The Poseidon Adventure didn’t make the cut.


6. WorldbyStorm - March 30, 2008

🙂 Although by the same criterion wouldn’t Father Ted make the grade…


7. veritas - February 17, 2009


I saw this on youtube today



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