CAST SUSAN SARANDON, SEAN PENN, ROBERT PROSKY, RAYMOND J. BARRY, R. LEE ERMEY
DIRECTED BY TIM ROBBINS
The story of Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean was given the big screen treatment in Dead Man Walking, which focused on Prejean’s relationship with prisoner Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), who was sentenced to death for rape and murder.
Fearlessly directed by Tim Robbins, and featuring career defining performances from Penn and Susan Sarandon (whose portrayal of Sister Helen garnered her an Oscar), Dead Man Walking effectively presents the Catholic stance towards the death penalty, by diving head first into the debate without abandon.
THE MISSION (1986)
CAST ROBERT DE NIRO, JEREMY IRONS, RAY MACANALLY, AIDAN QUINN, LIAM NEESON
DIRECTED BY ROLAND JOFFE
A film that is as visually stunning as it is spiritually rich, The Mission regularly appears at the top of best religious movies lists everywhere, and with good reason.
Directed by the vastly underrated Roland Joffe, the film starred Robert De Niro as a 18th century slave trader who turns to a Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons) for redemption, while the Portuguese government cracks down on the indigenous tribes who are under the protection of the Church.
What follows is an exploration of Church and state, and whether non-violent protest or Just War should be used when confronting violent oppression, all to the sounds of perhaps Ennio Morricone’s best score.
Joffe will again look at Catholic’s in dire straits in the upcoming Spanish civil war drama There Be Dragons.
CAST MERYL STREEP, PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, AMY ADAMS, VIOLA DAVIS
DIRECTED BY JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY
Doubt was a film which looked into differing aspects of Catholic life, as told via a secular perspective.
Based on the hit play by John Patrick Shanley (who also wrote and directed), the films looks at the consequences of accusation, when conservative dragon lady Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) accuses new parish priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of sexual molestation.
Throughout, Shanley touches upon the child abuse crisis in the Church, the reforms of Vatican II, and the hierarchy found in Church procedure. Yet it is the performances which sell this movie, especially from Streep and Hoffman, whose on screen clashes ranks as the best seen in some time.
THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK (1983)
CAST GREGORY PECK, CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER, JOHN GIELGUD, OLGA KARLATOS, RAF VALLONE
DIRECTED BY JERRY LONDON
The Church has had its fair share of heroes given the big screen treatment. Archbishop Oscar Romero (played by Raul Julia in Romero), Father Damien (played by David Wenham in Molokai: The Story of Father Damien), and Sir Thomas More (played by Paul Schofield in A Man For All Seasons), are but a few.
Yet The Scarlet and the Black was a pivotal film, since not only did it focus on an exceptional man, but it also placed a spotlight on an often debated topic: the Church’s supposed inaction during WWII.
Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was one of many within the Church who sheltered thousands of Jews and allied soldiers during WWII, often in the face of threats towards his life by the German Gestapo and SS.
Played with grace and authority by Catholic actor Gregory Peck, here the Monsignor is shown in a cat and mouse game against a Nazi Colonel (Christopher Plummer). There battles during the war proved to be a thrilling and eye opening watch, yet it is the events afterwards that held the most power.
The symbolic depiction of the Christ figure has appeared in films as varied as Cool Hand Luke and E.T., yet it has rarely done so in such a Catholic setting as Gran Torino.
Known more as actor/director Clint Eastwood’s swansong to his tough man screen persona, Gran Torino should also be seen as a thoroughly Catholic picture in its themes of redemption and sacrifice, especially towards violence.
Granted, Walt Kowalski is not the most observant of Catholics, but underneath that granite skin beats an honourable heart. It is there in his discussions with his young parish priest, and in his teachings of life and manhood to his teenage neighbour, whose persecution at the hands of urban gangs triggers Walt to spring into action, to surprising results.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)
CAST JIM CAVIEZEL, MAIA MORGENSTERN, CHRISTO JIVKOV, FRANCESCO DE VITO, MONICA BELLUCI
DIRECTED BY MEL GIBSON
Better pictures have been made about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but none were as polarising as The Passion of the Christ.
Directed by Mel Gibson, the Aussie/American’s traditionalist Catholic beliefs bled through this re-telling of Christ’s last 24 hours, which were brimming in detail and unflinching in the violence wrecked upon Jesus (gracefully played by Jim Caviezel).
While it does not openly preach to be a film of specific Christian denomination, its influence as a Catholic work is undeniable, from Gibson’s Catholic background, to the artistic influence on its visuals, and Pope John Paul II final decree that “It is what it was”.
OF GODS AND MEN (2011)
CAST LAMBERT WILSON, MICHAEL LONSDALE, OLIVIER RABOURDIN, PHILLIPE LAUDENBACH, JACQUES HERLIN
DIRECTED BY XAVIER BEAUVOIS
Director Xavier Beauvois exploration into religious worship vs religious extremism, centred on the tragic true life story of a group of Catholic monks killed by Muslim jihadists in Algeria.
Although directed and acted by admittedly non-religious artists, the respect and details given to the depiction of religious life is staggering in its details and beauty.
In the end, it is not the way in which these men of God died but how they lived that stays with us: with complete faith in God and without judgement of their fellow man.
MEAN STREETS (1973)
CAST HARVEY KEITEL, ROBERT DE NIRO, DAVID PROVAL, AMY ROBINSON, RICHARD ROMANUS
DIRECTED BY MARTIN SCORSESE
“St. Francis of Assissi had it down!” so proclaimed Harvey Keitel’s mobster in the gangster classic Mean Streets.
Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough movie, Mean Streets was a personal reflection of the famed Italian American filmmakers’ spiritual and cultural lives, made flesh through Keitel’s Charlie “The Saint”, a low level mafia hood whose devout Catholicism clashes with his crime lifestyle.
His attempts at saving nihilist punk Johnny Boy (an electrifying Robert De Niro) from certain doom proves to be his calling and the instigator of his fall, for as the Scorsese narrated introduction says, in this world you pay for your sins not in church, but on the street.
ON THE WATERFRONT (1957)
CAST MARLON BRANDO, EVA MARIE SAINT, KARL MALDEN, LEE J.COBB, ROD STEIGER
DIRECTED BY ELIZ KAZAN
Elia Kazan’s 1954 masterpiece On the Waterfront is a film whose moral heart beats a Catholic rhythm.
Its story of a former boxer turned mob enforcer / dockworker (Marlon Brando), who stands up against his mob boss (Lee J. Cobb), saw many lay claim that this was Kazan’s attempt at winning back favour in Hollywood after testifying for the House of Un-American Activities.
Yet look closer and one will find an inherently Catholic movie, with Karl Malden’s impassioned turn as Catholic priest Father Barry as the crucial element in dictating the moral essence of this movie, as witnesses to injustice stand up for their rights against a system corrupt to the core.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
CAST ELLEN BURSTYN, JASON MILLER, LINDA BLAIR, LEE J. COBB, MAX VON SYDOW
DIRECTED BY WILLIAM FRIEDKIN
The 1973 horror classic The Exorcist has earned a reputation of being “the scariest film of all time”, a tag which is both accurate and problematic, since it fails to describe the true power which this film holds.
Based on the popular book written by devout Catholic, William Peter Blatty (who claims the story was based on supposed true circumstances), The Exorcist told the story of a 12 year old girl (Linda Blair) who is in the throes of demonic possession, and the Jesuit priest/psychiatrist (Jason Miller) who has to determine whether the child is in fact possessed or psychotic.
The latter element is the most crucial. While many point to projectile vomit and spinning heads as highlights, it is the story of Miller’s priest Damien Karras, which holds the most swagger.
Struggling with his faith in God, Karras is a wounder figure whose inability to separate his spiritual compass from his learned mind finds him in the midst of a losing battle against evil defined. It is a moment of clarity between Karras and chief exorcist Father Merrin (the remarkable Max Von Sydow), in which the latter explains the deceitful nature of Satan and his long reach, which places the religious themes of The Exorcist in perspective.
After all, the film is called The Exorcist, and it is in fact the story of these priests that gives the film its strength, to the extent of some calling it religious manipulation at the hands of the Church.
One thing is for certain, with the world stepping further away from the Church and into self annihilation, the role of priests, nuns, and laypeople of Catholic faith are more important now than ever. The Exorcist is a powerful, if not fantastical, reminder of that.