A Great Catholic Film (Made By a Protestant)

October 2006By Dimitri Cavalli

Dimitri Cavalli is an editor and writer in New York City. He is planning to write books on both Pope Pius XII and Joe McCarthy, the late manager of the New York Yankees.

"Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?" -- Baptismal vows

The Catholic Church has always viewed the medium of film as a powerful and important means of artistic expression. On November 19, 1998, Pope John Paul II addressed a conference on film co-sponsored by the Holy See's Pontifical Council for Culture and Pontifical Council for Social Communications. "From its birth, the big the mirror of the human soul in its constant search for God, often unknowingly," the Holy Father told the conference's participants. "With special effects and remarkable images, it can explore the human universe in depth. It is able to depict life and its mystery in images. And when it reaches the heights of poetry, unifying and harmonizing various art forms -- from literature to scenic portrayal, to music and acting -- it can become a source of inner wonder and profound meditation."

Since the early days of motion pictures, Catholicism has frequently interested filmmakers regardless of their personal faith. In 1898 Pope Leo XIII allowed himself to be filmed by William K.L. Dickson, the inventor of the motion picture camera and a protégé of Thomas Edison. Among the greatest films of all time are those with explicitly Catholic themes, such as The Song of Bernadette (1943), Going My Way (1944), I Confess (1953), A Man for All Seasons (1966), and The Exorcist (1973), which are personal favorites of many Catholics and available on DVD.

In recent decades, however, a change has swept through the film industry. For the most part, Catholicism is either ignored or bitterly attacked and disrespected. Fortunately, there have been exceptions, most notably Mel Gibson's international blockbuster The Passion of the Christ (2004).

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Back to October 2006 Issue

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"I Confess" was dimissed by its director Hitchcock (a quite devout catholic) on the grounds that it represented poor technique. In truth it is a poor film. Any mention of a Catholic cinema is not complete without mentioning Capra or Ford. Neither of these men however, made explicitly Catholic movies. Eric Rohmer is another Catholic film maker but again avoids explicit Catholic themes. If we want Catholic films I suspected that we would have to look to the Jews or Protestants. The crucifixion scene in Ben Hur, directed by the American Jew William Wyler, strikes me as theologically sound. Posted by: caesium
November 01, 2006 05:14 PM EST
It is good to see some mention of Catholic-related movies in NOR. There was another one made (independently) a couple years ago about St. Therese of Lisieux -- entitled simply, "Therese" -- and it
was apparently very faithfully and accurately produced (by a Catholic man, Leonardo Defilippis). Furthermore there were two movies about Lourdes : "Bernadette"; and the sequel, "The Song of Bernadette." And finally, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose". Since movies aren't really my interest I can't be sure, but does anyone know why these films were so ignored?
Posted by: MIke Ezzo
October 24, 2006 10:24 PM EDT
I just now came across your post, Mike. I saw Therese and helped promote it here in southern California. However, in my totally honest opinion, it seemed a bit TOO saccharine and portrayed Therese as some pudding like girl with no "spirit." In fact, Therese was quite a sturdy person inwardly. She may have been the "Little Flower" but not at all a "shrinking violet." Read some of her biographies with notes from those who knew her well; her own other writings; the story of the Martin family. There a number of awesome Catholic films out now. Go to Ignatius Press for a magnificent selection. St. Rita of Cascia is a phenomenal film, as is Padre Pio, Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua to mention only a couple. I also encourage you to see "Bella" a wonder pro-life film starring Eduardo Verastegui. MOvies need not be nauseatingly sweet to be true and entertaining...even Catholic movies. ;-D Posted by: Lucia
May 16, 2010 11:01 PM EDT
Lucia: I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the film "Therese." I found it disappointing not only in the ways you describe but in the lack of a sense of the title character's holiness. The film did not adequately convey why she attained to sainthood. She just seemed like a nice, nondescript girl who hid the failings of others and who yelled "I love God" at the moment of death. Nice stuff, but not strong enough to move the viewer to seek out greater holiness in his own life.

"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" was a fine derivative of the original "Exorcist," creepy and exploring themes of morality and science. Stay away, however, from "The Rite," which was a trashy mess, despite boasting the star power of Anthony Hopkins. The film takes massive liberties in deviating from the book, which is itself quite superb. It also contains a silly climax in which a Catholic priest makes his "decision for Christ" in very Protestant fashion. I won't go beyond that so as not to spoil the ending for people unpersuaded by my panning of the film.

There's no reason Catholic-themed movies have to be poorly made.
Posted by: Jack Straw
September 26, 2012 12:41 PM EDT
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