By TOM QUINER
Lent has started. What a perfect time to enjoy a good religious movie. At some time or other in your life, probably during your Lenten fast, you have asked yourself the question, “what is the meaning of life?” And the answer is, that life has meaning. That meaning comes from being adopted sons and daughters of God. That meaning comes from the unique mission our Creator gives to each of us as members of His Kingdom.
A good religious movie helps us appreciate the profound meaning of our lives as it ultimately draws us nearer to Christ. It reveals the Truth, with a capital T. If you have not had the good fortune of watching any of these films yet, then you may want to see what your Cable TV package has available and where you could watch these with the family. There is a source here that discusses the statistics of people who watch TV and what they are looking at, so maybe you’ll be able to find a package that leans towards more religious teachings that can help you with your journey.
My list of top religious movies for Lent changes from year-to-year. Classics like the “Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur” come and go, replaced by something either newer or more relevant for the times. My list this year includes several movies I recently revisited that came out 20+ years ago, and one I watched for the first time the other day.
A theme emerges in many of these films especially relevant for our age: courage. We live in an era of cowardice. The Cancel Culture threatens people’s jobs, relationships, and public standing. The pro-life movement needs strong, proud voices to speak up in the public square on behalf of our unborn brothers and sisters. Could you use a jolt of courage? Watch some of these movies this Lent. They remind us that God is with us. Always.
Okay, here’s my list for 2022. I sincerely believe you will enjoy these films. Let me know your favorites.
#10 PRINCE OF EGYPT. Some two decades have passed since I first viewed this 1998 film. I watched it again this year and was simply delighted from beginning to end. Maybe it’s because I was watching with my grandkids, but I loved this movie more than I did the first time. How could one not love it? It tells the story of Moses. The visuals are stunning. The songs catchy and singable, written as they were by the great Stephen Schwartz (Godspell) with a score by Hans Zimmer. The all-star cast of voices includes a Hollywood who’s who from the late 90s: Val Kilmer; Ralph Fiennes; Patrick Stewart; Helen Mirren; Steve Martin; Martin Short; Michelle Pfeiffer; Sandra Bullock. Its $70 million budget ensured that no expense was spared in retelling a classic biblical story. This is a great animated family film the adults will love at least as much as their kids and grandkids.
#9 FATIMA. Fatima is an odd, historic event from 1917. Do you know the story? Mary, the Blessed Mother of God appeared to three young Portugese children in Fatima, Portugal. No one else could see the woman. Only the children could hear her. The event created an uproar when the children refused to renounce what they saw. Eventually, Mary provided a sign of her presence in a phenomenon known as the “miracle of the sun.” Thousands of believers and non-believers witnessed it. The Fatima Movie (2020) tells the story for a new generation to enjoy and understand. It is immediately relevant, as the same passions that roiled Portugal then continue to agitate events now. You hear a line in the movie that makes you think of today: “Progressive ideas will free people from their religious superstitions.” Parents need to watch this movie with their children and grand children as a beautiful witness to the power of courage in the face of adversity. As one of the children says later in life: “faith begins at the edge of adversity.” What are our choices when faced with adversity? Trust God, or give up. The Fatima Movie inspires us to trust God.
#8: THE MISSION. This film was written by Robert Bolt. It follows the lives of 18th century Jesuit missionaries in South America. Jeremy Irons and Robert Deniro turn in riveting performances as two very different priests. Their relationship is beautiful and complex. Ennio Morricone wrote one of the great musical scores of all time. The theme song all by itself is enough to make a doubter believe in God. (Mr. Morricone also wrote the film score for “The Scarlet and the Black,” #6 on my list.)
#7: A MAN for ALL SEASONS. The story of Sir Thomas More who refuses to compromise his faith by sanctioning King Henry VIII’s divorce, even though it will cost him his life. Very relevant in light of a Catholic president who says he accepts the teaching his Church on abortion, but can’t impose his religion on anyone else. Imagine if St. Thomas More had said, “I’m personally against divorce, but can’t impose my religion on anyone else.” This ‘season’ in our history needs Thomas More more than ever. Watch it. This 1966 film won six Academy Awards including best actor for Paul Scofield who played More. This film also featured Robert Shaw, Orson Wells, and Susannah York. It was based on a play by Robert Bolt.
#6: THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK. Get ready for a tense game of cat and mouse as a Vatican priest and a German Lieutenant Colonel clash in Nazi-occupied Rome. This film is based on true events. Gregory Peck portrays Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty who heroically saved the lives of thousands of Jews and escaped Allied POWs by hiding them from the Nazis. Christopher Plummer portrays the Nazi officer in charge of rounding them up. The battle of wits between the two antagonists makes for great cinema, especially in the hands of two pros like Messrs. Peck and Plummer. Be sure to watch the ending credits for the remarkable epilogue to this great story!
#5: GRAN TORINO: Surprised to see a Clint Eastwood movie on the list? No one less than Bishop Robert Barron called Gran Torino “one of the great presentations of the Christ story.” Eastwood, who directed and starred, portrays grouchy Walt Kowalski, an old geezer who’s wife just died. His kids want to move him into an old folks home. His working class neighbor in Detroit is getting dangerous as gangs move in. Walt is a cantankerous, racist s.o.b. who hides his decency under the surface. He’s a heroic figure who uses violence to ward off violence directed at his Laotian neighbors … until he realizes it’s just not working. Violence begets violence. I really don’t want to say much more, because you need to see this film if you haven’t. Suffice it to say, Bishop Barron said it was one of the best examples of what the church fathers called the “Christus Victor Theory.” Watch it.
#4: THE PASSION of the CHRIST. This was more than a movie, it was an event that either united or divided people, much like Christ Himself. Mel Gibson’s movie was controversial. The violence is grotesque. It is not a fun movie to watch. I have seen it thrice, and I will see it again … someday. Jim Caviezel was perfect as Jesus. The movie is important because it gives modern man an inkling of what Christ did for us. I heard Fr. John Riccardo once say about Christ’s crucifixion: “If this is the cure, can you imagine the disease?” This movie forces us to think about that question seriously. The scene of Christ’s scourging is horrendous. Do you know why He was lashed 39 times? Because 40 was considered “death” by the Romans. It was unsurvivable. I would recommend the edited version with some of the violence excised. After watching this film, fall to your knees and thank Christ for what He did for us.
#3: HACKSAW RIDGE. Courage and conviction are in short supply these days. So when a movie comes along about a man who stood up for his religious convictions regardless of the cost, it’s worth checking out. I finally got around to watching Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge this year (it came out in 2016). The movie marked his return to directing after a ten year hiatus. Gibson knows how to tell a story. Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss, a simple man from Lynchburg, Virginia, who enlists when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He had a catch: not only would he not use a rifle, he would not even carry one. Although the ‘cancel culture’ didn’t exist in the 1940s, Doss felt the brunt of the military establishment who attempted to ‘cancel’ him via a court martial. They failed. He went on to become an invaluable member of his unit as a medic, rescuing some 75 soldiers at the brutal battle of Okinawa. His courage was contagious. Following a particularly brutal attack, Doss was wounded and exhausted after saving countless of his fellow soldiers. It was a miracle he was still alive. The soldiers were once again called to battle (the entire campaign lasted 83 days). The soldiers wouldn’t go unless Doss was with them. The commanding officer said to Doss: “These men don’t believe the same way you do. But they believe so much in how much you believe. They want a piece of it. They’re not going up there without you.” The moral: courage is contagious.
#2: JESUS of NAZARETH. This film is an epic work of cinematic craftsmanship. Robert Powell is an extraordinarily effective Jesus. It was originally broadcast as a 382 minute mini series on television in 1977. Every single minute of this film is worth it. Nothing is wasted. Director Franco Zeffirelli has created an artistic masterpiece. He is true to the Gospels and creates an ancient Holy Land that seems real to modern man. His presentation of Jesus’ telling of the Prodigal Son is a work of genius, surely inspired by the Holy Spirit! Interestingly, one of the writers was Anthony Burgess, also the author of “A Clockwork Orange.” What a cast. Each star was at the top of their game. In addition to Mr. Powell, James Farantino was a Peter for the ages. Ian McShane was a complex Judas whose motivations are slowly revealed in his deft political maneuverings. Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary, and Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene both shine. The list is endless: Christopher Plummer fleshes out the human weakness of Herod Antipas. You can’t stand him in the end. And James Mason brings Joseph of Arimathea to life. The conversation he has with Jesus about the idea of being “born again” draws you irresistibly into the essence of the Gospels. That’s why this film is so good. You feel like you’re walking right alongside of Jesus. Everything seems so authentic.
#1: THE CHOSEN: Not a movie, but rather the first original TV series about Jesus Christ. Two seasons are completed, 16 episodes in all, plus a pilot and Christmas special. What’s interesting is this was made outside of the Hollywood system. It was financed via crowd funding. The writers let us get to know Jesus through the eyes of key players from scripture: His disciples, Mary Magdalene, even little children. You can watch it free on The Chosen app, which you’ll find at the app store. They claim 375 million views so far! If you want to sample an episode, check out the 3rd episode of season two, titled “Matthew 4:24.” The camera work is extraordinary, as a single camera weaves in and out of a crowd without a break for the first eight minutes or so. My only beef with the production is the opening theme song, which to me doesn’t fit. However, I suspect it connects with the evangelical Christian market, which is its primary market. As a Roman Catholic, I’m being a little nitpicking on this point. Nonetheless, I love the production so far, and hope they are able to pull off the seven season story arc to which they aspire.
Those are my picks. What are yours? Please let me know. I want to watch some great, new faith-filled films this Lent, starting today. So let me know your favorites right away!
[Tom Quiner is president of Pulse Life Advocate’s Board of Directors. If you enjoyed this essay, be sure to subscribe to our blog. Every donation helps us expand our reach!]