By TOM QUINER
Reprinted with permission by Iowans For LIFE
Lent has started. What a perfect time to enjoy a good religious movie, especially with so many still homebound due to coronavirus concerns. 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.
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 pays tribute to the great actor, Christopher Plummer, who just passed away after a brilliant 90 year acting career. I mention Plummer because of his presence in so many of the great religious movies for Lent.
He provided the narration in “The Gospel of John,” which didn’t make my list this year, but is a wonderful movie. He played Herod Antipas in my #1 pick, Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, Mr. Plummer portrayed the Nazi-hating Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” (#5) before switching sides and playing the Nazi bad guy in “The Scarlet and the Black” (#6). Ironically, he wasn’t a believer. He once said in an interviews,
“My sort of religion is one of romance. I think the arts are the best thing to hang on to.”
Plummer actually sells the arts short in this comment. I believe the arts are a stepping stone to faith because of their ability to expose us to the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Okay, here’s my list for 2021. I sincerely believe you will enjoy these films. Let me know your favorites.
#10: THE VEIL REMOVED. What happens at Catholic Mass? Much of the ‘action’ is obscured from our senses. But Catholics know from the prayers said during the eucharistic sacrifice that all the angels and all the saints unite with man to proclaim God’s glory, His Holiness, and their thanks for the sacrifice made on theirs’ and our behalf at Calvary. Down through the ages, God has on occasion removed ‘the veil’ that separates heaven from earth, allowing a favored few to glimpse the full drama of the Mass. This short seven minute film was conceived by two Iowa Catholic radio personalities, Chris Magruder and Julie Nelson, who put into motion a project to produce it for us to get a better understanding of what really happens during the consecration. Here is the description that appears during the closing credits of the film:
“The Veil Removed is a visual interpretation of how all heaven and earth unite to celebrate the Holy Eucharist as noted in Catechism #335, #1326, #1370, #1419, and in scripture Revelation chapters 4, 5, and 7.”
Watch it right now. Your Lent will be the better for it:
#9: 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.)
#8: 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 new 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.
#7: RISEN. “Risen” approaches the Jesus narrative from an entirely fresh perspective. Joseph Fiennes, who you may remember from “Young Shakespeare in Love,” portrays the powerful Roman centurion, Clavius, at the time of Christ. He returns from battle only to be immediately deployed by Pontius Pilate to the site of three crucifixions in progress. One is Jesus. Clavius looks directly into the dead eyes of Jesus (a unique twist, Jesus’ eyes are typically depicted as being shut) as He hangs on the cross. To ensure that He is dead, he commands a soldier to lance His side. When the corpse goes missing from a sealed tomb the next, day, Pilate orders Clavius to find it. What a mystery! Clavius’ investigation takes him on a journey he never expected. The casting was outstanding with the great Peter Firth as a convincing Pontius Pilate, young Tom Felton (Malfoy in Harry Potter films) as Lucius, aide to Clavius; and Cliff Curtis as an effective, if unconventional Yeshua (Jesus). Maria Botto made a great Mary Magdalene.
#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: THE SOUND OF MUSIC. 2020 was a brutal year with riots, a pandemic, and the ascension of a radical pro-abortion politician to the White House. Whew! We all need a major dose of happiness more than ever. The times call for the “happiest sound in the world,” as the trailer says. They call for “The Sound of Music.” I watched it again last night, and I enjoyed it more than ever, even though I’ve seen it half a dozen times. This beautiful film is all about family, destiny, and the joys of living. It tells the story of a broken family, the Von Trapp family, still reeling from the loss of their mother. Amidst the pain of their lives and a looming war, God sends this family a gift, a young nun-to-be named Maria, who restores music, beauty, and purpose to their lives. Julie Andrews, as Maria, is simply delightful as the novice, and Christopher Plummer, as the cranky Captain Von Trapp, is the perfect foil to her sweetness. Watching his heart melt hearing his children sing “The Sound of Music” perfectly captures the essence of Dostoevsky’s observation, that “beauty will win the world.” And beauty is inseparable from the good and the true. In other words, beauty reflects God’s love. To me, that is what “The Sounds of Music” does. By integrating beautiful music and beautiful scenery with familial love, one can’t help but feel God’s presence and delight in the gift of our lives. There’s nothing wrong with a major dose of happiness during Lent!
#4. LES MISERABLES (The Musical). “Do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men?” That line makes me think of the seething passions roiling in America as I type. This is a movie about the human condition and the drama of human life in an unjust world. The themes are as immediately relevant today as they were in the 19th century France as depicted by Victor Hugo in his classic novel on which it is based. The protagonists, Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, each rely on God in remarkably contrasting ways, leading to a dramatic denouement. This is a remarkable musical. The actors sang their parts ‘live,’ creating such a sense of authenticity. In other words, they didn’t dub in their singing later. I love this musical and have seen it on stage some five times, including twice on Broadway. Kudos to director Tom Hooper for creating a film that lived up to the musical by presenting the complexity of our Christian faith.
#3: 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 twice, 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.
#2: THE CHOSEN: Not a movie, but rather the first original TV series about Jesus Christ. I’ve only seen the first four episodes, and I’ve been blown away. 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. So far, I’ve met Simon Peter, Mary Magdalene, Andrew, and Nicodemus as they encounter this mystery man, Jesus, portrayed with authenticity by Jonathan Roumie. There’s an episode devoted to a group of children who meet and are taught by Jesus. It is a delight. Jesus is wonderful with the children, just as you would expect, and the children are spot on in their portrayals. You can watch it free on Youtube. I HIGHLY recommend it based on what I’ve seen. The director is Dallas Jenkins, son of Jerry Jenkins, author or The Left Behind series. 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 it’s 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 multi season story arc to which they aspire.
#1: JESUS of NAZARETH. Nothing touches this film. It is the best Jesus film. It is the best Christian film. And it is the best religious film. Ever. Robert Powell is the best Jesus ever, even better than Jim Caviezel. (Although I do love Jonathan Roumie in The Chosen) . This film was 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.
Those are my picks. What are yours? Please let us know by scrolling down and leaving a comment. We want to watch some great, new faith-filled films this Lent, starting today. So let us know your favorites right away!
[Tom Quiner is president of Iowans for LIFE’s Board of Directors. If you enjoyed this essay, be sure to subscribe to our blog.