The Fortnight for Freedom begins on the eve of the feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. The best possible film to begin the fortnight is Fred Zinnemann’s magnificent cinematic tribute to Thomas More, one of the 45 films of the Vatican film list. King Henry VIII declares “war on the Church,” obliging More — out of fidelity to his conscience regarding the institution of marriage as well as the Petrine primacy — to retire from public life. Over the next several years, he adheres to his principles and defends himself ably, but ultimately futilely, in the face of legal harassment, imprisonment and execution.
Responding to threats to religious liberty in the United States in 2012, particularly in connection with the HHS mandate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated the two weeks from June 21 to July 4 — the eve of the feast day of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More to Independence Day — a “Fortnight for Freedom.” All around the country, special events have been scheduled at the diocesan level highlighting the importance of defending religious freedom.
In support of the Fortnight for Freedom, the National Catholic Register and Decent Films are pleased to present a selection of 14 films, chosen by me, all in some way engaging themes of religious liberty, moral conscience and commitment faith in the face of pressure and persecution have been reflected in cinema. Each film has been correlated in some way with the various saints’ feast days that fall in this two-week period. I hope readers find these suggested films a useful complement to their Fortnight of Freedom plans
Like A Man for All Seasons, Chariots of Fire is a Vatican film list and honoree — and, though far less is at stake, it too is a portrait of conscience and religious conviction in the teeth of personal loss and pressure from authority. When Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Protestant and a champion runner representing Great Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics, learns that a heat for his event is slated for a Sunday, he refuses to compete — even when pressured to do so by the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee. Another British athlete, a Jewish runner named Harold Abrahams, competes in the same games, to combat anti-Semitic prejudice.
St. Joseph Cafasso, whose feast falls on this day, was a social reformer who defended prisoners and convicts of the state and opposed state intrusion into Church affairs. Romero stars Raúl Juliá as Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador, a courageous defender of human rights and of the Church against an oppressive militarized government terrorizing its own people under the rubric of fighting communism. Romero was assassinated while saying Mass, one day after a sermon urging soldiers to obey God’s law over the government’s policy of repression.
On the feast day of St. John the Baptist, martyred by Herod Antipas for his defense of the Law of Moses regarding marriage, here is a family film about Moses himself leading his people to freedom. Moses stands against Pharaoh in obedience to God, but also because he is troubled in conscience regarding the oppression of his people, and longs to see them free from Egyptian tyranny.
St. William of Vercelli, whose feast falls on this day, founded a religious order named for the Blessed Virgin, and is credited with many miracles, including restoring sight to a blind man. Golden Age Hollywood favorite The Song of Bernadette celebrates St. Bernadette Soubirous’ faith and unwavering obedience to the Blessed Virgin in the face of civil opposition, and the many miracles at Lourdes that followed — beginning with the healing of a blind man.
On this day the Church commemorates St. Anthelm of Belley, a bishop and monk sent by Pope Alexander III to mediate the dispute between Henry II and St. Thomas Becket. Becket dramatizes this dispute between the king and his chancellor, England’s head of state and the English Church’s chief primate. In the film’s narrative, Becket is a man transformed by the weight of religious office, defending the Church’s prerogatives against Henry’s encroachments after Henry has Becket elevated to the Canterbury archbishopric.
For the feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria in Africa, a sublime film of heroic Christian witness and martyrdom in modern-day Africa. The story of seven Trappist monks martyred in Algeria during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, the film attests their heroic witness to their faith and way of life in the face of government and military pressure as well as the constant threat of terrorist violence.
On this day the Church commemorates St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, France. In The War of the Vendee, Navis Pictures — producers of pious, homespun Catholic costume dramas enacted by children, like the most lavish parochial-school plays ever — recounts the little-known story of a small French Catholic resistance movement during the French Revolution seeking to defend the Church from religious persecution.
For the feast of St. Peter, the first pope, this excellent documentary about Blessed Pope John Paul II is particularly notable for its attention to Karol Wojtyla’s heroic resistance to social and religious oppression under the Nazis and especially communists. Through his defiance, the communist model city of Nowa Huta — the “city without God” — acquired its first church.
For the feast of the First Martyrs of the See of Rome, a celebration of heroic religious resistance and martyrdom in the streets of 20th-century Rome during the Nazi occupation in the second world war. Gregory Peck plays Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, the “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican,” running an underground railroad in Rome for escaped Allied POWs. Under intense Nazi pressure, Pope Pius XII and Msgr. O’Flaherty defend Vatican sovereignty, and even when the local S.S. head disdained O’Flaherty’s diplomatic immunity, he courageously carries on his work in secret.
Beatified by Pope John Paul II, Blessed Junipero Serra, whose feast day falls today, was dedicated to the service of the peoples of the New World, but faced political opposition and had to defend his work. Vatican film list honoree The Mission depicts the work of Jesuit missionaries in South America, where their efforts are opposed by Portuguese interests. Scripted by A Man for All Seasons writer Robert Bolt, it’s another exploration of the sovereign authority of conscience even unto death.
On this day the Church honors St. Bernardino Realino, a Jesuit known for heroic service to the poor. Vatican film list honoree On the Waterfront is best remembered today for Marlon Brando’s incomparable performance and classic “I coulda been a contenda” monologue — but the movie’s other great speech is the spectacular “sermon on the docks” delivered by Karl Malden’s crusading waterfront priest Father Barry, based on real-life Jesuit John Corridan, about the perpetuation of the Crucifixion in every act of injustice or oppression. Appealing to the longshoremen’s consciences, Father Barry urges them to resist the corrupt union bosses and work for freedom.
According to Church tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle was martyred by beheading. For his feast day, a riveting film about a heroic Christian witness to conscience and human dignity who was beheaded by the Third Reich. Sophia Magdalena Scholl, a German college student, is arrested in 1943 when she and her brother are caught distributing anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich. With a Catholic co-conspirator, they are interrogated, subjected to a sham trial and executed by guillotine. Though Lutherans, the Scholls were influenced by the writings of Blessed John Henry Newman, whose teaching shines through Sophie’s defense of conscience.
The Fortnight for Freedom ends on July 4, Independence Day. Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments views the story of the Exodus through the lens of the American experience, with Charlton Heston’s Moses presented as the Great Emancipator and Father of his Country. (It’s worth noting, though the film omits it, that Moses’ initial message for Pharaoh was not one of emancipation, but religious liberty: Moses asked Pharaoh not to let the people go, but to let them make a three-days’ journey into the desert to sacrifice to the Lord.)
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.