A reader writes:
I am looking for easy-to-approach religious movies, especially ones on saints. Intellectually challenging, subtitled, confusingly artistic movies seem to dominate. While I really love those types of movies, I am trying to find films for my Bible study group. We are four Catholic mothers, two with learning disabilities. We tried the first half of Diary of a Country Priest, and I worried one might try to smother herself with my sofa pillow to end her misery. Do you have any thoughts?
I hear you. November is the “month of saints,” and in recent columns I’ve mentioned a number of movies about saints. But filmmakers like Carl Dreyer and Roberto Rossellini aren’t for everyone, are they?
At the same time, we should have standards. Just as there are movies that are beyond many viewers, there are movies that should be beneath any viewer. After all, some pious viewers enjoy fare like God’s Not Dead and Fireproof, but I think these are genuinely bad films — for anyone.
Not many saint movies are quite that bad, but many are pretty mediocre. Some of the saint movies and Bible films produced by the Italian company Lux Vide fall into this category, from Restless Heart (2008, starring Alessandro Preziosi as Saint Augustine) and Mother Teresa (2003, starring Olivia Hussey) to Jesus (2009, starring Jeremy Sisto) and Mary of Nazareth (2012, starring Alissa Jung).
I’ll assume that you’re familiar with the most popular saint films — movies like The Song of Bernadette (1943), Becket (1964) and A Man for All Seasons (1966). (And if you read last week’s column, you’ll know about The Reluctant Saint.)
What else is there? Here are a few options; readers are welcome to contribute others.
French director Jean Delannoy’s Bernadette (1988), starring American Sydney Penny, offers a more historically accurate alternative to The Song of Bernadette. Filmed simultaneously in French and English, the film is screened regularly at Lourdes during the main pilgrimage season. (The 1989 sequel The Passion of Bernadette is also worth watching.)
Miracle of Saint Thérèse (1952) is an excellent, reverent biopic on the life of Thérèse of Lisieux, much better than the 2004 American film (and more accessible than the 1986 film by Alain Cavalier). Directed by André Haguet, it’s a French-language film, but most commonly available in North America via DVD (from Ignatius Press) with dubbed English and Spanish tracks. (Apparently Ignatius couldn’t get rights to the original French track.)
The well-done two-part miniseries Padre Pio: Miracle Man (2000), from director Carlo Carlei, stars Sergio Castellitto as the 20th-century Capuchin priest and mystic.
Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999), directed by Paul Cox and starring David Wenham (Faramir in The Lord of the Rings) is a better-than-average biopic about Saint Damien de Veuster, the Belgian “Apostle to the Lepers” in the Hawaiian leper colony of Moloka’i.
There are a number of films on the life of Pope Saint John Paul II. The best dramatic presentation is the two-part CBS miniseries Pope John Paul II (2005) starring The Princess Bride’s Cary Elwes as the pre-papal Karol Wojtyla and Jon Voight as John Paul II. However, even better is the PBS documentary Witness to Hope: The Life of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II (2002), based on the biography by George Weigel and narrated by Rene Auberjonois.
Those are some titles that occur to me. Readers, what are your favorite saint movies? Check out the combox at Crux for other reader suggestions or to offer your own.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.