On March 17, 1995, almost exactly 10 years before his passing, Pope John Paul II addressed a plenary assembly of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications, which that year observed another anniversary of particular importance to its own mission and to the Holy Father’s heart: the centenary of the motion picture.
“Since the first public audience in Paris viewed the moving pictures prepared by the Lumière brothers in December 1895,” the pope said, “the film industry has become a universal medium exercising a profound influence on the development of people’s attitudes and choices, and possessing a remarkable ability to influence public opinion and culture across all social and political frontiers.”
The pope’s remarks were both forward looking, speaking to the potential of cinema to become “a more and more positive factor in the development of individuals and a stimulus for the conscience of society as a whole,” and also historically minded, speaking positively of the praiseworthy contributions of “many worthwhile productions during the first hundred years of [the cinema’s] existence.”
Later that year, the pontifical commission provided an important reference point to Catholics interested in assessing the cinema’s “many worthwhile productions during the first hundred years of its existence”: a list of 45 films that has come to be known as the Vatican film list.
Though often characterized, somewhat misleadingly, as “the Vatican’s top films,” the list is meant neither as a set of definitive or magisterial “top fifteen” lists nor to establish these particular films as definitely more worthwhile than any film that was not included. Titled simply “Some Important Films,” the list is simply a cross section of outstanding films, chosen by a committee of twelve international movie scholars appointed by the head of the pontifical commission, Archbishop John Foley. Archbishop Foley has said that the list is not intended to canonize these particular films; and, in releasing the list, the commission acknowledged, “Not all that deserve mention are included.”
The list is made up of three categories, “Religion,” “Values,” and “Art,” with 15 films in each of the three categories. Some are well-known favorites (e.g., It’s a Wonderful Life; The Wizard of Oz). Others have extraordinary moral or spiritual significance (e.g., A Man for All Seasons; Schindler’s List). Still others are challenging “art films” that demand literate critical engagement (the austere mysticism of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and The Sacrifice; the exotic grotesquerie of Fellini’s La Strada and 8½).
The list includes comedy (The Lavender Hill Mob), horror (Nosferatu), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey; Metropolis), animation (Fantasia), sports (Chariots of Fire), family melodrama (Little Women), a number of war movies, several silent films, even a Western (Stagecoach).
This openness to cinema in all its forms reflects the view articulated in the Holy Father’s address to the pontifical commission. “The Church’s overall judgment of this art form, as of all genuine art, is positive and hopeful,” John Paul II declared. “We have seen that masterpieces of the art of film making can be moving challenges to the human spirit, capable of dealing in depth with subjects of great meaning and importance from an ethical and spiritual point of view.”
At the same time, the pope sounded a note of caution: “Unfortunately, though, some cinema productions merit criticism and disapproval, even severe criticism and disapproval. This is the case when films distort the truth, oppress genuine freedom, or show scenes of sex and violence offensive to human dignity.”
This moral caution may also be discerned in the choices reflected by the Vatican film list. For example, silent cinema pioneer D. W. Griffith, honored on the list for his ambitious epic Intolerance, may be better known for his landmark, deeply controversial The Birth of a Nation, a Civil War epic marred by much racist imagery.
Though undeniably an “important film,” Birth of a Nation also “merits criticism and disapproval,” to use the pope’s words, for “distorting the truth” and even “oppressing genuine freedom.” Such considerations may well have played a role in the decision to honor Intolerance rather than Birth of a Nation on the list.
Likewise, the list’s representative comedy, Ealing Studio’s caper picture The Lavender Hill Mob, might possibly have been given the edge over another arguably more popular Ealing comedy of the same period, Kind Hearts and Coronets, for moral reasons.
Both films epitomize the sophisticated, drolly subversive dark humor that were Ealing’s trademark. The Lavender Hill Mob stars Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway as a pair of gold thieves; Kind Hearts and Coronets stars Dennis Price as a disgruntled distant heir to a peerage methodically killing every relative (all played by Guinness) that stands between him and the title. Was the black-comedy serial murder of Kind Hearts and Coronets deemed less suitable for the Vatican list than the modestly dark caper comedy of The Lavender Hill Mob?
Though the list honors films that show restraint in the depiction of violence and sexuality, it doesn’t confine itself to films that totally avoid such content — any more than the Church’s patronage of other art forms has historically eschewed depictions of violence and nudity. Nudity, sexual content, obscene and profane language, and explicit violence can all be found in films on the list.
Yet all demonstrate a level of restraint that distinguishes them from morally unworthy productions. In acknowledging films that deal with potentially disturbing content, the list again reflects the thought of John Paul II, who wrote in his Letter to Artists, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (10). (See also “What Are the Decent Films?”)
In recognizing the merits of these particular films, the commission did not endorse everything these films contain, or gave them any kind of imprimatur or blanket ecclesiastical approval. Movies, like other works of culture, are seldom if ever perfect. Even with good or important ones, the viewer must be able to think critically and sort out the good from the bad.
Thus, the films listed in, for instance, the “Values” category possess special moral worth, but that doesn’t mean that they are perfect even with respect to moral content — and certainly not with respect to religious or artistic significance. Likewise, there is no endorsement of the religious or moral ideas of the “Art” films; these films were included because they were landmarks in the art of cinematography, not because of religious or moral values.
For example, 2001: A Space Odyssey is rightly recognized as an extraordinary cinematic achievement, but its non-theistic ascent-of-man mythology is reflective of a secular worldview that Christians cannot accept. It is possible, however, to appreciate the film’s achievement without accepting its worldview, just as one can appreciate The Iliad without believing in the Greek gods. The pontifical commission also recognized the religious significance of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew even though Pasolini himself was a Marxist.
The list is not infallible, or even authoritative. Catholics may reasonably take issue with the inclusion of certain titles. I have my own quarrels with the list, which in my opinion includes both the best movie ever made about St. Francis of Assisi, Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis, and also the worst, Liliana Cavani’s Francesco.
There are also absent titles I would gladly add, above all Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. The lovely Polish film Faustina, too, would surely have merited consideration, if only it had come out a few years earlier than the 1995 list rather than in the same year. Perhaps it could be included in a follow-up list 90 years from now.
What other films from the last ten years might warrant inclusion in such a follow-up list? Many films celebrated today, such as Million Dollar Baby and Sideways, seem unlikely to generate much interest decades from now. The Passion of the Christ, on the other hand, seems likely to have a long-term impact that over time would make it an increasingly obvious candidate. Archbishop Foley has defended The Passion against its critics, arguing that “if they’re critical of the film, they would be critical of the Gospel.” John Paul II, who may or may not have said “It is as it was,” would quite possibly have agreed.
Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 1995
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.