We are not accustomed to thinking of film as art, but in fact it is a very complete medium. Visual art, music, drama, and literature all meet in film. In America, we generally approach film as an opportunity for escape, sitting back and allowing ourselves to be distracted and entertained by action, special effects, and cheap drama. Approaching film as art opens up a new avenue to enjoying it as a means of contemplation, beauty, and philosophical thought.
The Church has recognized the power and influence of film. For instance, did you know there is a papal encyclical on film? Pius XI’s Vigilante Cura makes the point that film is a powerful medium because when watching film we become very passive and impressionable as things enter into minds and thoughts without our realizing it. Being a more attentive watcher of film and appreciating it more deeply means paying attention to the little things in film, being an active watcher that takes in the full effect of the medium – its sights, sounds, emotions, arrangement, and perspective, which are all deliberately placed before us to move us.
A good way to enter into a more critical appreciation of good film is to start watching films on the Vatican Film List. It is not an official magisterial list, but simply a list of influential films suggested by the Pontifical Council for Council on the 100th anniversary of film in 1995. It is arranged in three categories—religion, morality, and art—each with 15 entries. I will not present them based on these categories, but based on an ascending level of difficulty, which I hope can be a helpful guide for approaching for the films.
The film list contains some films which will be immediately recognizable to most viewers. They are enjoyable and uplifting, and if you haven’t seen them, you should—they’re classics: Ben-Hur (1959), Stage Coach (1939), a Western starring John Wayne, The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gandhi (1982), Chariots of Fire (1981), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and Disney’s Fantasia (1940). Chaplain’s Modern Times (1936) may be somewhat forgotten today (though worth rediscovering!), along with the original film version of Little Women (1933).
If I were to pick a must see in this category it would be the masterful adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play on St. Thomas More, which won Best Picture, A Man for All Seasons (1966). This film is becoming ever more relevant for our society, in which religious freedom is jeopardized.
Artistic and Accessible
In the next category, we find films that are (in my opinion at least) more artistic than the entry level films and yet generally accessible. Three focus on the lives of saints: The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), an adaptation of an early source on Francis’s life, Thérèse (1986), vignettes of her life on stage, and Monsieur Vincent (1947), my must see film in this category about St. Vincent de Paul.
We also find some better known films: The Mission (1986), on the demise of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay, On the Waterfront (1954), about the conflict of workers and their mafia like union, and Schindler’s List (1993), which should need no introduction. Two enjoyable European films are The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) a comic and light hearted portrayal of gold thieves, and Grand Illusion (1937), portraying prisoners of war during World War I, directed by Jean Renoir, the son of the painter, and a partial inspiration to the later TV series “Hogan Heroes.”
In this next category, we reach film that are very artistic and may not have the immediate accessibility of the films in the prior category. Some will be still be easier, such as The Bicycle Thief (1949), the great Italian father-son drama, Au Revoir Les Enfants (1988), about the seizure of Jewish children hidden in a Catholic school in France, The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), presenting Italian sharecroppers in the late 19th century, and Dersu Uzala (1975), detailing the encounter of a Siberian nomad with Russian explorers.
The Burmese Harp (1956), a Japanese film, chronicles the conversion of a Japanese solider to the life of a Buddhist monk at the end of the Second World War; Citizen Kane (1941) is generally considered one of the greatest films of all time, directed by and starring Orson Wells; and The Leopard (1963) presents an Italian nobleman adjusting to the transition to a modern Italy. My must see in this category is Babette’s Feast (1987), a favorite for many and a great image of Catholic culture.
A few others, as silent films, will take more patience. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) provides a masterful dramatic presentation; Intolerance (1916) weaves together four historical stories around its title theme (and is also very long at 210 minutes), and Metropolis (1927), an early sci-fi film.
We now move to films that are very artistic and in many ways profound, but which would be very challenging without working one’s way up to them, by appreciating film as art.
The first group explores the question of faith in light of modern culture. This was a topic central to the early films of the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, who makes the list twice with Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Seventh Seal, (1956), which has a medieval setting during the Black Death and is my must see for this category. The Danish director, Carl Theodore Dreyer (see The Passion of Joan of Arc above) provides a challenging and profound film, Ordet (1954) dealing with the difficulties of faith, mental illness, and death. The Mexican film, Nazarin (1958), presents, in an intentionally ambivalent way, a priest who suffers for following Christ too literally. The Gospel according to St. Matthew (1966) by the Communist director Pasolini presents an artistic and thought provoking portrayal of the Gospel. Krzysztof Kieślowsk, a Polish filmmaker, though not a believer, produced a monumental series of 10 short films that take their starting point from the 10 Commandments, entitled The Decalogue (1988).
The last two films are Italian: Rome Open City (1945), a more gritty presentation of the underground war efforts during the Nazi occupation than some viewers may be used to from The Scarlet in the Black (not on the list); the second is Frederico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), which focuses on a traveling gypsy and his abusive relationship with a mentally impaired woman.
The following films may not be palatable to many, except the connoisseur. They lack clearly defined plots and straightforward character development, and rather present the viewer with enigmatic episodes to consider. This kind of film requires the most engagement from the viewer and provides lasting food for thought, although some may find it more unsettling. The first two are by Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev (1966), on the famed Russian iconographer, and The Sacrifice (1986) about the religious delusions of a mentally ill intellectual. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey (1968) may be familiar to American audiences and provides, among other things, an interesting consideration on artificial intelligence. The last film, which may epitomize the non-linear film, is another by Fellini, a pseudo-autobiographical piece, exploring the inner vicissitudes of an artist’s life: 8 ½ (1963).
There are a few other films on the list. One I do not recommend viewing: Cavani’s Francesco (1988), a muddled attempt to portray St. Francis, but which ends up distorting him very badly. Others on the list are Nosferatu (1922), a Dracula based silent, horror film (found guilty of plagiarizing the original story), and two silent films, Napoleon (1927) and La Passion de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ (1905 – making it the oldest on the list), both of which are difficult to access.
See Steven Greydanus’s site, Decent Films, for the full list and reviews.
I was greatly enriched in watching the films on this list. I learned more about the history of film and to appreciate it more as an artistic genre. I hope you will find the same if you venture through it!