The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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October 6, 2000 Issue
Summoned to Serve

Seeking good news in movies

Some excellent films - even some secular ones - have religious messages

By Mary Breslin

Summoned to Serve

There's religion on the screen, but not a lot of it, say church movie critics.

In recent years, notes Henry Herx, recently retired director of the U.S. bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting, Hollywood producers make no apologies that motion pictures are secular entertainment.

But, people still can find Gospel-inspired films.

"Theatrical motion picture is not the only game in town," said Herx. "Families are not fully dependent on what's playing at the local Bijou or what's on cable or network television." He cited the increasing volume of videos dealing with religious topics in a completely religious way.

Generally, films with strong Christian themes don't do well at the box office.

"Religious films deal with questions of sanctity and religious virtue that the secular world finds unfamiliar or difficult to comprehend," Herx said. He said that while Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story and Romero were not box office successes, both found an audience on video.

While The Apostle, about a Pentecostal preacher, addresses elements of faith, the notion of sin, human flaws, and good works, Herx said he believes Catholics would find it an emotional, shallow expression of religion. The redeeming message has merit, he said. "It does focus on a man striving to do good and reform a flawed friend."

St. Anthony Messenger film and TV critic James Arnold qualifies films as having Christian values if "they suggest or show that God loves us and has redeemed us and has prepared an eternity for us." He cites two categories of Gospel-centered films: those that are explicitly religious and often about a priest, nun or a saint, and parable films that depict signs of grace.

On Arnold's top ten list of explicitly religious films, he places Dead Man Walking among the top three.

"The image of Christ that Sr. Helen Prejean projects is fantastic," he said. "And it speaks to contemporary and cutting edge concerns as well."

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is an extraordinarily wonderful work, says Arnold. "It is a classic work using imagery and music."

He also gives high marks to A Man For All Seasons, about St. Thomas More. "It's been overlooked in recent years, but deserves to be re-examined as one of the best religious films."

For "parable films," he lists Cool Hand Luke, Forest Gump,Schindler's List, La Strada, Grand Canyon, Stolen Children,Babette's Feast, Chariots of Fire, Whistle Down the Wind, and Night of the Hunter.

"While these are not obviously religious in their content, each has a character with a strong element of grace, as in Forest Gump, or people's response to grace, as in Grand Canyon and Stolen Children, or the bringing of hope and faith in a metaphorical way, as in Cool Hand Luke," Arnold said.

Some films never make a top-10 list, Arnold said, yet they merit mention for their Christian values. He specified Black Robe, The Crucible, Shadowlands, and Lorenzo's Oil.

Herx gave top honors for all-time great films with Christian themes to The Passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 silent film he called "a powerhouse of spiritual experience." Its cutaway view of the woman's soul explores "the inner struggle between human frailties and spiritual strength."

A 1986 release, The Mission, gives high visibility to the issue of social injustice in colonial America, Herx said, and it "provides a context for current Latin American struggles."

Another of Herx's top choices, the 1966 drama A Man for All Seasons, showcases a public figure's unwillingness to compromise his conscience, even when the reward for unwavering morality was a death sentence for King Henry VIII's chancellor, Thomas More.

Herx also lauded the TV dramatization Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, as being "entirely faithful to the Gospel account. The result achieves a spiritual dimension uncommon in most such works," he noted.

-- Next: People come first

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