Summoned to Serve|
Seeking good news in movies
Some excellent films - even some secular ones - have religious messages
By Mary Breslin
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
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
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
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
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.
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