I’ve spent the past several weeks watching a lot of movies about saints. I mean, a whole lot of movies. Most of them, I’m sorry to report, are bad. Real bad. Not just in the sense that they did a poor job of telling the story of a saint’s life, but also in the sense that they were terrible movies, and painful to watch. But I persevered, and have identified ten gems amidst the rubble – films that I recommend to all Catholics (and everyone else). (You will find my top 10 list of movies about saints below.)
The Church & the Movie Industry
The Catholic Church and the movie industry have a relationship that goes back almost 100 years, to the beginning of film itself. Beginning with the Legion of Decency, the Church has long played an impactful role in Hollywood that continues to this day, with a priest serving as a member of the appeals board of the Motion Picture Association of America. Even the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has partnered with Catholic News Service to create the Office for Film and Broadcasting, where movies are reviewed and rated according to their morality. But the Church does not merely stand apart from film, casting judgment. The Church is frequently the topic of film – for good and for ill. For this article, I decided to focus on films that portrayed the lives of saints.
An Unexpected Lesson
For those of you who have read my other articles, you know that I find saints to be incredibly inspiring, and the Communion of Saints to be one of the richest parts of our Catholic heritage. I don’t take my saints lightly. So it was with not a little trepidation that I set out on this journey of media consumption, expecting the worst, and (more than occasionally) finding it. However, during the course of my viewings, I found movies that I had never heard of before that were astonishing in their fidelity to the saints’ life stories, films that were beautifully filmed and edited, and stories that lifted me up and gave me unexpected comfort. It is this last point – the unexpected comfort – that I would like to touch on before presenting my list of the top ten movies about saints.
Over the course of the past two months, writing for Catholic Majority has been an amazing experience. It has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on points of faith that I might otherwise skim over. It has also connected me to a wonderful community of Catholics who are excited to think about, write about, and discuss their faith, without casting aspersions on one another when they disagree. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to suggest that writing for and reading Catholic Majority has been one of the highlights of my life.
On the other hand, there are days when I receive mail from readers who take me to task, and not in a gentle fraternal-correction kind of way. From time to time, this “hate mail” (which is very much what it is) gets under my skin. I spend too much time reflecting on it. I let it bother me. Typically, this ruins my day, or at least part of it. But it’s also an opportunity for me to, again, reflect on my views, and deepen my relationship with God, and especially my commitment to charity and love. Without exception, I do not respond to hate mail. A few weeks back, I started praying for those who sent me these messages, and I found that to be healing. (By the way, I’m happy to pray for anyone. No need to send me nastygrams to obtain my prayers.) Then something unexpected happened when I began this project of watching all of these movies about saints: these movies about saints comforted me and strengthened my resolve to be part of a community of kind people who may not always agree, but who treat one another with respect and dignity, who shower one another with charity and love. How did this happen?
Over and over again throughout history, and as retold in these remarkable movies, saints were ordinary people who frequently tried to focus on charity, hope, and love. They were constantly expanding the definitions of who is worthy of love, dignity, and respect, of who may claim their rightful place in the Mystical Body of Christ. They broke “rules” to demonstrate love and charity in action. And almost without exception, they were persecuted by the institutional Church and the Church Militant (you know the type). Whenever the Church became overly focused on rules and laws, the saints showed us how to love. And love won. And love will continue to win. Although “troublemakers” in their own times, the Church now recognizes these individuals as saints, Catholics to be imitated, and to whom we can turn when life gets us down.
That is the unexpected comfort I received from watching these films. If you occasionally feel persecuted, these films are for you. If you occasionally feel the desire to persecute, you’ll benefit from these stories as well.
Here are the criteria I focused on: To make the top ten list, the movies had to present compelling and interesting biographies of the saints. The movies also had to be well-made (i.e., not bad). The final criteria to make my top ten list was that the film had to be a movie I would be willing to watch at least a second time. So without further ado, I present to you my list of the top ten movies about saints.
The 10 Best Movies About Saints
10. Saint Anthony: The Miracle Worker of Padua (Not Rated; 95 minutes; Italian w/ English subtitles) Anthony forgoes the opportunity to become a knight, becoming instead a monk and itinerant preacher. Good performances, compelling story, and wonderful cameos by Saint Francis of Assisi!
9. Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story (PG-13; 111 minutes; English) Although Dorothy has not yet been canonized (and resisted being called a saint in her lifetime), this movies makes the list. Outstanding performances by Moira Kelly, Martin Sheen, and Heather Graham. Dorothy abandons a life of pleasure-seeking to live the gospel of charity and care for the poor.
8. Padre Pio: Miracle Man (Not Rated; 214 minutes; Italian w/ English subtitles; Dubbed in English and Spanish) I’m going to be honest here: I don’t feel any particular devotion to or interest in Padre Pio. For those of you who do, this film might thrill (or anger) you. It makes my list because it was never boring and had incredibly beautiful cinematography. The camera angles, lighting, and composition were beautiful. It also had an enchanting score (reminiscent of the score for Schindler’s List). I found myself alternately fascinated by and disappointed in Padre Pio, but the movie is well-made, and well acted. I was mostly interested in his devotion to the healing power of confession. I’m looking forward to watching it a second time. Although the film is not rated, I don’t consider it suitable for children as it contains some scary and graphic images, and occasionally deals with sexual themes. (Then again, good luck getting a child to watch a 3+ hour, subtitled movie anyway.)
7. Mother Teresa (PG; 110 minutes; English w/ optional Spanish subtitles) If you’re looking for a film about a saint that the entire family can enjoy, this is the movie. Olivia Hussey gives an outstanding performance as Saint Mother Teresa. As a teaching nun in a conventional convent, Teresa feels called to dedicate her life to being “poor among the poor.” Through hard work and a steely determination, Teresa founds the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, against a backdrop of pushback from the Indian government, various intellectuals, and the Church itself. I enjoyed this movie much more than I thought I would, and, like with many of these movies, I left the experience thinking, “I could be doing more.”
6. St. John Bosco: Mission to Love (Not Rated; 99 minutes; Italian w/ English or Spanish subtitles; Dubbed in English) I’ve always been a fan of John Bosco, and this movie did not disappoint me. Flavio Insinna plays an incredibly likable Don Bosco. Called to the priesthood at an early age, he founds the order of St. Frances de Sales (Salesians) and ministers to the poor and orphaned boys in Turin, providing them with a place to live, a world-class education, and a sense of their own dignity and worth.
5. The Reluctant Saint (Not Rated; 104 minutes; English w/ optional Spanish subtitles) This movie was originally released in 1962, but is in black and white and has the feel of a much older movie. All the same, this is another film the entire family would enjoy. This is the first movie about a saint that I watched where I found myself laughing out loud. Maximilian Shell portrays St. Joseph of Cupertino, the “flying friar” of 17th-century Italy, and Ricardo Montalban plays Don Raspi, the cleric who is convinced that St. Joseph is possessed by the devil. A somewhat fictionalized account of St. Joseph of Cupertino, this movie teaches us that humility make some worthy of sainthood, even when their simplicity is otherwise looked down upon. Joseph’s mother, played by Lea Padovani, steals the show with her larger-than-life dramatics and overbearing mothering. (St. Monica had nothing on St. Joseph of Cupertino’s mother!)
4. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Not Rated; 82 minutes; Silent film w/ English or French captioning) Made in 1928, this masterpiece of a film was lost until it was rediscovered in a mental institution in the early 1980s. This silent film features a beautiful (and optional) orchestral soundtrack by Richard Einhorn that was inspired by this film and plays throughout. Like with any silent movie, it helps to be plenty awake and alert before attempting to watch it, but this film is so spectacular that it ranks highly in my list. The camerawork was (and still is) revolutionary, with much of the film made up of extreme closeups of Maria Falconetti’s face as she portrays St. Joan (the only role she ever played). The emotion she is able to convey without speaking is a miracle in and of itself. The plot for the story is taken directly from the “transcripts” of the trial of St. Joan of Arc.
3. The Song of Bernadette (Not Rated; 156 minutes; English w/ optional Spanish subtitles) This movie is a classic, and for good reason. The story of St. Bernadette Soubirous is a moving example of the simplicity of faith, and its profound effects. As a young, impoverished girl in Lourdes, France, Bernadette is visited by a “beautiful lady” who everyone (some more slowly than others) come to recognize as the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jennifer Jones won an Oscar for Best Actress for her sensitive portrayal of St. Bernadette. This particular film ranks so highly as it is the most accessible of the films, and a modern classic that has withstood the test of time.
2. Monsieur Vincent (Not Rated; 114 minutes; French w/ English or Spanish subtitles) Here is a story of a man who rose from slavery to become one of the Church’s most beloved saints, St. Vincent de Paul. This film focuses on the chapter in St. Vincent’s life when he leaves the comfort of serving as a private tutor for an aristocratic family to serve as parish priest in a village abandoned by other priests and filled with mistrust, fear, and immense social stratification that favors the wealthy. Viewers follow Vincent as he convinces the town to return to church, where they are nourished with faith, but also food and medicine. St. Vincent risks his own health to minister to the poor, enlisting the financial support of a group of wealthy women who eventually turn on him, to their own shame. This is a classic film that should not be missed.
1. Saint Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven (Not Rated; 190 minutes; Italian w/ English or Spanish subtitles) Taking the top spot in my top ten list, here is an amazing movie about Saint Philip Neri, the 16th century “Apostle of Rome.” Despite being a 3-hour, subtitled movie, I could watch this over and over again (and I plan to). The film is divided into two parts, if you would prefer watching it over the course of two sittings, but you’ll find it hard to resist starting the second half even after such a lengthy initial time investment. Gigi Proietti plays St. Philip Neri, a man who comes to Rome with the hope of joining the Jesuits on a mission to India, but instead finds himself ministering to the children of Rome, just outside the Vatican itself. This beautiful film has it all: a moving story, fantastic acting, incredible humor, and a recurring song that will be stuck in your head for days. I’m not one to cry at movies, but I came awfully close at the end of this one. The film is uplifting and encouraging, showing all of us that we are called to be saints, and that we can accomplish it against all the odds. This is not only my favorite movie about saints, but has become one of my favorite movies ever.
As I mentioned, I viewed dozens and dozens of movies to come up with a top ten list of movies about saints. Some movies came close to making it in the top top, like John Duigan’s Romero, starring Raul Julia. Others were fine films that just didn’t appeal to me or weren’t to my tastes, like Therese (who I found to be insufferable) and Molokai (which I found to be a disappointing bore).
Other films that didn’t make the list include films that didn’t quite count as movies, such as St. John in Exile, which is actually a filmed version of a one-man stage play. While Dean Jones was remarkable in that he memorized an incredible amount of lines, and did a good job of acting in this performance, it didn’t quite “fit” for this list. Another cluster of films that didn’t make the list were excellent, but, as documentaries, didn’t quite fit the bill for this article. (Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero and They Killed Sister Dorothy are examples of this.)
Whether or not I enjoyed the films, I continued watching them all the way through to the end (offering up my suffering, if you will). There was one exception to this rule: Clare and Francis. I had high hopes for this movie, especially considering the rave reviews it received on Amazon. And who doesn’t love St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi? But… I turned it off after 45 minutes. It was truly awful. Ordinarily, I prefer watching foreign movies with English subtitles and not with English dubbed in. Here is a film I couldn’t quite figure out. It was filmed in Italy, but the actors’ lips moved as though they were speaking English. After switching it back and forth between Italian and English a few times, I learned it didn’t matter, because neither one of these audio tracks quite matched up. Even though the actors were apparently speaking English during filming, the English audio track is so obviously not the original actors’ voices that it is distracting to the point of becoming maddening. The writing and dialogue were awful, so in the end, it wouldn’t matter if they dubbed it in Pig Latin, it would have been a bad film anyway.
So there’s my list. I hope you enjoy the list and get the opportunity to see some of these outstanding and inspiring films.
What do you think? Were any of my reviews off the mark? Is there a movie I missed? What is your favorite movie about saints?