Since the advent of cinema in the late 1800s, faith has been treated on film in a wide variety of ways, from the respectful to the satiric. As any number of pictures from Hollywood's golden age might be used to demonstrate, however, a reverential approach to the subject of religious belief does not by itself a thoughtful -- or artistically successful -- movie make.
With the church's observance of the Year of Faith continuing, here in alphabetical order are capsule reviews of 10 films that engage with this often elusive topic in an accomplished and illuminating manner. Sometimes directly, in other cases only by subtle implication, these screen parables provide viewers with insights into the nature of faith -- as well as its effects.
Unless otherwise noted, the Catholic News Service classification for each film is A-II -- adults and adolescents. Motion Picture Association of America ratings are indicated for those titles that have received them.
"Andrei Rublev" (1969) Russian production about a 15th-century monk (Anatoli Solonitzine) who perseveres in painting icons and other religious art despite the civil disruptions and cruel turmoil of his times. Director Andrei Tarkovsky visualizes brilliantly the story of a devout man seeking through his art to find the transcendent in the savagery of the Tartar invasions and the unfeeling brutality of Russian nobles. Subtitles. Stylized historical violence.
"Babette's Feast" (1988) Screen version of a story by Isak Dinesen, set in a rugged Danish fishing village in 1871, shows the impact of a French housekeeper (Stephane Audran) on two pious sisters who carry on their late father's work as pastor of a dwindling religious flock. The conclusion follows the preparation and consumption of an exquisite French meal, with focus on its sensual and religious implications and its healing effect on the austere sect and the Frenchwoman who prepares it. Danish director Gabriel Axel's low-key and understated work is rich with detail and fine, controlled performances. Subtitles. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is G -- general audiences.
"Brother Orchid" (1940) Seriocomic tale of a gang boss (Edward G. Robinson) returning from a vacation in Europe to find his mob has a new leader (Humphrey Bogart), but he escapes being rubbed-out by hiding in a monastery where he works as a gardener while plotting his come-back -- until he has a change of heart. Director Lloyd Bacon mixes some droll comedy and a bit of spiritual uplifting into a standard crime melodrama, with surprisingly agreeable results. Stylized violence and criminal menace.
"The Fugitive" (1947) Underrated screen version of Graham Greene's novel, "The Power and the Glory," about an all-too-human priest (Henry Fonda) who is hunted down by a puritanical officer (Pedro Armendariz) after the Mexican Revolution proscribes the free practice of religion. Director John Ford's flawed masterpiece uses deeply felt religious symbolism in telling the story of a weak man who, despite his fear of death, continues ministering to the spiritual needs of a poor community. Menacing atmosphere may be inappropriate for young children. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I -- general patronage.
"Henry Poole Is Here" (2008) Moving little fable of a depressed loner (Luke Wilson) whose life is changed when a warmhearted Latina busybody (Adriana Barraza) discerns a miraculous image of Christ's face on his stucco wall, after which he slowly opens up to her and the other neighbors: an empathetic widow (Radha Mitchell), her sad child (Morgan Lily), a nearsighted grocery clerk (Rachel Seiferth) and the local priest (George Lopez). Despite some formulaic turns and occasional platitudinous dialogue, director Mark Pellington sustains a suspenseful, sometimes poetic, generally unsentimental mood, not without humor, solidly anchored by Wilson whose transformation from spiritual emptiness to redemption is fully believable, with themes of faith and community strong plusses for the Catholic viewer. Two instances of profanity and a few crass words. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
"Lilies of the Field" (1963) When an itinerant jack-of-all-trades (Sidney Poitier) stops to help a group of German nuns newly arrived in New Mexico, his cheerful generosity is disdained by the stern, demanding Mother Superior (Lilia Skala) until he builds them a chapel with the aid of the local Mexican-American community. Directed by Ralph Nelson, the movie's simple little story of the triumph of faith coupled with good will has enormous charm in the winning performances of the two principals, some good-natured comedy and an infectious theme song that will leave viewers humming "Amen." The Catholic News Service classification is A-I -- general patronage.
"The Miracle of Marcelino" (1955) A foundling left at a Franciscan monastery in 19th-century Spain is spoiled by the attention of all the monks who raise him until, as a mischievous five-year-old (Pablito Calvo), the lad's disobedience leads to a miraculous encounter with the crucified Christ. Directed by Ladislao Vajda, the Spanish production's story of childhood innocence and the power of faith is told simply but with sincerity and good humor. Dubbed in English, the movie's miracle may tax the credibility of some, but all can enjoy its picture of a child in unusual circumstances. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I -- general patronage.
"Ordet" (1954) Challenging Danish production about different kinds of faith and various sorts of miracles, one of which restores a dead woman to life. Directed by Carl Dreyer, the austere narrative centers on a farming family troubled by the madness of a son (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who believes he is Jesus Christ until, regaining his balance, his faith in God achieves the miracle which brings the story to a positive though less than convincing conclusion some may find disappointingly ambiguous. Mature themes. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults.
"Three Godfathers" (1948) After robbing a bank, an outlaw trio (John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr.) pause to help a dying woman (Mildred Natwick) deliver her infant son on Christmas Eve, then take the babe with them as they are pursued across a desert wasteland. Dedicated by director John Ford to Western actor Harry Carey, Sr., the story may be unabashedly sentimental and the action romanticized, but its lyrical images and religious resonances celebrate the myth of the Old West and its rugged heroes with good hearts. Off-screen suicide of one of the principals.
"Wise Blood" (1980) Screen version of Flannery O'Connor's novel about a God-haunted young man (Brad Dourif) who on his way to Taulkinham, Tenn., to preach a new religion, meets such bizarre characters as a failed preacher pretending he is blind (Harry Dean Stanton), his mildly depraved daughter (Amy Wright) and a jovial evangelist (Ned Beatty). Director John Huston has made a powerful and provocative movie whose spiritual implications are as compelling as its artistic excellence. The incidental violence and moral complexity are more appropriate for adult viewers. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.