The release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was a fascinating moment — not for art or film history, but because it spurred Christians, once again, to debate what constitutes a good religious movie. 

But with new religious movies ranging from an upcoming retelling of the Exodus with Christian Bale to a St. Catherine of Alexandria biopic, Decline of an Empire, which was released straight to DVD/Blu-ray/streaming this month, it is timely to consider how Catholics can inform the culture through movies that have both aesthetic quality and religious integrity. 

The newly canonized St. John Paul II, himself an actor, meditated on what makes a good — in the philosophical sense — work of art. Filmmakers and filmgoers should take his words to heart.

Pope St. John Paul II said in his 1999 “Letter to Artists”: “Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning. That is why the Gospel fullness of truth was bound from the beginning to stir the interest of artists, who by their very nature are alert to every epiphany of the inner beauty of things.” 

St. John Paul II makes several vital points here. First, for a work of art to be authentic, it must address the core issues of humanity. Secondly, genuine art is true to the nature of God and humanity and manifests its truthfulness by its awareness of beauty. While St. John Paul II’s letter was addressed to artists in general, his ideas can be considered in regard to film. He spoke of art philosophically, but his concepts are applicable to specific media.

St. John Paul II argues for two signal virtues for art: truthfulness and beauty. But in regard to film, how often does the Christian audience settle for a lack of vices?  Christian movies are often applauded for what they don’t have: vulgarity, pornography and gratuitous violence. However, a lack of vices — bland inoffensiveness — doesn’t equal virtue. Simple aspiration and pure intentions don’t constitute a great film.

Using St. John Paul II’s principles of truth and beauty, a religious movie requires a truthful message, illustrating the reality of man and God. It also needs high production values, illuminating the beauty of truth. 

In addition, a religious film must respect its audience, showing an appreciation for both their intelligence and the complexities of human experience. Respecting the audience may seem irrelevant to what St. John Paul II is saying in his letter, but it is at the core of his message, which has the highest vision of the human person. For St. John Paul II, man being created in the image of God is at the root of human dignity.

By failing to respect their audiences, condescending religious movies don’t rise to St. John Paul II’s standards. “Talking down” to the audience is hardly winsome, let alone evangelistic. It contrasts with St. Paul at the Areopagus, where he spoke to the Athenians about their unknown God: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22). St. Paul didn’t patronize; he challenged them, showing how they could go deeper in belief.

Movies are art when they have compelling messages and commitment to a truthful moral and aesthetic viewpoint. The strength of their messages is rooted in scriptural truth about God and humanity. But they complete the necessary virtues of good art by treating not only the audience, but also the characters, as fully human, rather than one-dimensional melodramatic caricatures. Their piety isn’t an excuse for a poor script or acting. This is respecting the audience’s intellect and heart.

But St. John Paul II also tells us authentic art must be rooted in the truth generally.  A comprehensive appreciation of truth makes art timeless. In a hashtag-driven society, trends are ephemeral.

But genuine art endures, be it Notre Dame Cathedral, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, Bernini’s depiction of St. Teresa of Avila in ecstasy, J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion or Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Beauty, too, is essential to art; it speaks profoundly to the human spirit. It exemplifies God’s intelligence and perfection. Philosophically, beauty is paired with truth and goodness. Bella and Spitfire Grill are pro-life films that were made on a shoestring, but they don’t look cheap. 

Franco Zeffirelli drew on artistic masterpieces in Jesus of Nazareth; though it was made for television, it surpassed its genre. Likewise, The Passion of the Christ referenced great works of art, such as those of Caravaggio.

Nevertheless, respect for the audience, truthful messages and high production values are insufficient for religious movies unless they strike the right tone, which respects faith.

It is easy to list vintage films that gave homage to what used to be called “the virtue of religion”: Classic films like The Bells of St. Mary’s, The Song of Bernadette, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Reluctant Saint all reflect the virtue of religion. This virtue, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2014), “derives from the very dignity of the human person.” 

Current movies, though, have a desperate need to be hip, and the virtue of religion doesn’t qualify as cool; movies often relativize good and evil. 

However, in a film based on Scripture, Hollywood’s need to be hip and ironic is more troubling. For instance, many find Noah to be a dark and ironic take that fails to take Scripture, let alone God, seriously. (To read a thoughtful take on the film, see Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus’ articles at NCRegister.com.)

Like Pontius Pilate, today’s irony asks cynically, via John 18:8, “What is truth?”

Respecting religious faith counters this ironic darkness by asserting the truth and beauty of God’s greatness with confidence and Christian joy. It insists that Truth is knowable and that there is real happiness in this Truth. Artists should have a spirit of joy enlivening their work, and this is a responsibility for filmmakers as well.

St. John Paul II in his “Letter to Artists” invoked the Holy Spirit, saying, “The Spirit is the mysterious Artist of the universe. … Overseeing the mysterious laws governing the universe, the divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power.” 

The Holy Spirit makes the spiritual concrete, be it the Incarnation in Our Lady’s womb or the birth of the Church at Pentecost. 

In a similar way, the Spirit enables artists to reflect God’s glory. Through the Spirit, artists are co-creators with God.

Historically, the Catholic Church has been a leader in the arts. Catholics need good movies, not only to enliven their own faith, but also to evangelize others. As St. Paul says in Philippians 4:8, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious — if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Anna Abbott writes from
Napa, California; she
studied art history and
classical studies in college.