Seven years ago Tom Hoopes, writing in these pages, had his own original great list of “Ten Great Movies About Priests”. Since that time at least three new movies (see below) have come out, but there were seven other that would have made my own personal list of favorites. Note that Hoopes omitted foreign films, documentaries, and those “about” popes (all of which I’ve included here). Without further delay:
1. The Cardinal: Otto Preminger’s 1962 epic adaptation of Henry Morton Robinson’s novel of the same name. Despite its panoply of stars—John Huston, Romy Schneider, Ossie Davies, Burgess Meredith and Tom Tryon—the film was not a box-office “success”. However, it’s wonderfully filmed and mainly faithful to the book. The movie is so long that even on the DVD the movie comes with an intermission.
2. Into Great Silence: The 2006 Franco-German documentary that takes the viewer on a three-hour tour of La Grande Chartreuse— the “motherhouse” of all Carthusian monasteries. An unblinkered (and almost silent) look at what life as a Carthusian monk is really like. Never before has a film crew been inside any Charterhouse. It took the producers eighteen years of knocking at the monastery door before the monks finally let them in. A truly one-of-a-kind film.
3. Of Gods And Men: A French 2010 film about a group of Trappist monks living in Algeria. “Based on true events”, the movie does not shy away from the very real tensions between Catholic contemplatives and Islamic extremists in North Africa in the mid-1990s. Also shows how Christians and Muslims can (and do) get along in the Maghreb. Prestige point for trivia buffs: actor Michel Lonsdale, who plays the role of the doctor-monk, was the Benedictine abbot in The Name of the Rose (see below).
4. Mass Appeal: Jack Lemmon, Charles Durning and a very young (and skinny) Zeljko Ivanek star in this stage-play-turned-movie adaptation. At times the dialogue is stilted and the décor appallingly Anglican—the movie was filmed in an Episcopalian Church—but this 1984 cult-classic still has staying power. A look at what the Church was like in America during the post-Paul VI/early-St. John Paul II days when “Renew” was still all the rage. Can also be viewed as a “trialogue” between a Monsignor (Durning), parish priest (Lemmon), and deacon (Ivanek).
5. The Name of the Rose: Another movie that, despite a plethora of major-league stars—including Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, Sean Connery, Christian Slater, Ron Perlman, and the inimitable Bill Hickey—didn’t wind up a huge hit (though the book it is based on by Umberto Eco was an international bestseller in a dozen languages). Originally John Huston, who had to bow out due to ill health, was slated to star in the role given to Feodor Chaliapin, Jr. Though it contains an absolutely unnecessary sex scene that earned it an “R” rating, the1986 movie is beautifully filmed and, ultimately, a simple whodunit a la Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes”.
6. Messenger of the Truth: A 2014 documentary on the fearless Polish-priest Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, who was ultimately assassinated by Communist government agents in 1984. Though Martin Sheen’s voiceover can become overbearing, if not grating, for those of us who lived through the death throes of the Cold War, this is a must-see.
7. Romero: Raul Julia, in one of his finest and final roles, plays Archbishop Oscar Romero. Surprisingly and shockingly violent, especially even by American standards in 1989, the film opens our eyes to how violent and dangerous life is for Catholics south-of-the-border—even for archbishops who are not immune to being shot in the sanctuary.
8. The Shoes of the Fisherman: A completely preposterous premise, but with some good performances by legendary actors Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier, the action revolves around the election of a Russian to the papacy. Released in 1968, in a sense, the film “predicted” Karol Wojtyla’s election by about a decade.
9. Doubt: Like Mass Appeal, a stage-play-turned-into-a-movie. A priest-professor once told me that “great art doesn’t state, it suggests”. The “suggestions” in this 2008 film are disturbing and unsettling, but the performances—the hard-edged Meryl Streep as the almost heartless Mother Superior, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the creepy priest, and Amy Adams as the young postulant—build the action to a devastating conclusion.
10. Chocolat: Technically, there’s no priest in this movie. There is, however, a “failed” seminarian who acts as a sort of catalyst between the husband and wife who are stationed in French-controlled Cameroon around 1950, and without him there is no movie. This was Claire Denis’s first film (in 1988) and an incredibly singular effort on her part to create a quiet, beautiful film about apartheid in north Africa. Makes this list not so much because it is about a pries, but because I hope that others will find in it a silent beauty that we simply don’t find in many movies these days. It’s also the only movie directed by a woman on this list. Not to be confused with the 2000 film of the same name with Johnny Depp, Juliet Binoche and Judy Dench, which you can safely skip.