The Oscars, ‘Oppenheimer’ and the Vatican Film List

Holy reel-igion offered from list commissioned by St. John Paul II!

Great book offers insights into the Vatican Film List of 1995.
Great book offers insights into the Vatican Film List of 1995. (photo: Courtesy photo/Shutterstock / Word on Fire/Shutterstock)

With the movie Oppenheimer stealing the show last night at the 96th Academy Awards, taking home seven Oscars, including “Best Picture,” “Best Actor,” “Best Director” and “Best Score” — a film addressing the true horrors of the atomic bomb — the impact and power inspiring cinema can have on our global conversation is a fascinating profundity. 

As Cillian Murphy noted while accepting his Oscar for “Best Actor,” “We made a film about the man who created the atomic bomb and for better or worse, we are all living in Oppenheimer’s world, so I would really like to dedicate this to the peacemakers everywhere.”

As so many turn to brush up on the films that won awards last night, movie aficionados should also consider the plethora of options from Pope John Paul II’s “Vatican Film List.” Published in 1995, it is a compilation of 45 films that are recommended viewing under the late Pontiff. 

Vatican-approved movie watching? That’s something we can all get behind. 

The marriage of faith and film is a beautiful venture as we are seeing in real time with the success of Cabrini, Father Stu and so many other films that try to bring the real toil and triumph of the human soul to life onscreen. As John Paul II stressed in “Letter to Artists,” “Art needs the Church, but the Church also needs art. Far from being opposed to each other, the two enjoy ‘a relationship offered in friendship, openness, and dialogue.’”

Of course, finding the time to watch every film on the list is a tall order indeed, so coming to every cinephile’s rescue is Popcorn With the Pope: A Guide to the Vatican Film List by David Paul Baird, Andrew Petiprin and Father Michael Ward. Offering in-depth essays, art and facts on every movie on the list, Baird told the Register that, first and foremost, he wanted to bring this book to the masses. “So many people have never heard of this list, or that the Vatican has ever had a kind of positive, encouraging view on popular culture generally and movies specifically.” 

As the book notes, the compilation of the list seems fitting coming from John Paul II, given his own work as a playwright, but “the Polish pope was not the first occupant of the chair of St. Peter to have such an interest. John XXIII founded the Vatican Film Library with the aim of collecting and preserving films on the life of the Church.”

Pope Francis, for his part, famously told Argentinian media he “hasn’t watched TV since 1990.” However, Babette’s Feast from 1987 may be one that our current Pontiff enjoys. “Pope Francis has named it his favorite film and even referred to it in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love),” Baird writes in the book. Its Eucharistic theme is timely ahead of the Eucharistic Pilgrimage and Congress this summer. 

“Just as Jesus gives himself under the appearances of bread and wine to his twelve disciples, so Babette lavishes everything she has, all her money and skill, on a dozen dinner guests,” the book explains. “Just as the Eucharist is a communion that brings life and peace to those who partake, so Babette’s meal inspires her neighbors to forgive one another and revivify their community.”

For Petiprin, this movie soars above all the others on the Vatican list. “If I had to pick one film from the ‘Vatican Film List’ that both epitomizes what the list is all about and is also an accessible way into exploring the rest of the list, I would pick Babette's Feast. It is beautiful, engaging, deep but relatively uncomplicated, and thoroughly Catholic without trying to be. It is also a European film, of which the list has a great many offerings; and for my part, European cinema has always been more interested in the life of the spirit than most American movies.”

The Vatican’s list also includes several movies that are American classics, including It’s a Wonderful Life; The Wizard of Oz; Citizen Kane; an animated film, Disney’s Fantasia; and even a horror flick, Nosferatu. And each essay in the book picks up each one, offering “a one-sentence synopsis so people can know what they're getting into. And then offers a maybe five- or six-page essay that is meant to be a kind of ramp-up to the film,” Baird told the Register. “Mostly, the point is to help readers get into, and to appreciate, the sometimes subtle, cinematic and artistic things that are going on in these different films; and, finally, to help readers to reflect theologically on these films.” 

This dialogue continues around the dinner table, in the office, especially today as so many are chatting about the big winners from last night. Oppenheimer does seem to be one of the most intriguing films and high on the list of Petiprin, who recommended it to the Register (viewer caveat: sex scenes, nudity, language and adult themes, including infidelity and suicide), saying: 

Oppenheimer is definitely worth seeing. Christopher Nolan makes technically flawless movies, and Oppenheimer is a profound critique of the excesses of scientism and a technocratic paradigm that has little time for metaphysics. It is long, but I have not talked to anyone who has seen it who was not on the edge of his or her seat the whole time,” adding, “Cillian Murphy’s performance as the title character and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Lewis Strauss are both deserving of the acclaim they have received.”

It's distressing at times looking for films of high caliber amidst the muck that gets more publicity typically, but unearthing great films and shedding light on them is important. As Petiprin said, “In an age of distraction and addiction, we must seek experiences that offer a sense of a shared encounter with something edifying. Liturgy does this, and, not surprisingly, the Mass remains one of the few places left on earth where individual phone use is at least frowned upon, if not forbidden.” But cinema also opens up an opportunity.

“Movie-watching has sadly become a mostly solitary activity, often experienced with constant distractions; but movies are meant to be experienced like liturgy, live music or meals. When we attend to the art form together — even where the films are only aiming to entertain — our souls may be elevated above the fray of the atomized, digital age. For Popcorn With the Pope, we included discussion questions for each film in the hope that families and church groups would watch the films together with their full attention and then discuss what they have seen, like a book club or a Bible study.”

Baird, a film critic himself, says most of the films on the “Vatican Film List” deal with “big, tough, complicated human things from history” and can offer a lens into a moral truth. “My sense is that a lot of us, without really realizing it, have grown up in our cinematic lives basically doing the equivalent of always eating ... something that’s fast and easy. It has like instant gratification; maybe makes us feel a little gross afterwards. But you know, that’s just part of what you do when you go [for fast food]  or you sit down and watch a movie. Whereas there’s this whole other universe of movies, a grand cinema-scape of really nourishing, delicious, cinematic fair. And I think one of the great things that this book can do is just introduce people to a small sampling of the possibilities.”

Of course fast-food fare does seem to abound amidst tiny glimmers of hope in films that go deeper, but movies can elevate in different ways. The Oscar-nominated Barbie took over the internet with themes on gender and feminism this past year, but Popcorn with the Pope points to a film gem from 1933 from the “Vatican Film List”: Little Women, based on the book by Louisa May Alcott. The production was groundbreaking for not only being an early “talkie,” but also in showcasing females as the main characters.

Baird shared his favorite Oscar contender: “I can recommend Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, on the grounds of sheer spectacle alone — it and its prequel represent some of the most stylish and captivating animation coming out today.”

Gravitating to art, whether it be books, art or film, offers an opportunity to grow and foster a deeper sense of ourselves inside the relationships we have, both temporal and eternal, as Baird told the Register: “A great movie, like any other great work of art, can expand our experience, broaden our sympathies, and invite us into a deeper appreciation of the mysteries in our lives. We then might go on to live more beautifully, and, by extension, become better friends and more attractive witnesses to truths we all live with but perhaps seldom slow down enough to notice.” 

After sifting through the film list, is there a recipe for good film to be found? Baird told the Register that, first and foremost, movies should have an important message to convey. “I think a lot of the films that we see coming out today are masterfully crafted, really compelling stories, but often fall down on the first criterion of having something worthy of saying or a perspective that enriches us as viewers.”

Out of all the films on the “Vatican Film List,” Baird highly recommends two — although he did admit the question was a tall order: 

“If I could really only pick one, it might be Andrei Rublev, an artistic masterpiece, which some critics have praised as the War and Peace of Russian cinema; or The Leopard, which is an absolutely gorgeous, lavish take on the final days before the birth of the modern Italian state. All right, that’s two, but I told you it was hard to choose!”

Father Ward, who also contributed to the book, recommends the classic Chariots of Fire that many moviegoers hold near and dear to their hearts. “There’s something mysteriously effective and stirring about it,” Father Ward told the Register. 

“It’s that rare thing: a film without a villain. Most movies have the hero facing off against an antagonist, but, here, the story is about two young British athletes in the 1924 Olympics who, though rivals, aren’t enemies. Each man has his distinct way of achieving greatness. Harold Abrahams wins success through effort, technical skill, and a proper self-assertion. Eric Liddell wins through passion, amateur enthusiasm, and gracious self-abandonment to Providence. And it’s not an either/or situation. We don’t have to choose one over the other. Both figures are admirable. There’s a completeness and a realism about the whole thing. In theological terms, you could say it’s about nature and grace working in harmony, but that’s to make it sound moralizing and preachy. As it’s presented, it’s just a powerful double portrait of interesting and engaging characters. The music also is simply fantastic!”

As Baird said, “Watching one of these older, unfamiliar films is a great way to slow down and soak in a new perspective on the world — all the better when enjoyed in good company!”

Below is a condensed list of some of the Register's favorites, including some thoughts shared from the movie-minded Baird, Petiprin and Father Ward. Make some popcorn, and curl up with your loved ones and enjoy some Vatican-approved movies!


The Gospel According to St. Matthew: A portrayal of the life of Jesus Christ based on texts from St. Matthew’s Gospel selected by director Pier Paolo Pasolini. (1964)

A Man for All Seasons: After King Henry VIII declares himself head of the Church in England, Sir Thomas More must choose whether to support him or refuse — and risk losing his life. (1966)

 The Mission: Jesuit missionaries to South America in the eighteenth century struggle to preserve a religious outpost against the political hostility of Portugal and Spain and the prudential interests of the wider Catholic Church. (1986

The legendary film composer Ennio Morricone remarked that he only ever wept in public twice: once when he met Pope Francis, and once, years earlier, when he first saw The Mission, for which he wrote the acclaimed soundtrack. Tears and The Mission go well together, as we shall see.

The Passion of Joan of Arc: In fifteenth-century France, Joan of Arc is put on trial for heresy by cruel accusers but remains committed to the mission the Lord has given her and dies a martyr. A teenage heroine of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France and a mystic guided by heavenly visions, Joan of Arc is a woman whose story continues to inspire and perplex the world. (1928)


Au Revoir les Enfants: A beautiful coming-of-age story, where upper-class boys adapt to the everyday realities of life in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France. (1986)

Bicycle Thieves: A paradigmatic example of Italian neorealism in which a man and his son traverse an impoverished, war-stricken Rome in pursuit of a stolen bicycle. (1949)

Chariots of Fire: Based on real-life events at the 1924 Olympics, a pair of British athletes contend with social pressures as they prepare to run for king and country.

The first words of the screenplay for Chariots of Fire are taken from the Old Testament Scriptures: “Let us praise famous men and our fathers that begat us” (Sir. 44:1). This biblical opening not only strikes a religious note that will continue throughout the movie but also establishes its celebratory and commemorative, even somewhat nostalgic, tone. This is a story about heroic figures from the past and the different ways in which they showed their greatness.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Christmas classic in which George Bailey of Bedford Falls, New York, is shown by an angel what the world would be like if he had never been born. (1946)

Directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas movie about individual human dignity, demonstrating that every life matters and that one person’s sacrifices can make a world of difference. It is also a story about the divine gift of life in community and the transforming power of human solidarity.

On the Waterfront: A dock worker and reluctant hoodlum in mid-twentiethcentury New York City fights against the undertow of the local underworld. (1954)

Schindler’s List: The true story of a profit-minded industrialist torn between colluding with the Nazis and his desire to rescue Jews working in his factory. (1993)

The Tree of Wooden Clogs: A deeply reverent depiction of pre-industrial Italian peasant life. 

This film accomplishes what some would call impossible: it is an Italian neorealist drama that is genuinely enjoyable to watch. Carrying on in the tradition of Rome, Open City and Bicycle Thieves, it offers a naturally lit, nonprofessionally acted, documentary-like chronicle of the plight of the poor—and it does so like one untimely born, several decades after the influential style fell from fashion. To be sure, from a bald summary of its action, The Tree of Wooden Clogs has no right to be even a quarter as interesting as it is.


: A freewheeling, self-referential foray into the manic day-to-day of a movie director trying to figure out what film he is making. 

By turns confusing and luminous, chaotic and assiduously crafted, self-indulgent and self-accusatory, Federico Fellini’s 8½ is one of the great films about making a film. A tragedy that charges intrepidly upon the barricades of farce, it is also a kind of lament for lost love, purity, and innocence that offers a privileged look both into an artist’s creative process and a disordered soul’s existential predicament. Intriguing in its mixture of beauty and ugliness, such a virtuoso portrayal of a morally reprehensible life would probably be unbearably pretentious if it were not so disarmingly self-exposing.


2001: A Space Odyssey: A groundbreaking science fiction story that begins at the dawn of humanity, depicts an expeditionary crew on a spaceflight to Jupiter with a sentient computer, and concludes with a mystical exploration of human destiny. (1968)

Kubrick’s research on the physics of people and objects in motion was impeccable, creating the film’s elegant look that paved the way for Star Wars and a whole new generation of cinematic sci-fi.


Citizen Kane: A riveting, unsettling tale of massive wealth, titanic ambition, and the seemingly inevitable unhappiness they bring.

Fantasia: A unique film experience in which a series of classical masterworks played by a symphony orchestra accompany vivid sequences of Disney animation.

It is the only animated film on the Vatican List, but it stands tall among the other masterpieces of cinema in terms of its lasting influence. And in a world where many of the most popular entertainment offerings deliberately aim at the lowest common denominator, Fantasia stands out all the more in the way it draws everyone up, perhaps even as high as the things of heaven.

The Lavender Hill Mob: One of the best of the celebrated comedies from Britain’s Ealing Studios, in which a modest London bank clerk conspires with three other men to steal a shipment of gold bullion and convert it into models of the Eiffel Tower.

Little Women: An adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel following the fortunes of the March family’s four daughters as they grow up in nineteenth-century New England.

Metropolis A compelling early science fiction dystopia. (silent film)

Modern Times: Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp struggles to find his way in the world of modern industry and business, until he finds friendship and leaves it all behind.

It was inevitable—and entirely right—that the Vatican Film List should include at least one movie by Charlie Chaplin, the celebrated British actor, director, writer, and producer. If the cultural legacy of the first century of cinema could be summed up by a single representative figure, perhaps the strongest contender would be Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp. The Tramp made his debut in 1914 and went on to appear in numerous short films and feature-length titles, becoming in the process something of a universal folk hero.


Napoléon: A silent historical epic portraying—in technically innovative ways and at great length—the early life and career of Napoleon Bonaparte.


Nosferatu: An old-timey adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Most likely to interest more as a quaint relic from cinematic history than as anything particularly frightening, this silent and in many ways over-the-top example of the horror genre (the only to appear on the Vatican List) is probably best enjoyed like a piece of music: at the level of sensation and suggestion. 

The Wizard of Oz: Kansas teenager Dorothy Gale is carried off in a tornado to an enchanted land, where she and her fantastical companions learn lessons in virtue and gratitude on their journey.

The Wizard of Oz epitomizes the Golden Age of Hollywood. Starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and a huge cast of other characters, The Wizard of Oz, adapted from the 1900 novel by L. Frank Baum, remains a beloved classic whose musical numbers have become deeply ingrained in modern Western culture. Even today, many of us are taken aback the moment Dorothy steps out of the black-and-white world of her destroyed midwestern farmhouse and into the astonishing technicolor.