DVD Picks & Passes 05.03.2009

500 Years of St. Peter’s — Vatican History (2009) - Pick

Easter in Art (2009) - Pick

J.R.R. Tolkien ((1998) - Pass

The History of the Devil (1998) - Pass

DVD distributor Kultur Films has a number of new and recent documentaries of interest to Catholics, from highly pickable to totally passworthy.

Best is 500 Years of St. Peter’s — Vatican History, a one-hour documentary focusing on the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica over a span of 18 papal reigns lasting more than a century.

The title is an understatement: The film goes back to the Church’s roots, from Jesus’ choice of St. Peter as the Church’s foundation stone (ably expounded by Vatican chief historian Father Walter Brandmüller) to the burial of Peter in Rome under what is now the basilica altar — and the modern discovery of the tomb.

Computer-generated models reconstruct Constantine’s original church and the varying stages of the current basilica’s construction, with informative commentary on the contributions of Bramante, Michelangelo, Bernini and others. Bracketing occasionally dubious remarks from a strangely unnamed commentator, the documentary makes educational and edifying viewing.

Easter in Art, a 73-minute series narrated by art historian Tim Marlowe, is also worth catching, with qualifications. Again the title is too small: Triduum in Art would be better, since the three parts cover Holy Thursday to the Easter season.

Works from the patristic era to modernity are covered, with emphasis on Caravaggio, Tintoretto and Grünewald, as well as more unusual choices. Most are well chosen, with one major caveat: a bizarre “Last Supper” by notorious elephant-dung artist Chris Ofili involving 13 monkeys. A second dubious piece, a live-action homage to Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” is more pointless than offensive.

A few such issues aside, Marlowe generally provides solid scriptural, theological, historical and aesthetic context for the works displayed, making Easter in Art worth a look.

A third offering, J.R.R. Tolkien, takes a one-hour look at Tolkien’s life and work, from his early love of languages and friendship with C.S. Lewis to the phenomenal success of The Lord of the Rings. Interviewees include Tolkien’s son Christopher and biographer Humphrey Carpenter.

Unfortunately, the documentary barely mentions Tolkien’s ardent Catholicism and completely neglects the religious dimension of his work. Tolkien newbies might learn a thing or two, but fans, especially Catholics, will be disappointed.

Finally, The History of the Devil blends serious Scripture scholarship (snippets of N.T. Wright!) and legitimate historical criticism with demythologizing skepticism and finally flat-out anti-Christian apologetics. Belief in good and evil is systematically indicted for everything from torture to war, an actual Satanist talks about “what Satan means to me,” and heavy metal drones on the soundtrack. A retired Anglican bishop sums it all up: Let’s throw out belief in the devil. Unpleasant, worthless trash.

CONTENT ADVISORY: 500 Years of St. Peter’s: A fleeting quotation (from Michelangelo) about poorly lit churches as potential sites for “forging money and [attacking] nuns.” That aside, fine family viewing. Easter in Art: Some graphic visualizations of the Passion; a couple of tendentious bits involving dodgy works of art. Teens and up.