Weekly Video Picks

Faustina (1995)

Recently released on DVD, Polish di rector Jerzy Lu kaszewicz's beautifully made film on the life of St. Faustina Helena Kowalska (Dorota Segda) belongs on a very short list of deeply spiritual portraits of faith and religion, alongside such films as Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest.

One unique aspect of Faustina is the directness of its approach to the saint's visionary experiences. Unlike such films as Jesus of Nazareth or The Song of Bernadette, which carefully set up depictions of the miraculous to engage the viewer's suspension of disbelief, this film throws us right into the thick of Faustina's experiences, prompting us to take the story on its own terms. It's a surprisingly successful approach, aided by gorgeous cinematography and a haunting score.

Like many mystics and visionaries, Faustina is viewed with doubt and skepticism by peers, superiors, confessors — even a psychiatrist. Yet Faustina resists reducing any of these characters to one-dimensional opponents or obstinate skeptics. For the most part, they're simply exercising reasonable prudence. (Note the bishop's insightful comments about the Church's characteristic caution.)

In fact, watching Faustina's confessor trying to cope with her increasingly lengthy and complicated confessions, one can't help feeling sorry for these hapless ordinary people unlucky enough to have to judge and govern a saint.

Content advisory: Nothing objectionable. In Polish with subtitles.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

L ' Chaim! Life itself, joyous and tragic, is the subject of the boisterous, comic, heartbreaking vision of Fiddler on the Roof. In this tale of rural life in a Ukrainian village on the eve of the Russian Revolution are faith and struggle, happiness and suffering, passionate youth and tired old age, idealism and practicality, money and poverty, compromise and conviction and, above all, constancy and change.

The themes are universal, but the sensibility is distinctively Jewish. The story of Tevye the milk-man and his daughters living in Anatevka began as a series of short stories by Ukranian writer Sholom Aleichem before becoming a stage musical in the 1960s, and the production rings with echoes of the questioning of Job (Tevye's tart one-way dialogues with God), of the exuberance of Song of Songs (“Miracle of Miracles”) and of the eternal verities of Ecclesiastes (the haunting chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset”).

Director Norman Jewison (a Gentile whose surname is of English origin) shrewdly cast Palestinian-born Jewish actor Topol as Tevye, passing over the popular Zero Mostel, who originated the role on Broadway. Topol carries the film effortlessly on his broad, round shoulders and makes the quietly bittersweet “Do You Love Me?” as memorable as the raucous “If I Were a Rich Man.” A true classic.

Content advisory: Comic drunkenness; a scene involving semi-macabre nightmare-horror imagery that might frighten children.

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Most of us, even the most honest, notice occasionally how vulnerable the systems and institutions around us are to fraud, theft and abuse. In the checkout line at the supermarket or going through an airport security check, we spot ways of beating the system.

When British screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke approached the Bank of England for advice on a plausible way for a trusted bank employee to steal a million pounds' worth of gold, the bank responded enthusiastically, making an investigation into the subject. Their conclusions went into Clarke's Oscar-winning screenplay for The Lavender Hill Mob, one of the best-regarded of Ealing Studios' drolly subversive British crime comedies featuring Alec Guinness. (Other entries include Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers.)

Guinness plays a diffident clerk named Holland who bides his time for years looking for a way to get away with stolen gold. The humor lies partly in reversal of stereotypes, as mild-mannered Holland aspires to the role of criminal mastermind.

Though it's far from a morality tale, a neat crime-doesn't-pay twist is more than the mere “sop to the censors” one writer unfairly labeled it, since it makes for a satisfying twist and a memorable final image. One of the 15 films on the Vatican film list in the Art category.

Content advisory: Brief comic drunkenness; comic depiction of grand larceny.