Weekly Video Picks

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Mel Gibson wasn't the first filmmaker to conceive of a feature film devoted to Christ's passion. Carl Dreyer, director of The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of the greatest films of the silent era and a Vatican film list honoree, planned such a film for 10 years, but died before realizing his vision. Gibson's vision is utterly different from Dreyer's, yet his film, like The Passion of Joan of Arc, brings into agonizing focus the sufferings of an individual persecuted by religious authorities. Also like Dreyer's film, Gibson's Passion must be watched in contemplative, chastened spirit, as when praying the sorrowful mysteries or the way of the cross. In fact, Gibson's film is the way of the cross, as expanded and glossed by a number of older mystical writers, and by Gibson himself.

The horrific brutality is grueling to watch, yet the film establishes from the outset the reason for Christ's sacrifice, and is shot through with Marian, eucharistic and redemptive imagery, including a visual Divine Mercy allusion when Christ's side is pierced. Thanks to Gibson's inspired decision to film in Aramaic and Latin, Jesus (Jim Caviezel) and other Gospel figures are for the first time since the silent era unencumbered by the burden of English or some other modern language.

Content advisory: Extreme passion narrative brutality; some frightening and disturbing imagery. Subtitles.

The Leopard (1963)

Unavailable on home video until its recent DVD release, The Leopard is one of the Vatican film list's 15 films in the Art category. Based on the acclaimed Italian novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Luchino Visconti's masterpiece is a lavish epic elegy of the decline of the Italian aristocracy in the final stages of the 19th-century Italian unification. Jeff Shannon of Amazon.com calls it “an Italian equivalent to Gone With the Wind,” a rough-and-ready in-a-nutshell description that is not without merit: Both films are elegiac wartime epics lamenting the passing of an elegant and aristocratic way of life, both are based on popular novels, and both deal with elevated soap-opera-like goings-on. Also, with both films there was scandal over the unconventional casting of the leading man, who was reluctant to accept the iconic role.

In The Leopard, this was Burt Lancaster as the aging Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio. Visconti was obligated to cast a Hollywood star in order to secure needed financial backing, but Lancaster came through majestically, bringing formidable presence and melancholy to the role of a still-virile great man who sees the writing on the wall. The film's spectacular final act, a nearly hour-long ballroom extravaganza, ranks among the grandest cinematic set pieces of all time.

Content advisory: Mature themes including unchastity and romantic complications; a scene of urban revolutionary violence. Subtitles.

I Confess (1953)

Newly released on DVD, Hitchcock's under-rated I Confess may not quite rank with his greatest masterpieces, but it offers the single most compelling variation on Hitchcock's favorite theme, the innocent man wrongly accused. In most variations, the wrongly accused protagonist's general decency (as opposed to his innocence of the specific crime in question) is a dramatic convenience, not an integral plot point. In principle, there's no reason the circumstances and mistaken suspicions that ensnared, say, the hero of The Man Who Knew Too Much couldn't just as easily have befallen a scoundrel as a decent citizen.

By contrast, in I Confess, based on the play by Paul Anthelme, the whole dilemma turns on the protagonist's principles, apart from which he could clear his name and finger the real culprit any time he wishes. That's because he is a Catholic priest and the identity of the culprit is known to him from the confessional, so the murderer's identity is protected by the sacramental seal. Celibacy and anointing of the sick also figure in the deeply Catholic story.

At a time when a shadow of suspicion has fallen on many innocent priests, this film's themes, and its humanizing depiction of a clergyman who is both virtuous and also more complicated than a mere stereotype of piety, are especially resonant.

Content advisory: Sometimes deadly violence and gunplay; romantic complications.