This year is the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Vatican’s list of 45 great films.
The list was complied by the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications in 1995 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the film industry. The list is divided into three categories containing 15 films each: Religion, Values, and Art.
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If you’re like us, you might often have trouble finding movies to watch that are both worthwhile and entertaining. We’ve found that nearly all the films on the Vatican Film List have fit those descriptions, so we’d like to explain why. Though many of the films are not specifically Christian, they all deal with themes relevant to Christians, and are all beautiful examples of film as art. They also exposed us to films made all over the world.
In this article, we address the films in the Values category, and in future articles we will discuss the other categories. We’ve ranked these films, the first being the one we think most worth seeing, and the fifteenth (while still worth seeing) being the least worthwhile. For each film, we briefly discuss its main themes, but we want to emphasize that films have a level of depth and artistry that are not reducible to themes or message.
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We don’t rate these movies according to moral content (though here is a link to the Catholic Bishops’ ratings). Most of the films have mature content, so we recommend looking into that before showing them to children.
1) The Burmese Harp (1953)
Directed by Kon Ichikawa, this Japanese film follows a squad of Japanese soldiers in Burma at the end of World War II, during their surrender to the British and their time as prisoners before being sent home. The British and Japanese soldiers have a common longing for home and peace, and through music they discover their brotherhood.
The strongest theme of the film is vocation: one soldier struggles between the desire to go home and the higher call he experiences to bury the dead soldiers whose bodies are scattered throughout the land. The soldier is Buddhist, but his experience of vocation is one that is universal to Christians and non-Christians. The film is beautifully shot, showing the suffering which war brings to a lovely land.
2) Rome Open City (1945)
This Italian neo-realism film, directed by Roberto Rossellini, was shot just after the American liberation of Rome using mostly nonprofessional actors, with whom Rossellini realistically depicts the human experience.
It powerfully shows what both the depravity of evil and loyalty to the good can make people do. The story takes place during the Nazi occupation of Rome, showing the Communist partisans and Catholic faithful fighting together for freedom. This movie contains the best Catholic priest character we have ever seen in movie, but also many other real characters extraordinary for their nobility.
3) Wild Strawberries (1957)
The Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, tells the story of a retired doctor facing death after a life of professional success but personal family failure.
The main story takes places during the events of one day, but skillfully incorporates significant memories from the life of the doctor, especially his childhood. The events he remembers, while seemingly insignificant when they occurred, shaped his character and the negative way in which he related to his family later in life. Yet, during the day on which the main events of the film occur, through an encounter with youth at the beginning of their adult life, he comes to a realization of his failure, and works to overcome them with the time that he has left.
What Bergman gives us here, shot on the spectacular Swedish coast, is real people: rooted in memory, fallen, but with the possibility of renewal and joy.
4) Bicycle Thieves (1949)
In this Italian film, director Vittorio De Sica genuinely portrays the sense of futility that human persons often have in their lives. The movie follows the plight of a man struggling to keep his family out of destitution through a new job. This job requires the use of a bicycle, but, on his first day of work, his bike is stolen. As he tries to find his stolen bicycle with the aid of his young son, circumstances beyond his control lead him to moments of desperation and despair.
We see how one person’s evil acts can lead to others contemplating evil acts that they would not normally consider. At the same time, this film is a powerful and tender portrayal of fatherhood.
5) The Decalogue (1988)
This is a set of ten Polish films by director Krzysztof Kieslowski, loosely themed around the Ten Commandments, each dealing with a moral struggle in the main characters.
We found it to be one of the most realistic portrayals of people in all their human messiness we had ever seen. Each film is morally serious, but does not provide any easy answers to moral problems for the viewer. The main characters of each film all live in a single apartment complex in late-Communist Poland, but in their daily struggles and joys they could be people anywhere in the modern world.
Of the ten films, the ones we found to be most worthwhile were: Number 2, which is about a women who became pregnant through an affair, believes her husband to be dying, and is considering an abortion; Number 5, which is about a disaffected youth who commits murder and faces the death penalty, and about the lawyer who represents him; Number 6, which is about a young man who spies on an attractive but promiscuous woman through a telescope, and believes himself to be in love with her; and Number 9, which is about a married couple in which the husband is impotent and suggests that his wife have an affair.
6) The Seventh Seal (1956)
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman earned his way onto the list again in this very philosophical film, set in Medieval Sweden, but with some very modern characters.
At the film’s opening, a knight and his squire return from a crusade to find the country overrun by the plague. The knight encounters Death, whom he challenges to a game of chess; the game continues as the knight and squire journey home, encountering other striking characters in an environment of suffering and dark late medieval piety.
The film vividly depicts the clash of worldviews among the characters: the knight seeking faith but struggling with doubt, the atheist squire, and a young family who sees the whole world as a vision of God. The film also has great artistic value in its impressive lighting and beautiful cinematography.
7) Au Revior Les Enfants (1988)
The title of this French film by director Louis Malle literally means “good-bye children.” The film is set at a Catholic boys’ boarding school in Nazi-occupied France. It starts as a very honest portrayal of adolescent boys’ lives. The boys are for the most part, entirely normal, but are continually reminded of the state of war in their country through air-raids, anti-Semitism, and rationed food.
Through its portrayals of the boys’ friendship and of the actions of a heroic priest, we believe that it presents the horror of the Holocaust better than any movie we have ever seen, without ever having shown a concentration camp or execution.
8) The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)
This is a simple Italian film directed by Ermanno Olmi, which shows what a distributist might think of as an ideal lifestyle.
It shows all aspects of late 19th century Italian peasant life over the course of a year in the characters’ lives, including the communal life of families, dependence on their landlord, the great joys of farming life combined with faith life, and the support the peasants provided each other. And while it shows all of these good things, it does not mask the hardships of peasant life caused by unexpected deaths, poverty, and injustice.
9) Gandhi (1982)
Some movies, like the 8 listed above, are great primarily through brilliant directing and filming, but others are made great by individual actors. While British director Richard Attenborough directs this movie well, it is Ben Kingsley’s ability to act Gandhi’s character from his youth to his death that make this movie so important to see.
We see how Gandhi led the Indian people against brutal British oppression through his persistent but nonviolent struggle for peace. Gandhi completely sacrificed himself for peace, justice, and love between people. His life as depicted here speaks to one’s conscience; watching his life is like watching the life of a saint.
10) Dersu Urzala (1975)
Japanese director Akira Kurosawa sets this film in the Siberian wilderness where we witness an unlikely and beautiful friendship between a Russian army captain and a native woodsman, Dersu Urzala, who is reminiscent of James Fenimore Cooper’s hero Natty Bumpo. Through their shared struggles and love of the wilderness, Dersu and the captain form a deep affection for each other despite their different backgrounds. The film shows the deep camaraderie of the soldiers through their common work.
It also depicts how civilization and city life cost us the loss of intimate contact with the natural world, without romanticizing the danger and hardships of life in the wilderness.
11) Chariots of Fire (1981)
Directed by Hugh Hudson, this British film tells the story of Britain’s 1924 Olympic track team. We found this film to be a good example of an inspiring sports story as it has more character depth than the average sports film. It honestly portrays the tension we face between worldly success, with its consequent isolation, and serving God. Through the character of Eric Liddell, this film beautifully portrays an incarnational and sacramental understanding of Christianity, especially in the line, “When I run, I feel His pleasure.”
God has given us our bodily gifts and speaks to us through them, for the glory of God is man fully alive, and even when we are not doing specifically religious things, God is still present and all good that we do honors Him.
12) On the Waterfront (1954)
Before we describe On the Waterfront, we want to make a note about the last four movies on this list. While the first 11 films present values in a nuanced way, these last four films are more overt, even at times preachy, in their depiction of values. The characters tend to be more types than the real people presented in the first l1 films, and these films suffer from melodramatic and sentimental themes. That being said, they are still well worth watching.
On the Waterfront, directed by American director Elia Kazan, takes place in a New Jersey port controlled by a criminal union, whose leaders work for their own advantage and do not let anyone stand in their way.
Through the course of the film, a physically strong but morally weak man, who “could’ve been a contender,” struggles to stand up to the union. He is backed by the moral support of a good woman and a strong priest, who is a model for all priests in that he puts his life on the line for the well being of his parishioners. The film shows how it only takes a few people to bring oppression to others, but likewise how the work of a few can bring real social justice.
13) Intolerance (1916)
This silent film by American director D.W. Griffith is a spectacular example of an epic film, with great sets and costumes. Using a nonlinear storyline, Griffith parallels four stories from four periods in history, showing the universality of betrayal, love, and heroically dying for a cause, including the story of the life of Christ. In each story, we see how pharisaical people do not consider the real needs and lives of others—hence the film’s name, “Intolerance.”
In the modern story told, we see the poor with a normal folk life having bureaucracy imposed on them. Though it is often overly moralistic and melodramatic, with sensationalized violence, the film shows how government control over private life leads to the degradation of morality and the standard of living—though ultimately no one is immune from oppressing and being oppressed.
14) Schindler’s List (1993)
American director Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List tells the story of a real man, Oskar Schindler, who, while seeking to make money as a business man, takes a human interest in the oppressed Jews in the Krakow ghetto and concentration camps.
In the film we see the extreme evil to which humans can sink when they leave their conscience unchecked, thereby spreading evil to others, but also the possibility for a morally vicious person to be somewhat transformed and do great good, leading many others to care for one another.
However, an issue we have with the film is that while it tries to treat the Holocaust with the reverence and care it deserves, it is compromised by its sensationalistic pornography of violence. By this we mean that when violence is shown to the extent that it is shown in this film it borders on being shown for the sake of entertainment, which runs the risk of objectifying the actual people who suffered and died.
15) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
This well-known film directed by Frank Capra is made great by the acting of Jimmy Stewart as a genuinely good man who resigns himself to having all of his life plans thwarted by his duty to his community and family. Sometimes vocation is more about doing one’s duty than fulfilling one’s desires. It is only when Stewart’s character submits entirely to his calling, and sees what good he has done for others in his life, that he realizes that his life has been worth living.
Another theme of the movie is limits: the limits of human knowledge and acts and the limits on wealth and control one needs to have. It embodies Catholic social teaching as it shows how small-scale local communitarian aid is better for the community than large-scale business, which tends to be greedy and oppressive.
Finally, please note that the Angelology of the film is controversial: we disagree with one another as to whether it could be in accord with Catholic orthodoxy.