10 great Catholic films

From Dreyer to Scorsese: to hail the release of Marco Bellocchio’s new papal drama Kidnapped, we survey the broad church that is Catholicism on screen.

18 April 2024

By Georgina Guthrie

Kidnapped (2023)

If there’s one scene to help non-Catholics understand Catholic cinema, it’s Harvey Keitel’s titular Bad Lieutenant (1992) arguing with a colleague in a carpark after a coke binge. “The church is a racket.” “So what? Are you a Catholic?” “I’m a Catholic”, he says, staring the guy down.

Unlike other denominations, where membership is built on personal decision and active participation, being Catholic isn’t necessarily spiritual, nor something you choose. It’s a unified cultural identifier rooted in sacrament, iconography and tradition, all prescribed by one single body: the Church. Whether Italian, American, Brazilian or French, practising or not, there’s a communal language that runs through entire communities. It’s why Abel Fererra and Martin Scorsese’s films are populated with morally bankrupt men who nevertheless hang crucifixes on their walls.

But there’s more to Catholic cinema than reluctant belonging. It’s an enormous and richly varied canon, ranging from saintly dramatisations to sensationalist thrills. Many of the most revered directors identified as members (Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Bresson, John Ford to name a few), which technically means their creations – often dealing with penance, redemption, sacrifice and guilt – could be classed as such, even when not overtly religious.

Other films anticipate a degree of familiarity from viewers. In José Mojica Marins’ At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), the first in his Coffin Joe trilogy, the undertaker protagonist chuckles at a church procession while tearing chunks off some roast lamb. To the average viewer, this looks like a good time — but to the devout, red meat (lamb, no less) on a Friday is sacrilege. It’s not necessarily about Catholicism, so much as made for an audience whose understanding of the rules and rituals adds deeper meaning.

Marco Bellocchio’s new film Kidnapped, a true-political crime drama about a young boy forcibly taken from his family by the Papal States and raised Catholic, examines the darker side of imposed beliefs and institutional power run amok. To celebrate its UK release, here are 10 more films that span the broad church that is Catholicism. Since nuns and the Troubles have already been covered, this list focuses on more overtly religious offerings. There are some painful omissions: The Exorcist (1973), The Devil’s Playground (1976), Roberto Rossellini’s joyful The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), Robert Greene’s experimental Procession (2021) – all excellent, and many more besides. 

Kidnapped is in cinemas from 26 April.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Director: Carl Dreyer

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Carl Dreyer was an ideological conservative who rarely spoke about personal faith — but that didn’t stop him making one of the most visually radical, powerful religious films ever made. A creation that was, with typical irony, censored by Catholics and later destroyed in a fire. Since then, it’s been mashed together using various fragments until a complete version materialised in a Norwegian mental hospital in its original packaging.

Shot in a series of searingly intimate closeups, the film shows Joan’s (Renée Jeanne Falconetti) reactions as the ecclesiastical court attempts to prove her heresy. Following a major restoration, the film has never looked better; the vivid picture clear enough to show the down on Joan’s cheeks, the blazing whites and deep shadows, her tear-streaked face transfixed with pain. Its brilliance is well known, and for good reason – it’s a taut work of bracing contrasts; of red-hot violence and the chill of sated bloodlust. “You burned a saint,” shouts one man as a flock of crows scatter to the empty heavens.

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

Director: Henry King

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

Director Henry King converted to Catholicism in 1924 after making his second feature, Romola, that year. His adaptation of Saint Bernadette’s story is disarmingly earnest in its spirituality, closely following the 1941 novel of the same name by Franz Werfel, a Jewish refugee who vowed to write the book if he and his wife safely escaped to the US.

Bernadette Soubirous (played by Jennifer Jones in the film) reportedly experienced 18 visions of the virgin Mary from February to July 1858 before being posthumously canonised in 1933. Ridiculed by authority yet with a growing following of believers, her story unfolds amid crushing scepticism from family, villagers and government officials (headed by imperial prosecutor Vital Dutor, played by the oily voiced Vincent Price). It’s a theologically intelligent, richly moving film that takes a humanistic stance, sympathetically chronicling various opposing forces and the nature of faith-fuelled resistance. Like many entries on this list, the more anguished moments come when God’s overwhelming silence threatens to snuff out that fragile glimmer of hope.

Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinema is populated with professionally inscrutable men. He’s best known for his chronicles of lowlife gangsters, but Léon Morin, Priest sees the director depart in some respects via a protagonist of socially acceptable morals (superbly played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in an against-type role). And yet, is it a departure? Compare rigid criminal codes with religious doctrine; spartan bedsits with austere clerical apartments; the ubiquitous hitman trench coat and snap-brim hat with unchanging black cassocks, and it soon assumes a very familiar shape.

Emmanuelle Riva plays Barney, a sexually frustrated young widow during the French resistance. One morning, she attends confession to bait a priest. Much to her surprise, he engages her in conversation. Naturally, she falls in love. It’s one of Melville’s finest; a work of uncharacteristic female sympathy, offering potent sensuality heightened by unconsummated desire — yet his trademark undertow of austere solitude remains. Léon may be warm and loquacious, but his Bible has the icy, unyielding power of a gun, and he’s as attached to it as Le Samouraï’s Jef Costello is to his revolver.

The Given Word (1962)

Director: Anselmo Duarte

The Given Word (1962)

Anselmo Duerte won the 1962 Palme d’Or for his tale of Zé (Leonardo Villar) who makes a vow to Saint Barbara in exchange for a fresh bill of health for his ailing donkey. Mule miraculously healed, he sets off to Salvador with crucifix and wife in tow.

While the majority of Brazilians identify as Catholic, there’s much diversity within the faith. This includes traditional practices alongside a blend of African-Brazilian religions like Candomblé through syncretism, where Catholic saints are identified with African deities. Zé’s pilgrimage ultimately reaches an ignoble end as the priest of the church refuses him entry due to the ‘pagan’ nature of his promise. It’s a beautifully shot film, blending themes of exploited innocence with a clash of cultures. What it lacks in character development, it makes up for in style: the denouement is a cacophonic climax of individualistic fervour disguised as ideology; a microcosmic battle for cultural and spiritual dominance that plays out on the cathedral steps.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s biblical epic offers a surprisingly straight retelling of the book of Matthew — surprisingly because this is the future director of Salò (1975); a Marxist, gay atheist known for his political outspokenness. Anticipating sacrilege, a crowd gathered at the premiere to boo the artist, but ended up cheering him when the film was over. It later went on to win the Grand Prize at the International Catholic Film Office, garnering praise from a Vatican City newspaper no less. So what interest did Pasolini have in the book of Matthew? In his own words: “I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”

Visually, it’s as bracing as a glass of ice-cold water. There’s an interesting contrast between the classical subject matter and Pasolini’s use of a more earthy handheld camera, with Christ’s trials shot in stark yet lived-in cinéma vérité style. As with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, so much of what is said is said through the eloquence of faces. Here, they are often blankly staring into the camera, as if to invite the audience to project the depths of their own soul into the picture.

The Nun (1966)

Director: Jacques Rivette

The Nun (1966)

No self-respecting list of Catholic films is complete without a nun flick. Sitting somewhere between the lurid thrills of The Devils (1971) and the more stately (though no less erotic) Black Narcissus (1947) is this oblique entry from French New Wave auteur Jacques Rivette. As with a lot of nunsploitation cinema, the sealed-off setting becomes a stage for repressed lusts and Sadean brutality – but where more fetishistic offerings turn these elements into tawdry thrills, Rivette’s drama offers a more intellectual look at the contrast between faith and institutionalised religion.

Suzanne, on the brink of becoming a nun, recoils from her vows, uncovering a family secret: she’s an illegitimate daughter, and her mother wants to hide her in a convent. Her fight for freedom becomes a battle against religious orthodoxy as she faces alternating cruelty, desire and smothering maternal concern from three superiors, each radicalised by doctrine. It’s a deeply unsettling film, with the look of a made-for-TV play, filled with echoes, howling wind and deep shadows. Dim lighting and low saturation colours add to the mood of suffocating misery (made all the more striking in the recent restoration) in this tale of church-sanctioned cruelty.

Salesman (1969)

Directors: David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin and Albert Maysles

Salesman (1969)

Shot in the vérité style, this American documentary classic follows four salesmen who drive around New England and Florida peddling big bibles to lethargic lower-middle-class housewives. The ornate books cost $50 (payable in monthly instalments) – a lot when wages were, on average, $3 an hour.

The narrative zooms in on Paul Brennan, a middle-aged Irish-American Catholic. Equal parts admirable and despicable, he blithely commodifies his Irish heritage, Catholic faith and working class struggles in a culture where everything’s for sale, and the sale is everything. The film’s denouement – a sales gathering in Chicago – is a staggeringly un-self-aware affair: “There are many people who can quote from the bible. But you’re somewhat different – you know the business”, says one speaker, before eloquently blending Luke 2:14 with the American dream, seamlessly swapping faith in God with faith in the dollar. Unfortunately, Catholicism, with its trinkets and gold, lends itself well to the cause. It is at once a charming time capsule of 1960s America, and a prescient, deeply depressing portrait of faithless opportunism. Quite the blend, and the effect is quietly disturbing.

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Director: Abel Ferrara

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Writing credits for Bad Lieutenant are a little hazy – both Abel Ferrara and Zoe Lund were using drugs at the time, and each claimed they had more to do with the screenplay than the other. Nevertheless, it is, as critic Janet Maslin once said, very much the director’s “own brand of supersleaze”; a grubby picture that revels in the debauched life of a corrupt cop crashing and burning with all the glamour of a drunken heave.

Both Ferrara and Scorsese’s oeuvre is haunted by guilt, or more accurately, the spectral figure of God existing as negative space; an oblique, omnipresent silence into which anguished characters howl cries of loss and rage. Harvey Keitel’s performance adds lived-in humanity to the role, alternating between queasy ecstasy and existential agony as he rampages through New York, at times wailing like a beaten mutt. It’s filled with giallo-esque neons, drug use, sex and nudity, but there are moments of stillness too – not the stillness of spiritual peace, so much as a sinking into the airless depths of addiction and despair. Yet despite its X-rated subject matter and pessimistic surface, it’s also a deeply sincere tale of Catholic redemption and hope.

The Holy Girl (2004)

Director: Lucrecia Martel

The Holy Girl (2004)

With an eye for sensual detail and a stylish approach to framing, Lucrecia Martel’s second feature perfectly captures the isolation, repulsion and queasy desire that often follows sexual assault. The story centres on Amalia (María Alche), a 16-year-old Catholic girl whose burgeoning physical awareness blends with misdirected spiritual impulses when Dr Jano (Carlos Belloso), a middle-aged doctor, presses against her in a crowd. The camera lingers on a face frozen with shock while strange bodies press in: with instinctual knowledge, she knows one of them did more than exist; it took. Interpreting the event as a divine sign, the girl directs her confused pubescent drive towards the doctor, and begins to spy on him.

Extreme closeups reduce bodies to fleshy parts, while hypnotic whispering – of secrets mingled with devotional passages – add aural sensuality to this thrilling, intimate girl’s-eye view. It’s a bracing take on female sexuality; one that refuses to position Amalia as ‘the perfect victim’ nor shy away from the complex, contradictory physical and psychological reactions when natural desire is unfairly diverted into channels that don’t serve the person in question, be they religious fervour, sexual abuse, or both.

Silence (2016)

Director: Martin Scorsese


Scorsese is known for violence. Not to play armchair psychologist, but even that could be attributed to Catholicism: sights of torn flesh and sinew greet congregants every Sunday in the form of Christ on the cross (other denominations generally reduce the imagery to apparatus, minus the tortured human nailed to it). But since Bad Lieutenant by fellow Italian-American Ferrara made the cut, let’s go for one of Marty’s less lurid offerings: his meditative religious epic, Silence.

Based on the Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name, the story follows two Portuguese Jesuits (Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield) who travel to Japan to find their missing mentor and spread the faith at great personal risk. The ‘silence’ of God is underscored by the film’s spare sound design, the Japanese Christians who have learned emotionless affect, and, of course, God’s refusal to intervene in this theatre of cruelty. Though not without its flaws, the film soars in its second half, turning into a deeply personal theological argument about whether public displays of faith are more important than a private understanding between individual and creator.