Movie-watchers may grouse all they want about the shabby treatment religious experience gets onscreen, but before the list of complaints gets too long, we might want to stop and think for a moment.

Consider your deepest spiritual experience, your most profound moment of religious awareness. If you had to put it on film, how would you do it? Would your experience be a good fit for cinematic treatment?

And would the rest of us be so easily moved by the sight of you sitting in a pew in church or outdoors under the endless sky?

You get the problem. Authentic, powerful spiritual experiences are difficult enough to describe in words. Rendering them in images is a problem, too, and one that works to discourage filmmakers from tackling it.

Of course, ordinary life is usually not the stuff of filmmaking, anyway. It’s the extraordinary that ends up onscreen, seeking to capture our attention. So it’s not surprising that when filmmakers do, indeed, tackle the spiritual, they often do so by working with the stories of saints – human beings who experience of the holy is anything but ordinary.

In Celluloid Saints, Georgetown University theology professor Theresa Sanders examines the treatment of saints in film. In the process, she offers the reader both a clear, cogent explanation of the nature of sanctity, as well as a look at the challenges of capturing the qualities of sanctity through the medium of film.

Throughout history, Christians have come to know saints through stories. Lives of the saints have been a staple of catechesis and religious literature since the era of the Roman martyrs. In the modern age, film – both in the form of movies and television – has largely supplanted the written or spoken word as our culture’s primary story-telling medium. It’s a medium that has both a particular power as well as limitations.

The power, of course, lies in the impact of imagery itself. Even if the imagery is not particularly imaginative or uniquely striking, the images Song of Bernadettewe see on film stay with us: How many of us of a certain age, for example, picture a young Jennifer Jones when we think of St. Bernadette? And how many of us of a different certain age, raised on the Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth in our religious education classes, think of Mary as the round-faced Olivia Hussey, not to be confused with the equally sweetly round-faced Olivia Hussey playing Juliet?

(Or Thomas More as Paul Scofield, or Oscar Romero as Raul Julia...)

But the limitations are there, as well. Attempts to portray sanctity on film have often been hampered by sentimentality or a turgid sanctimoniousness that strips the saint of all humanity. It is difficult to portray mystics without being either boring or making the mystic seem like a bit of a nut.

Sanders begins her book by an objective, sympathetic account of what sanctity means, and then proceeds to unpack how sanctity is most authentically presented onscreen. She concludes that attempts to present God-as-God directly are doomed to failure, since they unfailingly trivialize the ineffable. If someone tried to film Job’s encounter with God, for example, would the audience experience it as such, or more of a meeting with “a tornado with personality?”

What works better, cinematically speaking, are techniques of indirection: the use of silence, light and emptiness, as well as those that bring forth the character’s response to the Holy in the midst of the every day.

Subsequent chapters take on specific aspects of sanctity. Sanders looks at the portrayal of martyrdom in the 1932 Cecil B. DeMille epic The Sign of the Cross, as well as in the more modern films, To Kill a Priest and Romero.

Asceticism and mysticism are examined through their portrayals in, among others, the French filmsThérese (1986) and Under the Sun of Satan,(1987) based on the novel by Georges Bernanos.

Black Robe and The Mission give Sanders an opportunity black robeto look at how film presents the missionary imperative of Christianity. Two films from 1999 – the schlocky Stigmata and the interesting, but flawed The Third Miracle are the examples she uses to examine the miraculous.

The saintly dedication to the poor is explored through Monsieur Vincent, Francesco, and Entertaining Angels, a contemporary film biography of Dorothy Day. Final chapters examine the “saints of the Holocaust” and a few cinematic portrayals of Mary.

Sanders’ exploration of these films is interesting, but flawed. She is a theologian, not a film critic, her discussion tends to focus on the “message” of the film as conveyed through the shape and direction of the story, rather than on the impact of various film techniques. While much of her discussion of sanctity is quite fair, when Sanders turns to Mary, she unfortunately parrots the modern scholarly line which is defined by rigid skepticism of the possibility of the Virginal Conception of Christ, as well as other traditional Marian doctrines.

Her selection of films can be odd at times, as well. She gives due consideration to major films, and one would think that would be the focus of the book. But alongside these works, she considers some that could never be at the same level of artistry because of their narrow intentions: videos made for Catholic television networks or for Catholic education purposes.

Most striking is her consideration of a video about St. Maria Goretti made by chastity educator Molly Kelly. Why in the world this deserves attention in a chapter that looks at DeMille epics and strong independent films like Sebastiane and Romero is anybody’s guess, and after reading the chapter, anybody’s best guess would be that examining this video gives Sanders an opportunity to slam Kelly’s views of chastity and abstinence.

Despite these weaknesses, Celluloid Saints is a valuable resource. The discussion of sanctity is thought-provoking, and the analysis of films, while limited, is helpful for anyone interested in religion and film and in searching out the few instances in which the spiritual life is presented authentically and memorably through that most powerful medium we call the movies.

Good movies about saints and the pursuit of holiness:

Becket (1964)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Black Robe (1991)
The Mission (1986)
Diary of a Country Priest (1950)
Entertaining Angels (1996)
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
Household Saints (1993)
Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999)
Monsieur Vincent (1947)
Therese (1986)
Song of Bernadette (1943)
Romero (1989)

Back to Amy Welborn's Homepage

Back to Amy Welborn's Weblog