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Thursday, 08 October 2015 09:35

Religious men and women on screen

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Fr Peter Malone msc150Something that might be of interest in this Year of Consecrated Life would be to look at religious men and women portrayed in the movies. Father Peter Malone msc, film critic, media practitioner, author and theologian, walks us once again through iconic movies featuring Religious.

In this Year of Consecrated Life, something that might be of interest, stirring memories, would be to look at religious men and women when portrayed in the movies. With the sisters, there has been the habit, the large community, work in schools and hospitals, the difficulties with the clergy, some sisters stern, others kindly. Comparatively speaking, there are not many images of religious priests and brothers on screen, attention overwhelmingly given to diocesan clergy. There are some teaching brothers, some Jesuits and Franciscans, but not many more.


If one wanted to choose a film to illustrate positively, with more than a touch of idealism, the image of priests and nuns in the 1940s, it would be The Bells of St Mary’s’. It highlighted another aspect of parish life in those days, the easy-difficult communication between priests and sisters, especially when the sisters had strong personalities and sometimes sublimated their vows of chastity in buildings and power struggles. When Fr O’Malley (Bing Crosby) at St Mary’s, wearing his boater, the housekeeper shows him to his plain room and warns him that he will be ‘up to his neck in nuns’.

The context is the role of the parochial school, the sisters and their management and teaching, the influence and presence of the pastor in the school, and the continued financial needs. In this case it is the deterioration of buildings, council condemnations of properties and companies buying up land used as playground for highrise offices.

There is a continued warmth between Ingrid Bergman’s Sister Benedict and Fr O’Malley. He finds it easy to talk to the children and impulsively gives them a holiday without realising the tangles this could bring.

It is in the picture of how the priest deals with the sisters and education that the role of the priest – and his mistakes – are highlighted. When a young girl, Patsy, fails her exams there is a conversation about school standards with Sister Benedict arguing for doing the proper thing and Fr O’Malley appealing to examining the circumstances and the effect of a fail on the student whom the school is trying to help. Fr O’Malley does say some chauvinist things about boys being men and not sissies by fighting and that the sisters having ‘a limited knowledge of the outside world’, nun and priest argue about thinking one’s way through problems rather than fighting one’s way through. But this is the 1940s and Sister Benedict buys a book on boxing and coaches a boy to win in the playground (they do shake hands after the fight).

When Sister Benedict is diagnosed with tuberculosis and has to leave the school for a healthier climate, Fr O’Malley is advised by the doctor to organise a transfer without telling sister the reasons. This occasions some reflections, in the stern spirituality of the time, ‘we are supposed to have the stamina to take it’. But Fr O’Malley expresses dismay at Sister being told to go away without his being able to tell her why, without any explanation’. But, he does tell her and she is happy and understands.


Perhaps the best pre-Vatican II film portrayal of sisters on screen is that in The Nun’s Story. It began production in 1958 while Pius XII was Pope but released when John XXIII had been elected.

The setting was Belgium in the 1930s with the picture of life in a large community, an austere community, silence and mortification being strong and formal part of the life, especially for the novices in training. Scenes of the novices come to mind, being stopped as they hurriedly ran, of walking in humility along the side of the corridor, confessing slight failings in the Chapter of Faults, kissing the feet of sisters in the refectory as penance. With Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn), there was the under trial of been asked to fail her medical exams as a token of humility and obedience – reminding us that the alleged Will of God was often the mere whim of the superior.

That this picture of religious life seemed real at the time, but necessarily the personal experience of sisters, but a kind of rugged ideal, self-sacrificing commitment, harsh spirituality pervading every activity. but, The Nun’s Story would be the last serious film showing this way of religious commitment, moves being made in popular movies of the 1960s, showing sisters changing their habits, showing their hair, becoming involved in less enclosed activities. In Australia, this was portrayed powerfully in the 1991 mini-series, Brides of Christ.


Just when it might have seemed that there was little place for sisters on screen, except for the light and humorous touch in Sister Act, along came a powerful film that showed how consecrated life was still relevant for personal commitment and for outreach ministry, for prison chaplaincy, in 1995’s Dead Man Walking. It had a powerful impact because it was the true story of a sister, Helen Prejean, forthright in her ministry in prisons, championing the cause of abolition of the death penalty. It was a popular film, seen by Catholic and non-Catholic audiences around the world, especially since Susan Sarandon won the Academy award for her betrayal of Sister Helen who was present alongside her at the Oscar ceremony.

The film made a point by showing the home movies of Sister Helen in her bride’s dress and changing it for the religious habit at her ceremony in the 1950s. But, by the 1980s and 1990s, Sister Helen was living in a small community, teaching underprivileged children, when circumstances led her to visit a prisoner and becoming his spiritual director. Interestingly, the priest chaplain was not in favour of her or her work but the bishop joined some of the sisters in a demonstration about capital punishment.

Sister Helen is shown in sympathetic support of the prisoner, even singing Be Not Afraid, and accompanying him on his way to execution. But, she is shown to be not without her blind spots. At the end of the film when she is shown praying in the chapel with the father of one of the victims, who had found her too ready in her judgements, it illustrates the power of empathy and reconciliation.

There was a providence in the making and release of Dead Man Walking, giving something of a template for a portrayal of contemporary sisters, especially in the context of criticism of harshness in religious institutions in the past, shown in a film like Philomena (2012).


Probably the best-known film about missionaries is The Mission (1986). It is a film about the Jesuits. With its memorable soundtrack, the beauty of the Latin American locations, top performances by Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro (including a cameo by activist Father Dan Berrigan SJ), it raised issues about missionary activity as working with local peoples rather than any religious colonial icing, of the former slave, De Niro, going into battle against the Imperial forces of Portugal and Spain, dying with oppressed people and with the gentler, musician, Irons, standing with his people in solidarity, monstrous in hand, outside the church, facing the enemy and the impending death.

This was the period of Liberation Theology, not regarded with much sympathy by ecclesiastical authorities, linking it with Marxism, but eventually prevail in in the sense that the church has to make a fundamental option for the poor, stand by those who pressed, form small communal prayer groups who will be sources of spiritual encouragement.

The Mission was not the only film about missionaries in this survey. In 1991, Black Robe, the story of Jesuit missionaries amongst the Native Americans of North America in the spirituality of the missionaries, being challenged personally, spiritually and theologically. And in 1999, there was a film about the missionary from Belgium, from the congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, St Damian de Veuster, Molokai, showed how Father Damien opted to live with the lepers, knowing that he would never leave the island and would die with them, which he did.


Possibly the best portrayal of religious men on screen was seen in the French film, Of Gods and Men (2010).

The subject is the Trappist community of Mt Atlas, Algeria, in the 1990s. Living their monastic life amongst the local people and ministering to them, especially with medical services, they were viewed more and more with suspicion in the country, especially because they were French expatriates, by government troops who were becoming more active against the increasing terrorist attacks, and by the terrorists themselves. Seven of the monks were killed in the latter part of May, 1996..

Filmed in Morocco, the film is both beautiful and austere in its landscapes and in the interiors of the monastery – and in the interior lives of the monks and their commitment to God and to their order.
The actors look, move, speak and act as if they were authentic monks. Lambert Wilson shows the complexity of a man elected to be superior but who has a tendency to make decisions himself but is ultimately willing to be guided in discernment by the whole community.

The film is able to cover all aspects of the religious routine of the monastery in accurate detail (allowing for Trappists to point out some small things which may not be quite right, but these are not evident to a Catholic eye). In fact, it communicates the life and spirit, the prayer, Eucharist, sung liturgy, silence and contemplation, the detachment of the vow of poverty, the taken-for-granted sacrifices of the vow of chastity, the work, the meals and the readings, the community meetings, the outreach. This is shown in episodes throughout the film which are as effective, even more effective, than a documentary.

The screenplay does not shy away from deep and reflective words which support the visual action. First of all, the words from the scriptures are most apt, especially about two together, one taken, one left, and the text on losing and gaining one’s life. But, each of the monks is given several opportunities to speak about his vocation and his commitment. This is stronger as the risk situation becomes more dangerous and their lives are threatened.

After the advice to leave, the monks listen to the opinions of the local people, especially those who come to the monastery for medical help. Their argument is that the monks remain in solidarity with the people. At the final discernment meeting, this argument is given great attention, with Gospel backing and the spirituality of Jesus who stayed faithful until his death.

These Trappists of Algeria were not considered saints in the ordinariness of their religious lives. They did their best. However, faced with the reality of impending death, like many a religious or a secular hero, they found their depths, despite any fear, and discovered a martyr’s saintliness in giving a life for others seen in something of a last supper together, the camera focusing on each, their smiles, then their tears, then their deep resignation, drinking a glass of wine together, and all to the powerful rhythms and melodies of Tchaikowsky’s Swan Lake.

Of course, the films considered here are just a selection. You might think of others.

This article was first published in Vol 18-3 of VocNET, the journal of Catholic Vocations Ministry Australia (CVMA), which also contains another article of Fr Malone, "The Year of Consecrated Life." Contact the CVMA office by phone 0400 636 467 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..