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52 Films That Got a PR Bump From the Vatican

Silence, The Passion of the Christ, and Noah. Photo: Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox

The pope may be a vessel for the will of the almighty, but he’s also a human being: He tweets, he eats chicken parm (probably), and he watches movies just like anyone else. The holiest man on the planet has played armchair critic on plenty of occasions, with various popes giving a new release their blessing or meeting directly with filmmakers over the decades. For a religion-friendly production hoping to drum up buzz, a nod of approval from El Papa could provide a substantial bump at the box office — or if you’re Martin Scorsese, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. But more on that below.

We’ve compiled a list of films that have earned the elusive, coveted papal endorsement. From the rigorously devout to the, uh, Pokémon, they run the full spectrum of perspectives on faith and the divine. A changing papacy means keeping up with a changing world, and nothing puts a more human face on Catholic orthodoxy than dishing out the hot takes. Go with God, and read on.

1. Silence (2016)
The endlessly complex relationship between religious dogma and the needs of the individual have been the constant themes through much of Martin Scorsese’s filmography. To varying extents, most of his films have wrestled with the process of doubt, sin, penance, and redemption, whether that’s Jake LaMotta’s long road to empathy in Raging Bull, or more straightforwardly Christian subject matter, such as his The Last Temptation of Christ. Many churchgoers cried foul at the latter’s depiction of Jesus Christ engaged in imagined sexual acts as a representation of his repressed lust, but Scorsese has apparently kept on good terms with the church; earlier this year, America’s preeminent Christian filmmaker was invited to Vatican City for a sit-down with Pope Francis and a special exclusive screening of his latest film, Silence. An adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel about Jesuit missionaries in Japan, the film represents the culmination of Scorsese’s life’s work, and two thumbs up from the pope makes the triumph complete.

2. Noah (2014)
The public had a mixed response to Darren Aronofsky’s big-budget retelling of Noah’s Ark, with many critics shunning Russell Crowe’s gritty take on the Biblical figure, while the public gave the director his first big box-office hit. Far more intriguing was the apparent shifting stance that the Vatican took on the film, as various entertainment-biz trade papers offered conflicting reports  of the pope’s response to the lightly sacrilegious film. (Noah pounds beers!) First, the church was reported to have shut down Crowe’s efforts to visit Vatican City while promoting the film around Rome, then another item claimed the effort wasn’t really in earnest to begin with, more promotional hubbub raising than anything else. But everything worked out under His greater plan in the end; Aronofsky and a Paramount studio head ended up getting a moment of precious face time with Pope Francis prior to the film’s release. The director was moved by the interaction, telling Deadline, “Pope Francis’s comments on stewardship and our responsibility to the natural world are inspirational and of the utmost importance.”

3. Pokémon: The First Movie (1999)
In the late 1990s, parents forced to pony up four bucks for a pack of trading cards every time they took their child out of the damn house probably believed that Pokémon was the work of Satan himself, but the pope respectfully disagreed. When the popular franchise of collectible creatures made the jump to the silver screen, the Vatican TV station Sat2000 described the games as “full of imagination” and devoid of “any harmful moral side effects.” Italy was not immune to the pocket-monster craze, and Sat2000 saw Pokémania as a force for good in its emphasis on “the ties of intense friendship” and the creatively freeing ability to “enter directly into the story.” While then-sitting Pope John Paul never made an official ruling on his favorite Pokémon, he’s clearly a Clefable guy.

4. Pastor Angelicus (1942)
A studio’s always looking for a property with a built-in audience, and Pope Pius XII brought millions with him when he agreed to be documented for a 1942 feature. Romolo Marcellini and his crew spent eight months in the Vatican, closely chronicling the daily doings of one of the most exclusive subjects on the planet. With an unprecedented level of access, Marcellini and his team created a humanizing, sympathetic view of a pope who carried the weight of being God’s chosen one and a leader to Christians caught in the ravages of World War II. “It was a way of showing that the pope wasn’t a person who was closed up inside the Vatican but was a point of reference for everyone who looked to him for hope,” says Claudia di Giovanni, manager of the Vatican Film Library. Today’s studio heads would kill for that kind of free PR.

5. Spotlight (2015)
The Catholic church didn’t come off looking so hot in Thomas McCarthy’s account of the Boston Globe’s investigation of the church’s blind eye to pedophiles in the priesthood. But after the taut journalism procedural waltzed away with the Best Picture statuette at the most recent Academy Awards (an event that saw producer Michael Sugar proclaim, “Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith”), semiofficial Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano ran a message of praise for the film and its unsparing depiction of the scandal. As Lucetta Scaraffia wrote, “It manages to voice the shock and profound pain of the faithful confronting the discovery of these horrendous realities,” adding that the film should not be considered anti-Catholic. The statement was a clear, heartening signal, both an admission of guilt and a resolution to move forward with healing.

6. Ben-Hur (2016)
Unnecessary, dim, and dull, this year’s Ben-Hur remake took a critical flogging and couldn’t even muster the box-office receipts to recoup its costs of production. But because this reinterpretation of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ put the emphasis on the last word in that title, at least the movie had God on its side. Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro (of Love, Actually and Westworld fame) received a personal blessing from Pope Francis in April for his performance as Jesus Christ, who appears to our man Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) with life-giving water. The film tracks the chariot racer’s ascent to heroism as the New Testament plays out in parallel, and director Timur Bekmambetov’s reverent attitude toward the subject material earned goodwill from Christians far and wide, except from those who were devout cinephiles.

7. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
“It is as it was.”
Five little words were all that Pope John Paul II needed to express his approval of Mel Gibson’s brutal depiction of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Ever the controversy magnet, Gibson ruffled quite a few God-fearing feathers with his treatment of the New Testament, with some religious leaders objecting to the gratuitous violence in the film. The pope, however, saw the massive bloodletting as called for by the unimpeachable text of the Bible, conveying the hard-to-look-at sum total of Christ’s suffering. Though Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson’s latest feature, is a story no less entrenched in faith and Christian principles, it has yet to receive an official review from Pope Francis. Will the dramatic rendering of conscientious objector Desmond Doss’s valor get a certified ‘Fresh’ from the holy Almighty?

8. Babette’s Feast (1989)
Pope Francis’s favorite movie is this Danish drama, a breakout at Cannes and sensation among American art-house crowds. In a harsh and austere Protestant community, housemaid Babette (Stéphane Audran) discovers she’s won the lottery back in her native France. But instead of returning home and living out the rest of her days in luxury, she treats the townspeople to a magnificent, sensuous dinner as an act of Christian charity. The themes of altruism are right up the papal alley, and Francis stated that he sees the film as indicative of forward progress in a Church liable to get stuck in its ways; the pious townspeople originally balk at Babette’s cooking as sinful in its material pleasures, but once they take a bite, they find the immediate ecstasy brings them closer to God than they had ever imagined. Principled, lovingly photographed, and universally acclaimed, the film was a highbrow choice and image-friendly.

9. La Strada (1954)
Despite getting into some pretty randy (and playfully heretical) antics during his later films, the Italian great Federico Fellini ranks among Pope Francis’s most beloved directors. In this, his first of a handful of masterpieces, Fellini weaves a modern parable about the travels of a cruel strongman and the impressionable young girl he takes in as his assistant. Marxists fumed over the film’s apolitical focus on religious values of absolution and conversion, and once Fellini’s reputation as an obscene heathen faded after a few decades, Christians welcomed the film into the fold. It’s only natural that La Strada would be of particular interest to Francis, too; the film makes implicit reference to St. Francis of Assisi, his namesake. The pope remains tight-lipped about the director’s gleefully carnal Fellini Satyricon.

10–52. The Vatican Film List
The Seventh Art celebrated its centennial in 1995, and the Vatican wanted to do something special for cinema’s big day. The papacy published a list of 45 films (including both La Strada and Babette’s Feast) that they feel reflect the ethics and spirit of Catholicism, a sort of pious take on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies. The selections were divided into three categories: “Religion,” which singles out films that explicitly espouse Christian orthodoxy (including classics such as Andrei Rublev, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and the O.G. Ben-Hur); “Values,” films which walk the path of righteousness without overt Christian overtones (such as Italian neorealist landmark Bicycle Thieves, the truly epic biopic Gandhi, and the worshipful Schindler’s List); and “Art,” movies with aesthetic and creative achievements too great to deny (your usual heavy hitters like Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Wizard of Oz). It’s a great list of films, a good start for any devout types looking to dip a toe into cinephilia, but what it represents is even more inspiring: Even the earthly link to God himself enjoys kicking back and settling into a good movie.

52 Films That Got a PR Bump From the Vatican