Holy Week Film Festival: A Guide to Choosing Which Movies to Watch Before Easter

Welcome to Holy Week! How do you celebrate? You could double (or restart) your Lenten penances, look up special Mass times in the bulletin, or pray that this year will be the year the Father finally follows the first clause of the Catholic Social Contract: if the Gospel is long, the homily is short.

I’d like to suggest a new way to celebrate this holiest week, something that hopefully deepens our Catholic imaginations and prepares our hearts for the Easter season: watching movies.

Holiday movies are a staple of the Christmas season, and certainly not just during the seven days leading up to Christmas – Hallmark has its “Countdown to Christmas” for its cheesy romantic comedies, and Freeform is encouraging viewers to celebrate the “25 days of Christmas” by watching movies and television specials. Yet during the holiest week of the year for Christians, we have mostly failed to create any kind of broader cultural traditions outside of going to liturgies during the Triduum (and complaining about the Easter decorations that go up to Target the day after Valentine’s Day).

A guide to adding cinema to your Easter preparation

I came across this idea thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2020, I realized that my wife, sister and I would not be returning from New York to Ohio for Easter. And not only would we be deprived of a family, we would be deprived of the sacraments. During the holiest time of the year, the doors of the church were closed.

We still wanted to observe Holy Week, so we got creative. Besides working our way through some DIY homemade liturgies, we thought we could also put our Netflix accounts to work for the glory of God. So, from Palm Sunday, we began a ritual of gathering around the sofa after dinner for a movie viewing and an informal chat afterwards. We called it: Holy Week Film Festival.

In an effort to spread what I hope will become a popular new devotional, I’ve provided a guide to hosting your own Holy Week film festival below, along with a sample schedule and selections from movies.

Five tips for selecting films:

  1. Religious themes are more important than religious subjects. What is Holy Week about? The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. By saying it so quickly and by reflex, it is easy to forget that it is also a story full of friends, betrayal, good meals, abandonment, resignation, courage, loneliness, devastation and, ultimately, of deep hope.
  2. That said, make sure you have a few priests, nuns, and popes thrown in there.
    Let’s be honest: Religious habits look great on camera. But for our purposes, the religious people depicted in our films must be portrayed as real, genuine humans, not just caricatures. They must pass the Sister Regina Meehan test, which my colleague Ciaran Freeman defined as “a religious man or woman who talks about something unrelated to dogma, rules, religion, or guilt.”
  3. Beware of explicitly “Christian” films.
    Please don’t submit to “God is not dead”, “Heaven is for real”, or “The Christ case”. Not this year, not ever.
    [Related: What makes a good “Christian” movie?]
  4. Think about the rhythm. A few thoughts here: Match the tone of the film as closely as possible to the theme of the liturgical day (the choice of Maundy Thursday should be more jovial than that of Good Friday, for example). Also, if you can, be careful not to overemphasize the drama without mixing some levity into your selections. Same for the length. Three three-hour dramas in three days might include all your favorite Terrence Malick films, but that’s a marathon no one wants.
  5. have at least a explicitly the jesus movie thrown in there.
    Allegory is fine, but at least one of our films should take the person of Jesus of Nazareth as its subject. Just as traveling to the Holy Land can help broaden our understanding of the gospel, so can visual depictions in movies. If you’re wondering where to start, James Martin, SJ, has outlined seven Jesus movies worth watching this Easter 1997.

Palm Sunday: “The Two Popes”

It’s the appetizer. And you deserve one, especially if you just heard the Passion over Zoom mass. Catholics love the Pope. And what better than a pope? Well, technically, there’s only one seated pope and another future pope in this 2019 Netflix movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. (You can hear our interview with Mr. Pryce about the film for our Jesuit podcast here.) “The Two Popes” is a delight that sets the stage (it’s definitely a religious activity – how could it not not being, it’s literally the pope on the screen) and subsides during the week. There’s a scene near the end that involves our titular characters learning the tango that will leave you and yours with a smile on your face.

Monday of Holy Week: “Of Gods and Men (Men and gods) “

“Of Gods and Men” tells the story of the martyr monks of Tibhirine, beatified in 2018. Abbot Christian de Cherge and his community of Trappist monks in Algeria are faced with the impossible choice of remaining with the people they serve in the at the expense of their own safety. america Film critic John Anderson wrote in 2011 that the film “is a Passion play of a very modern genre, in which each character must crush the gnawing worm of their own mortality and self-doubt and so stay true to her faith. The result is one of the most deeply spiritual films of this year or any other.

[Related: The Monks of Tibhirine: Xavier Beauvois’ ‘Of Gods and Men’]

Tuesday of Holy Week: “The End of the Case”

At first glance, a film about adultery may seem like an odd choice for our Holy Week Film Festival. Based on the 1951 novel by Graham Greene, this 1999 romantic drama (there is also a 1955 adaptation) starring Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore centers on their passionate affair and the mystery of why she suddenly ended. The story is a perfect talking point about love, hate, pain, promise, betrayal, and loyalty.

Wednesday of Holy Week: Break

Look, if you’re the kind of person in the type of family that can host movie screenings seven days in a row, all the power is yours. The rest of us need a moment to sit back and do nothing (or watch “The Office” again).

Thursday: “Babette’s Party”

It’s one of my favorite films, and that of Pope Francis too. “Le Festin de Babette” is probably one of the films, if not the only one, to be referenced in a papal document. In “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis used the film as an example of the joy that love brings:

The most intense joys in life come when we are able to spark joy in others, like a taste of heaven. One thinks of the pretty scene from the film Le Festin de Babette, where the generous cook receives a grateful embrace and praise: “Ah, how you are going to delight the angels! It is a joy and a great consolation to please others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of brotherly love, is not that of the vain and egocentric, but of lovers who delight in the good of those they love, who give to them freely and thus bear good fruit.

Since on Maundy Thursday we remember the Last Supper in a special way, it is only fitting that our Thursday film should center on a meal.

Friday: “Calvary”

“Calvary” begins with a start. Father James Lavelle overhears an unnamed penitent in the confessional announce that he is going to murder him in retaliation for the sexual abuse the penitent suffered at the hands of another priest in his youth. Why Father James, then? He was told: “It is useless to kill a bad priest, but to kill a good one would be a shock. I’m going to kill you, Father, because you didn’t do anything wrong. “Calvary” is a perfect film for the day we solemnly commemorate the murder of the great high priest.

[Related: Acts of Contrition: A good priest walks a dangerous road in ‘Calvary.’]

Saturday: Break

Go to the Easter Vigil instead!

Sunday: “Mary Magdalene”

With the Easter egg hunt over and while the ham digests, sit back and consider the 2019 film “Mary Magdalene,” which John Anderson called “revisionist and respectful all at once.” This represents our explicitly Jesus-centered film (see rule #5) for the Holy Week Film Festival. While Joaquin Phoenix sometimes does a weird Jesus, the film illuminates and gives depth to Mary Magdalene, whose perspective on the gospel for much of history has been overlooked and maligned.

[Related: “Mary Magdalene” is a fierce, feminist parable]

I’ve offered five movies as a sample itinerary, but this is by no means an exhaustive or inflexible list. A big part of the fun is selecting the movies, alone or with friends and family. Below are other exchange options. What did I miss? What movies would you include, and what day? Join the conversation in the comments at the bottom of this article.

Other options:

  • “Shadowlands”
  • “The Last Temptation of Christ”
  • “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”
  • “Tree of life”
  • “In the Great Silence”
  • “First Reformed”
  • “Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace”
  • “The mission”
  • “A man for all seasons”
  • “Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo”
  • “Molokai: The Story of Father Damien”
  • “Doubt”
  • “Silence”
  • “A Hidden Life”
  • “Brideshead Revisited”
  • “Big Night”

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