Catholic Romanticism in Cinema

To follow up my last post on Catholic Romanticism, I thought I would share some of my favorite cinematic experiences with you all. Since three is the best number, I present here three films that are a) among my all time favorites, b) have to do with the theme of Catholic Romanticism, c) have phenomenal soundtracks, and d) have Liam Neeson (starring in two, a smaller role in the other). For some reason he just shows up in many of my favorite films.

I loved these films even as an atheist. Like the music I have written of extensively, I believe the part of me that could appreciate the themes of these films is the same part of me that could eventually open my heart and soul to God. And as it does with that music, the sterile view of the universe that is the only logical outcome of atheism and materialism renders these very themes quaintly irrational at best, and dangerous at worst.

1. Rob Roy (1995)

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Rob Roy is a movie about honor, and one man’s ordeal in its defense. It is also about justice, for in dishonoring Robert Roy MacGregor, his enemies also commit several grave injustices against him, his family, and his clan. Though you might not think it has very much to do with Catholicism, the truth is that it permeates the historical backdrop of the movie, and in many ways sets the stage for MacGregor’s trials and tribulations.

By the early 18th century, Calvinism had taken hold of much of Scotland. The exception, of course, was the Highlands, an area of rough terrain often cut off from the rest of Scotland, and the rest of Europe. As a result, many of the Highlanders remained loyal to the Catholic faith, even when there wasn’t a priest to be found in all of Scotland.

After James II was run out of England during the “Glorious Revolution”, a movement to restore James, and the Catholic Stuart dynasty, to the throne of Britain came into being. They were typically known as Jacobites, from the Latin for “James” [Jacobus]. Jacobism was particularly strong in Scotland, which was the origin of the Stuart dynasty. By 1715 – the date the movie begins – the Jacobites were on the verge of a rising in favor of the son of James II (now dead), whom they proclaimed “James III” – James Francis Edward Stuart.

In Rob Roy,  the stage is set for MacGregor’s troubles through the feuding of two noblemen – the Marquis of Montrose, and the Duke of Argyll. Without giving too much of the plot away, many of Rob’s troubles stem from his refusal to denounce Argyll as a “Jacobite”, a claim he knows to be a lie. His refusal to lie, to denounce a man he doesn’t know to save his own skin, is what sets the film’s second act into motion.

The Catholicism of the MacGregors is evident in a number of ways; their camp side revelries wouldn’t have been the work of Protestant Calvinists. Indeed, one of Rob’s clansmen makes a rather off-color joke about Calvinists that more or less establish the Catholic identity of the clan. I won’t repeat it here :)

Rob Roy is a film about honor, as I said. It is about what one man is willing to suffer to retain his integrity, by refusing to lie and to play in the games of “great men.” It has a phenomenal soundtrack, scored by Carter Burwell with additional performances by my favorite Scottish Highland group, Capercaillie.

As a final note, few historical movements have been “romanticized”, some would probably say for the worse, than that of the Jacobites, and few incidents more than Bonnie Prince Charlie’s campaign to retake the British crown for the Stuarts in 1745.  Therefore I would suggest works such as Culloden and the ’45 by Jeremy Black to offer a full and balanced historical perspective. We should “romanticize” what really happened, the real and actual good that men did in the service of a great cause.

2. Les Miserables (1998)

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If the theme of Rob Roy was honor, then that of director Bille August’s interpretation of Les Miserables is forgiveness.  I will be quite honest with my readers: I wasn’t able to get very far into Victor Hugo’s original novel, nor did I find the musical adaptations to be anything but trite. The way I see this film, it has always stood alone, relying upon, but not belonging wholly to, whatever interpretations preceded it in print, on the stage, or in cinema.

The appeal of this movie, rather, lies in the moral and spiritual themes that it highlights. Once again Liam Neeson plays a man who is willing to leave behind a rather comfortable life, this time in order to prevent a poor fool from taking the fall for him in a public trial. But the book-ends of Les Miserables are incidents which capture the transformative power of mercy and forgiveness, and the inability of evil to comprehend it. Jean Valjean’s life as an honest man in post-revolutionary 19th century France (once again providing us with a distinctly Catholic context) begins after he is caught stealing from the local bishop, who took him into his home for dinner and sleep. The soldiers who return Valjean to the bishop inform the latter that their prisoner insists his stolen goods were “gifts.”

In a moment of suspense, the bishop says “I’m very angry with you, Jean Valjean…” and proceeds to ask him why he only took the silverware, and not the candlesticks as well. He orders his servant to fill Valjean’s sack with candlesticks “worth 2000 francs” (a small fortune), and the guards release Valjean. As they stand alone in the bishop’s courtyard, he says to Valjean: “And don’t forget – don’t ever forget – you’ve promised to become a new man.” Valjean, in a state of disbelief, asks, “why are you doing this?” To which the bishop replies: “Jean Valjean my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I’ve bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred. And now I give you back to God.”

Such is the power of Valjean’s encounter with Christian love that it transforms his life and leads him to great success, for which he is grateful to God, and with which he is extremely generous. He acquires a reputation for generosity and kindness among the people of the town he settles in, and becomes the mayor of. Without giving away the rest of the plot, for those who are unfamiliar, Valjean attempts to touch the lives of many others in the way his was touched by Christ; some, with hearts such as his – beaten down by the world but still essentially good – become transformed as well. Others, with hearts as hard and as cold as stone, such as the infamous Inspector Javier, are unable to understand.

The conflict between Valjean and Javier could be subjected to its own intricate analysis. Ultimately it is a modern-day confrontation between Christ and the Pharisees, between the spirit and the letter of the law, between a belief in something transcendent in man and the reduction of man to a mere animal (Valjean suggests that men can repent and change their sinful ways; Javier invokes scientific materialism and determinism to dehumanize law breakers). Though there is something quite silly in the sub-plot of Valjean’s daughter and her love interest, it is a necessary to provide the ultimate setting for Valjean’s final test.

Les Miserables has an outstanding soundtrack, composed by the now deceased Basil Poledouris, a man who is rightfully considered one of cinema’s greatest composers.

3. The Mission (1986)

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This is an explicitly Catholic film, dealing with so many aspects of the faith and its history that I couldn’t possibly begin to cover them all here. In my view The Mission is one of the greatest films ever made, and its central theme is the sacrifice that two men are willing to undergo, in different ways, to defend the faith.

The film is set in South America, in the 1750s, and follows the missionary activities of Jesuit priests among the natives. The first act of the film largely centers around Rodrigo Mendoza, a solider turned slaver (played by Robert DeNiro), who murders his brother in a duel after finding him in bed with his fiancee. His soul in torment, both over the murder of his brother and his crimes against the natives, he encounters Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons), who calls him to repent. Mendoza’s penance involves a grueling physical struggle as he accompanies the Jesuits back to the native village, and culminates in a powerful scene of redemption and forgiveness that could have been a movie unto itself.

As the movie progresses, we see how the Catholic faith has transformed and improved the lives of the indigenous tribes; as opposed to the secular plantations in which natives are kept as slaves and beaten, the Jesuits establish common ownership of the land (please, no lectures on communism – in this context it was entirely appropriate and necessary). We see how the natives have come to a love of Christ as pure as it is sincere.

Unfortunately the Jesuits and their indigenous flock become the epicenter of a global political struggle taking place, involving Spain, Portugal, and the Papacy, which sends an emissary to review the situation and make a recommendation. As the wiki summary of the film states (and I do not recommend reading it unless you’ve already seen the film, for it gives everything away):

Under pressure from both local plantation owners and the politicians in Europe, Altamirano [the papal emissary] is forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. If he rules in favour of the colonists, the indigenous peoples will become enslaved; if he rules in favour of the missions, the entire Jesuit Order may be condemned by the Portuguese and the Catholic Church fractured in Europe.

The kingdom of God on Earth is thus pitted against the world of men. And the decision of the emissary sets the stage for a climax that is among the most beautiful and tragic in cinematic history, one which is marked by a difference of conviction between Mendoza and Father Gabriel, neither of which in my view is worthy of condemnation. In the end both men make a similar choice, and a similar sacrifice, and I won’t say more than that here; if you haven’t seen it, you must see it. I never cried at the movies until I watched the ending to The Mission.

Conclusion

So, there you have my three favorite movies. When I say that these movies are related to Catholic Romanticism, I mean this: that, through the stimulation of the passions through an aesthetic medium, they convey timeless truths about the Catholic faith that have been trampled upon by the present, and which are not reducible to calculation, the work of reason alone.

One of the common claims of the modernist is that “people have always been the same; they just talked about it less openly then.”

Why should this be an irrelevant difference? A culture ought to be judged upon the values that it elevates, not the baseness and evil that it shares in common with every other culture. That men have always been bad is a commonplace so obvious that it isn’t worth uttering, and the contrary opinion – that men were at one time “better” – should not be implicitly assumed when one speaks highly of the past. Rather, when a Romantic such as myself looks upon the past, he sees cultures and spiritual beliefs that elevated truth, goodness, and beauty, that gave them pride of place, that recognized their objective place in the hierarchy of values, even amidst the evil that men do. For this alone, those cultures were better than our own.

Contrast to the modern situation, in which every form of perversion is celebrated openly and declared an unalienable right. Holy Scripture contains the one necessary rebuke to all modernism, all relativism, all glorifications of perversion and cynical indifference:

Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness: that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter. (Isaias 5:20)


  1. Here are three of my favorites that I find edifying for spiritual reasons, i.e., fallen man, imperfectly works towards redemption: repentence, confession, penance, does the right thing in the end.

    I apologize in advance. I’m an accountant.

    Casa Blanca. Rick goes from the consummate cad to cheating himself at roullette to give the couple money; to saving them when he could have taken the woman (She throws herself at him to save her husband, too). I guess it’s mainly about conversion.

    The Searchers. Ethan Edwards (?) – a man’s man (Sgt. York, Dan Daly, you-name-it rolled into one tough hombre) – goes from wanting to kill the girl and all Indians to carrying her home. The end where he goes off into the sunset is classic – he is no longer if that world and accepts it. The photography is stunning – God’s Creation. You could add Fort Apache; Rio Grande; and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

    The Informer. Gipper Nolan’s (I think – it’s been many years) sins and his confession to the mother. His death at the foot of the Cross, repentent and doing penance for his sins. The music and the actors! The dark cinematography.

    That’s about as aesthetic as I can muster.

  2. I too am an admirer of “Rob Roy.” I read Les Miserables back in my college days, but have never seen the movie. And your post reminded me that I really do have to see “The Mission.”

    Like T. Shaw, I love “Casablanca.” In my younger days, it was the romance and ambience of Rick’s Place that appealed to me; the last time I saw it, I was more moved by the fact that Rick is a reluctant good guy, who ends up doing the moral thing in spite of himself.

    The same is true of “Schindler’s List” – a hedonistic womanizer (who in some respects never changed his spots) nevertheless chose to save people rather than accumulate riches from war profiteering.

    Another great film: “Glory.” In one sense, it’s the usual soldier film: incompetents are transformed into professional troops. But it’s also a story about ex-slaves discovering dignity and worth fighting for a cause dear to their hearts. The scene around the campfire the night before the big battle never fails to make me teary-eyed.

  3. Donna,

    Glory is one of my favorites as well. I think my “tear-up” scene is when the 54th marches through the lines near the beach and the white soldiers finally acknowledge their bravery, one of them calling out “give ‘em hell 54!”

  4. Joe,

    Capercaillie also has a CD (also available on MP3) called “Glenfinnan (Songs of the ’45)”, which I highly recommend. The songs on that CD were recorded in 1995 for a BBC special commemorating the 250th anniversary of Jacobite rising under Charles Edward Stuart.

    http://www.amazon.com/Glenfinnan-Songs-of-the-45/dp/B001GXPV54/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1271852646&sr=8-1

    And a book that I can highly recommend, with recent scholarship on the subject from a highly respected expert on 18th century warfare, is The ’45 by Christopher Duffy.

    http://www.amazon.com/45-Bonnie-Prince-Charlie-Jacobite/dp/0753822628/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

  5. Donna and Joe: Ditto on both scenes from “Glory.” Great film, all over. Add to that the searing scene where Denzel Washington’s character is disciplined by whipping, and everyone can see the gruesome collection of scars he received while being a slave.

  6. Great list, though I’m tempted to issue you a personal interdict for disliking the “Les Mis” musical. :)

    An additional point on “Rob Roy”–a professional “stage fighter”/theatrical consultant I met said that the sword fights in RR are in the top three for sheer realism. That’s how blade fighting works, alas: the winner goes to the hospital, the loser to the morgue.

  7. Oh, and at the risk of spamming the thread, there’s a great line Rob Roy utters about children (possibly) conceived by rape: “It’s not the child that needs killing.”

  8. I completely share your reactions to Rob Roy and The Mission, I guess I’ll have to go see Le Mis as well — I’d never bothered as I strongly associate the musical with my little sister and her friends squealing and giggling.

    And to second Dale and Donald — that final duel is one of the most brilliant fights ever filmed. It’s not focused on flashy blade play. You can see the characters getting tired. And in the end, it’s character that is the deciding point — Robert wins because he’s more determined.

    Ditto also on that the exchange between Robert and his wife about the unborn baby.

    Rob Roy came out the same year as Braveheart, and to my mind was a far, far better and more moral movie.

  9. The 1998 film version of Les Miserables is far from frivolous, let me tell you.

    I could barely get through the first chapter of the novel, which has this really strange structure. And I just plain don’t like musicals. I’ve heard “theatre people” prattle on about “Les Mis” so I understand your apprehension.

    But this version is quite serious and gets to the major themes of the story. I highly recommend it. Geoffrey Rush is amazing as Inspector Javier.

  10. What the heck was Liam Neeson thinking in that first one anyway?

    A) “Money!”

    B) “Please kill me. I can’t go for more Jar-Jar and “Ani;” please kill me Darth Maul even though that’s a terribly uncreative name

  11. Les Mis the Broadway musical was wonderful in the strictest sense of the term. The movie with Neeson was also quite good, but I would not count it as a classic. The novel, however, is a classic and beats both.

  12. What the heck was Liam Neeson thinking in that first one anyway?

    He was probably thinking it would be nice to be a part of a classic series trusted for quality that he and his children could watch. Little did he know that George Lucas no longer knew how to make films, let alone good stories…

    I mean has anyone noticed how many of Liam Neeson’s roles are a bit Qui-Gon-ish with a twist? Batman Begins, Gangs of New York, etc.

  13. Meh. Oscars aren’t everything. Heck, a ton of my favorite movies go completely ignored. Its a badge of honor!

    Besides, I’m hard pressed in my memory to find that quintessential performance of Liam Neeson’s that says “robbed at the Oscars.” I don’t doubt he’s talented enough for Oscar, its just that I think it will take one of those career defining roles that results in an awards ceremony with no doubt all the stars are aligned for a “win.” PR people, fellow actors, agents, studios… everyone has to sort of agree: “This is Mr. Neeson’s moment.”