Our favorite books and films of 2022
By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 19, 2023 | In Reviews
As we’ve done for several years now, it’s time for the Catholic Culture staff’s annual roundup of our favorite books (and other media) of the past year.
Dr. Jeffrey Mirus
Let me begin with five books that I have already reviewed in 2022 on CatholicCulture.org, simply because they are particularly worth reading—I link to my longer reviews below:
Holy Is His Name
In the first place, I have to select Scott Hahn’s inspiring Holy Is His Name, which explores, as the subtitle expresses it, “The transforming power of God’s Holiness in Scripture.” No other book so urgently reminds us that even our own prevailing Catholic spiritual culture has lost its sense of the transcendence of God. Even where genuine faith still exists, the emphasis tends to be on God’s immanence, on His easy accessibility, on His role as our “buddy”. This is reflected both in the psychological focus of too much “spiritual” reading today and in our prosaic contemporary liturgies.
God is supremely immanent, of course; He has to be to dwell in our very souls. But at one and the same time He is supremely transcendent, and we forget that only at great spiritual peril. This transcendence is best understood in His awesome holiness, before which we ought never to forget our unworthiness, an unworthiness to be transcended only through God’s soul-searing love. It is only in this context that true friendship with God can develop in Christ. By resorting to Scripture to explore God’s holiness, Hahn gets it exactly right.
It is impossible to move on from 2022 without mentioning one more time the brilliant collection of the writings of the late Fr. Paul Mankowski under the pseudonym of Diogenes, Diogenes Unveiled. “Uncle Di” was a brilliantly cutting and often uproariously funny writer who skewered the secularized distortions which passed for Catholicism around the turn of the twenty-first century when we all wondered (as we sometimes still do) who was minding the store. Fr. Mankowski was ultimately exposed and ordered by his Jesuit superiors to cease writing under the pseudonym in 2010. His identity was generally still concealed by his friends until he died in 2020.
Mankowski’s Diogenes writings were selected and collected by Phil Lawler, who had also provided the initial platform for them, a platform that eventually merged into CatholicCulture.org.
Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts
If I were to recommend just one novelist this year, it would have to be (as it would be in so many years) the great Sigrid Undset. This remarkable Catholic convert of the early twentieth century (1882-1949) is worth studying in her own right, and Fr. Aidan Nichols has enabled us to learn more about her very easily in his book Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts. She is, of course, the author of both the trilogy Kristen Lavransdatter and the tetralogy The Master of Hestviken, among other shorter fiction and essays.
How Saints Die
How Saints Die: 100 Stories of Hope, Fr. Antonio Sicari’s short and neatly-organized accounts of the last hours of a large number of saints carries both spiritual inspiration and moral instruction without ever losing the personal touch. Here is my aptly-titled review: Catholicism and sanctity: Jumping to the bottom line. (This review also includes a very worthwhile book by Brant Pitre which provides an excellent introduction to the spiritual life.)
Resolving Faith Difficulties
Fr. Jerry Pokorsky has organized his long run of essays on CatholicCulture.org into a series of ebooks, the first two of which are already available for free download, with two more to be released over the next few months. If you are new to Fr. Pokorsky’s brilliance and pastoral solicitude, these are a great way to catch up. If you just want to revisit them in logical groupings, the ebooks are perfect for that as well. These are published by CatholicCulture.org under the series title of Resolving Faith Difficulties: A Pastor’s Spiritual Journal, and they are available in three different file formats to registered users (registration is free of charge). The first volume is Faith First and Always and the second is Faith with Reason. Enjoy!
Now, let me introduce three new books I discovered in 2022 but did not review:
Dynamics of Liturgy
The incomparable Fr. Vincent Twomey is surely correct in his conviction that the time is ripe to introduce Catholics to the liturgical thought of the great Joseph Ratzinger. His book is all the more timely because Ratzinger—that is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—died at the end of the year in which Twomey’s study was published. As most of our readers may know, Ratzinger had a deep understanding of Catholic liturgy and a rich historical grasp of its development and spiritual depth. Not completely satisfied with the liturgical reform which followed the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger/Pope Benedict saw strengths (and weaknesses) in both the older form of the Roman Rite and the new form. He thought the Church could benefit from the merging of the strengths of each, and he kept that idea alive by making both forms readily available (an availability his successor has since greatly restricted). If you would like to better understand Ratzinger’s understanding of Divine Liturgy and the theology behind it, you can do no better than to read Twomey’s superb study, The Dynamics of Liturgy: Joseph Ratzinger’s Theology of Liturgy: An Interpretation.
Balthasar for Thomists
The name Hans Urs von Balthasar is likely to stir pre-conceived notions that are not very valuable. Many will assume that he was a great theologian simply because his work has been steadily championed by Ignatius Press, which has a well-deserved reputation as perhaps the finest Catholic publisher in the English-speaking world today. Many others will assume he was the very devil because he expressed the opinion that we could hope that all are to be saved, and some of his work was influenced by the mystic Adrienne von Speyr (whose mystical credentials are by no means universally accepted).
What most people do not realize is that von Balthasar’s body of work is enormous, and that his most notable contribution to theology is probably recognition that it is integral to Divine Revelation that it has taken the form of a long and very dramatic unfolding in the history of salvation. This insight explains his five-volume theological dramatics (Prolegomena, Dramatis Personae: Man in God, Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ, The Action, and The Last Act. And in another immense work of three volumes, generally called Theo-Logic, von Balthasar explored the relations of the nature of Jesus Christ to reality itself (Truth of the World,Truth of God, and Spirit of Truth.
But von Balthasar was also able to write a very brief guide for troubled laymen in the 1980s to protect them from the massive doctrinal corruption that every Catholic was encountering at that time (A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen). In any case, a great many of us are more comfortable with the Thomistic approach to theology that has long been the primary officially-recommended basis for the preparation of priests, without discounting many other fruitful approaches. If you have been formed philosophically and theologically primarily in the Thomist tradition, then the most helpful book by far to give you a deeper understanding of von Balthasar’s contribution will be the Dominican Thomist Aidan Nichols’ excellent study, Balthasar for Thomists. It is not for the faint-hearted, but Fr. Nichols manages the task wonderfully in about 200 pages.
The Moral Wisdom of the Catholic Church
I should also call everyone’s attention to the latest work by the redoubtable Robert Spitzer, SJ, who has specialized in recent years in major and even multi-volume works that—fully conversant with logic, science, philosophy and theology—present the best possible contemporary apologetical support for Catholicism. His latest, also published by Ignatius, focuses on The Moral Wisdom of the Catholic Church: A Defense of Her Controversial Moral Teachings. He continues to turn out excellent work though he is now nearly blind, and while his books are never brief, they are always thoroughly argued and very readable.
This volume includes comprehensive treatments of: (a) True and false promises of happiness and freedom, including the homosexual lifestyle, pornography, gender change, and artificial birth control; (b) Matters of life and death, including abortion, eugenics, in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cells, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia, self-defense and torture; and Charity and social ethics, including honesty, charity, the need for objective moral norms, and how Christ and the Catholic Church transformed the world through institutions of charity and principles of social ethics, including the principles and subject matter of Catholic social teaching. The conclusion to this 600-page study centers on the problem of re-evangelization.
Have I read this book all through? No, but it has a place among the valuable references on my bookshelf.
For your entertainment
I am not addicted to mysteries (really!), but they are my main source of reading for entertainment. So this year I will mention the fine but lightly comic mysteries from Edmund Crispin (real name Robert Bruce Montgomery, 1921-1978) who wrote a series of very entertaining novels and stories featuring a rather Chestertonian figure—the Oxford literature don Gervase Fen. As you can imagine Crispin’s use of the mother tongue is brilliant and witty, and his stories are typically entertaining romps. They are not all easily available, but they are generally inexpensive whether you get them as ebooks or from used book sellers. Occasionally they can be a trifle too absurd; usually they are delightful. In order, I think:
- The Case of the Gilded Fly
- Holy Disorders
- The Moving Toy Shop
- Swan Song
- Love Lies Bleeding
- Buried for Pleasure
- Frequent Hearses
- The Long Divorce
- Beware of Trains (short stories)
- Glimpses of the Moon (short stories)
I recommend reading St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans and immediately following it up with the Letter to the Hebrews. Even in English you’ll see why some scholars have thought Hebrews was written by Paul but even more suggest it was penned by a Pauline disciple with a very different writing style. The Church knows this is inspired Scripture, but has no official stand on the author’s identity.
Jeffrey Mirus is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org.
Samuel Gregg ordinarily writes about economic affairs, but his ability to put dollars-and-cents questions into proper perspective shows the influence of his academic background as a student of the acclaimed Oxford philosophy John Finnis. In his latest book, The Next American Economy, Gregg analyzes both the difficulties and the opportunities that we face as we try to balance the demands for economic growth and individual freedom in a global economy. Particularly important in this book are his powerful arguments against “ESG” investing: that is, the increasingly common notion that investors should focus on the environmental, social, and governance policies of corporations rather than their dividends and growth potential. Also, his explanation of the “common good” should help to inoculate readers against those—including the popular exponents of Catholic “integralism”—who support greater intervention by the administrative state to direct our economic affairs.
My own academic background (such as it is) is in political theory, and Pierre Manent, of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, is arguably the most important political theorist alive today. His short work, Natural Law and Human Rights, translated from the French by Ralph Hancock, demonstrates his prowess. He effectively shows that unless they are founded in an understanding of natural law, “human rights” are arbitrary inventions, which ultimately diminish the dignity of the individual while augmenting the power of the state. The book comes with a perceptive foreword by Daniel J. Mahoney.
And speaking of Mahoney, his own book, The Statesman as Thinker, deserves a place on this list. He examines the lives and thoughts of several important political thinkers who were also heavily involved in practical policies—among them Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Charles De Gaulle. In their unusual ability to match their concrete policies with their abstract ideas, he see exemplary displays of prudence and of the “greatness of soul” that Aristotle sought in leaders.
Liberty or Lockdown, by Jeffrey Tucker, explores what the author argues (and I strongly agree) is one of the most grotesque illustrations of political imprudence and government overreach in recent history: the draconian policies adopted in reaction to the Covid epidemic. Those policies did not contain the disease, and demonstrably did grave harm to countless people and to society at large. Why did we so readily accept them?
The death of the great British historian Paul Johnson earlier this month, at the age of 94, reminded me that I assigned my students to read Modern Times, his massive, sweeping survey of (most of) the 20th century, for a class in the spring semester. Johnson combined an astonishing command of history with a gift for narrative. In Modern Times he manages to move smoothly from relativity theory to world wars, from race relations and totalitarian ideologies to corporate growth and demographic shifts. Yes, he is opinionated, but his passion brings history to life.
Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, isn’t really all that new; it was published in 2012. But it was new to me, and enlightening. The author, Augustine Thompson, OP—a Dominican writing about St. Francis—announces at the outset that he will stick to what the written record shows, leaving aside the many popular legends about the great saint. Some of the legends are probably true, he allows, while others are surely false. His goal is to cut through the conflicting popular images of St. Francis and provide a sort of baseline: what we can know with certainty about him. To me it was surprising that St. Francis actually did not speak and write much about poverty; his primary focus was on humility. Also new to me was the revelation that the most passionate writings of St. Francis are about the need for reverence in the celebration of the Eucharist.
For those who share my weakness for thrillers, let me recommend the three-part series on ancient Rome by Robert Harris, centered on the life of Cicero. Dictator, the final installment, was on my list for 2022; but the first two volumes, Conspirata and Imperium, are equally good—and probably should be read in the proper sequence. I don’t know how carefully Harris sticks to the facts as he fleshes out the characters and creates their dialogue. But he is an excellent story-teller, and the subject is fascinating.
Phil Lawler is the founder of Catholic World News, and the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org.
James T. Majewski
Last year saw the birth of our second child, even as our firstborn reached the age where he can now tolerate children’s literature of some increased substance. For our family, 2022 was the year of the children’s book. Here are my top 10 from the year:
Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever. This one is great for endurance reading. I have several times gone through all fifty of the included nursery rhymes, only to start again from the beginning because they are just that much fun to read. It helps, too, that Richard Scarry’s illustrations are characteristically great. My favorite? A cat bludgeoning a dog alongside the lines, “I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy was in bed, I took a marrow bone and beat him on the head!” (To be fair, Taffy was a thief.)
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. The ending of this story by William Steig sees Sylvester and his family reunited after a long separation and, despite possessing a magic pebble able to grant any wish, having nothing more they could wish for. It’s a tear-jerker every time.
Six Dinner Sid. The titular character, a cat who angles for six dinners a day by convincing six different people he is theirs alone, perfectly captures the combination of mercenary affection, frosty nonchalance, and dogged individualism that so often characterizes feline pets. I’m a cat person, for the record.
Caps for Sale. There is something delightfully melancholic about a cap peddler who 1. has no money (because no one will buy his caps); 2. has no lunch (because he has no money); 3. is very hungry (because he has no lunch); and 4. chooses instead to go for a walk in the country… only to be harassed by a roving band of derelict monkeys.
The Handsome Little Cygnet. This story was discussed on episode 114 of the Catholic Culture Podcast, “A Children’s Book About Accepting Your Nature”, in an interview with its author Matthew Mehan. The book’s awesome illustrations by John Foley (who also teamed with Mehan for Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals—see CCP episode 43, “Teaching Children Self-Knowledge Through the Liberal Arts”) received mega bonus points from me for being filled with so many hidden easter eggs and New York City landmarks.
The Pie and the Patty-Pan. You can’t really beat The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but this lesser-known story by Beatrix Potter about a pussy-cat named Ribby who invites a little dog, Duchess, over for tea comes close. Humorously illustrating the foibles attendant upon fear of human respect, it also introduced me to an obscure vintage baking implement that I’m still not really sure I understand. What is a patty-pan? We may never know.
Sunshine. What ostensibly is a story about a grumpy landlord named Sunshine, is really a love letter to the City of New York. The unique style of its author and illustrator, Ludwig Bemelmans—himself an Austrian immigrant to New York—will be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with his stories about a little girl named Madeline. And it’s a Christmas story, to boot!
Stone Soup. This is my favorite in a series of old tales told and pictured by Marcia Brown. In the story, three soldiers returning home from war cleverly trick a village of unwitting peasants into sharing their food with them. Though the soldiers may at first blush appear as nothing more than two-bit con men, they actually emerge as three wise men who gently enrich the townsfolk with an experience of the virtue and joys of hospitality.
Weight of a Mass: A Tale of Faith. This parable about the true value of Holy Mass reads just like an old-world fairy tale. The story is wonderfully illustrated not only in its pictures but also in its choice vocabulary. Artful descriptions fill its pages alongside stunning watercolor paintings. This is one in a trilogy of stories about the theological virtues. I’ve not read the others, but if Weight of a Mass is any indication, they will be well worth countless readings.
The Clown of God. A true master storyteller and artist, Tomie dePaola needs no introduction. Though I am far from having read all his children’s books (he authored more than 260), his version of a French legend about a juggler who offers the gift of his talent, and the resultant miracle, is my favorite yet.
James T. Majewski is Director of Customer Relations for CatholicCulture.org, the host and narrator of Catholic Culture Audiobooks, and co-host of Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast.
Thomas V. Mirus
As always, my list includes books, shorter-form writing, music, and movies.
I’ll start with a non-exhaustive list of some of the best new books I read in 2022. Sive I’ve interviewed all the authors of these books on the Catholic Culture Podcast, I’ll link to the related interviews.
My pick for best new book of the past year is Ryan Wilson’s Proteus Bound: Selected Translations, 2008-2020. With beautiful translations in several languages ranging from the classical Roman poets to French romantics, this collection could serve as a pretty comprehensive introduction to the past two millennia of lyric poetry in continental Europe. Wilson’s recent Wiseblood Books essay How to Think Like a Poet and his earlier collection of original poems, The Stranger World, are also well worth seeking out. I’ll add that he gave me what is probably my best interview of 2022, among stiff competition.
Mary Stanford has given a great gift to the Church in The Obedience Paradox: Finding True Freedom in Marriage. Look no further for a defense and explication of Catholic teaching on authority and obedience between husband and wife, especially as expressed by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. Stanford’s presentation is beautiful and winning while not at all watering down this teaching at which so many modern Catholics take offense. Drawing on Scripture, the theology of the body (her academic specialty), and the whole Magisterial tradition, Stanford unveils the primordial reality of authority as gift and obedience as receptivity, an order which Christ came to restore in nuptial union with His Church.
My favorite new Catholic novel is Katy Carl’s As Earth Without Water. As my attempts to describe the premise in my own words are falling short, I’ll quote the publisher’s description:
When Dylan Fielding, celebrated contemporary visual artist, becomes Br. Thomas Augustine, novice at Our Lady of the Pines monastery, he finds delight not only in the shock his choice causes everyone around him but—to his own surprise—in the rhythms of the life itself. Shortly before he solidifies a lifelong commitment to the community, a traumatic encounter with an abusive priest plunges Thomas Augustine into terror and doubt. Reeling and uncertain, he reaches out to his friend, rival, and former lover, Angele Solomon, with hopes that she can help him to speak the difficult truth. As she attempts to advocate for her friend, Angele must ask how the scars left by their common past—as well as newer harms—can ever be healed or transcended. The wider inquiries demanded next will transfigure how both of them picture a range of human and divine things: time and memory; art and agency; trust and responsibility; and what it might mean to know real freedom.
Among many aspects of the novel which moved me, I’d like to single out Carl’s success in bringing a sensitive and redemptive vision to such a fraught topic as clergy sexual abuse.
D. C. Schindler’s The Politics of the Real: The Church between Liberalism and Integralism is one of the richest entries in the ongoing Catholic debate over liberalism, political authority, the common good, and the relation between Church and State. It includes devastating critiques of liberalism as “the political form of evil” and specifically in its relation to religious tradition, but also offers a profound and beautiful ontology of the social order and a somewhat different model of the relation between Church and State from the one proposed by Catholic integralists.
Some other noteworthy new books:
Those invested in the future of Catholic letters, and Catholic arts in general, should take the time to read Joshua Hren’s 80-page manifesto, Contemplative Realism. Inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s challenge to “ask rather more carefully what ‘the real’ actually is”, Hren lays out an approach to fictional realism which honors the spiritual and material in their proper relation, and reflects on a number of “contemplative realist” antecedents, great writers to whom Catholic fictionists might turn for guidance and inspiration.
Elizabeth Lev’s The Silent Knight: A History of St. Joseph as Depicted in Art offers not only a history of sixteen centuries of art featuring St. Joseph, but also an account of the development of devotion to St. Joseph over the past two thousand years—from the old man sitting overlooked in the corner of early Nativity scenes to the glorious Patron of the Univeral Church.
The Theology of the Body Institute has brought to light a retreat given by Karol Wojtyla to artists in 1962, God Is Beauty. This addition to the canon of St. John Paul II’s writings available in English has not yet received the attention it deserves.
This last year I have had the privilege of reading Aristotle for the first time (my favorite works so far being the Nichomachean Ethics and Metaphysics). As it happens, my brother’s first book, also on Aristotle, was published in 2022. Christopher Mirus is a lucid writer and brilliant thinker, and anyone with a professional or otherwise deep interest in Aristotle should read Being Is Better Than Not Being: The Metaphysics of Goodness and Beauty in Aristotle. The book draws together underlying themes in disparate areas of Aristotle’s thought, from ethics to natural science, in an original way.
Some older books I loved last year:
Denis McNamara’s Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy was a revelation. The theology and natural symbolism of classical architecture is beautifully treated. How to Read Churches by the same author is a helpful handbook for travel.
Speaking of travel handbooks, I found the Blue Guides to Rome and Florence extremely useful on my trip to Italy in July. Well-researched, in-depth info, with special attention to art and architecture.
In preparation for discussing a couple of movies about St. Francis on Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast, I decided to learn more about the beloved saint by reading Francis and Clare: The Complete Works from the Classics of Western Spirituality series. Given how little those two saints wrote, to learn about their spirituality in their own words is a rare privilege. An edifying companion, which I’m still working my way through, is the 14th-century Italian classic The Little Flowers of St. Francis (translated by Raphael Brown), a collection of stories about St. Francis’s companions and immediate followers. It brings to life how St. Francis’s Rule was actually lived in community, as he not only taught, but learned from, his brothers in holy poverty. Rosselini’s cinematic masterpiece The Flowers of St. Francis is based on this book.
I was introduced to St. Bernadette’s account of the Lourdes apparitions, My Name Is Bernadette, by Karina Majewski’s narration of it on Catholic Culture Audiobooks. A number of listeners reported being greatly moved by this reading.
Epictetus, The Handbook, trans. Nicholas P. White. I’ve been getting a lot of classics in thanks to my membership in the Online Great Books seminar program, which helps keep me on the ball. Indeed, my reading of all the books listed below (and Aristotle above) was spurred by my involvement in the OGB community. In addition to Aristotle, this year we read the Stoics, namely Seneca (almost unbearable), Marcus Aurelius (better), and Epictetus (best). Epictetus is most soulful (and brief) of the three, and I was moved by his exhortations to philosophers that they be more concerned with acting according to philosophy than with being known as philosophers.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. Re-reading this for the first time since high school, I saw much of myself in both Lizzie and her father, especially in their weaknesses. And it’s just as funny as I remembered.
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre. I have rarely come across a novel with this pitch of emotional and even spiritual intensity.
Beowulf—translations of the Old English epic by Heaney and Tolkien. The latter, published posthumously, is in prose but includes some excellent commentary excerpted from Tolkien’s lectures.
“Why I Left the Society of St. Pius X: An Open Letter to Fr. Gołaski”, by lay Dominican Andrew Bartel.
“Not in Talk but in Power”. Marc Barnes on why “Religion is not the opiate of the people—speech is.”
“The Politics of Hell”. Urban Hannon’s essay drawing political lessons from Aquinas’s demonology was recorded by James Majewski on our Catholic Culture Audiobooks podcast.
From 2002, an excellent essay on the great Catholic director Leo McCarey (The Bells of St Mary’s, The Awful Truth, Duck Soup, Make Way for Tomorrow, etc).
Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”. Poetic satire at its finest, with the most memorable description of a card game I’ve ever read.
Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”. A hilarious and sad short story about an enigmatic man who, presented with the demands of modern life, can only repeat “I would prefer not to.”
Andrew Marvell, “The Coronet”. This poem, about the snares of vanity and ambition hidden for those who would give glory to God through art, could be read with profit by all Christian artists, especially those occupied in the liturgical arts.
Everyone should know the unique jazz-Americana of guitarist Pat Metheny. Bright Size Life, his debut album from 1975, is a loose, improvisational jazz record, but already shows his folk-tinged compositional style. Later in his career under the aegis of the Pat Metheny Group, he and keyboardist Lyle Mays would invent, as it’s been said, virtually a new form of American folk music. Still Life (Talking), from 1987, is a good example of their style, with uplifting folk-jazz melodies, wordless vocals, thick atmospheric textures, dramatic compositional shifts, and a heavy Brazilian influence. This particular album was more controlled and poppy in its sensibility than some of his other studio work, making it a particularly accessible entry point.
The Secret Trio, Soundscapes: A New Concept in Chamber Music. The virtuosic Secret Trio produces a sort of international folk chamber music, with an Armenian playing oud (a fretless lute), a Macedonian clarinetist, and a Turk playing kanun (a 76-string zither). As disparate as their national origins are, they’re based here in NYC, so I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this fun and groovy ensemble live.
I’ve been continuing to work my way through the outstanding resource that is AllOfBach.com. The Netherlands Bach society continues to make freely available its recordings of the complete works of J.S. Bach, with performances on period instruments filmed in beautiful churches.
James Majewski and I continued chugging away on Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast this year, mostly discussing works from the Vatican’s 1995 list of 45 important films. I’ll start with some of my favorites from our Vatican list viewing, most of which are Italian classics.
From the Vatican film list
Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is a crowd favorite from the post-war movement known as Italian neo-realism. Films in this style often focused on the lives of the poor, were shot in real outdoor locations, and featured non-professional actors. In this movie, a poor man loses his bicycle, which he needs to keep his job. As he wanders Rome with his young son trying to find the thief, he becomes increasingly desperate. The film depicts the crushing pressures of poverty and societal dysfunction in Rome immediately following World War II, but it is more than a sociological document: it is intensely dramatic, and has something spiritual to say about how those suffering poverty can respond to their situation.
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) is another classic of the neo-realist movement, as well as one of the greatest saint movies ever made. Director Roberto Rossellini cast real Franciscans to play St. Francis and his brothers. The film draws its pure and simple vignettes from the 14th-century Little Flowers of St. Francis and Life of Brother Juniper, and faithfully imitates the joyous spiritual abandon and whimsical charm of its source material.
Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) was informed by neo-realism, but it contains a good deal of fantasy. A poor, half-witted girl is sold by her mother to be the assistant of a brutal traveling circus strongman. The film, alternately amusing and heartbreaking, attests to the seeds that can be planted by selfless love, even in the face of abuse and rejection. Condemned by Marxist critics in 1950s Italy for its spiritual view of suffering, the film found a better initial reception in the United States, where viewers saw Giulietta Masina’s unforgettable protagonist as a “cross between St. Rita and Mickey Mouse”.
All of the above films were influenced by Catholicism, but made by non-practicing directors. A much later film in the neo-realist tradition, The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), was made by an actual practicing Catholic, Ermanno Olmi. It applies the neo-realist ethos even more radically than the first wave of that movement, as the film barely has a plot and many parts could be mistaken for documentary. It depicts a year in the life of four peasant families living on a tenant farmhouse in late 19th century Lombardy. The actors are non-professionals, real local peasants speaking their Bergamasque dialect, recreating their normal life on camera (even if in the trappings of a century earlier). The result is a stunning vision of a now-bygone Catholic peasant culture, shying away neither from the beauty of this way of life nor from the economic injustices the people suffered.
Stepping far away from Italy and neo-realism, there is Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956), an unusual World War II movie told from the perspective of a Japanese troop in Burma in the days after their surrender to British-Australian forces. This is an anti-war film, and a film about piety toward the dead, but it’s also about vocation and how it relates to membership in a community.
If you only watch one silent movie in your life, it should be Carl Th. Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Two aspects in particular put this film in the canon: first, Renee Maria Falconetti’s transcendent performance as Joan, which some consider the greatest work ever done by a film actor. And second, the film’s radical visual style, eschewing establishing shots and even a clear sense of place to focus entirely on the actors’ faces, combining with fast-paced editing to put what Dreyer called the “close-quarter combat” between Joan and her judges front and center.
Another great mostly-silent film included on the Vatican list is Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). It’s both Chaplin’s last silent film and his first talkie—his character, the Little Tramp, is silent and the only time we hear people talking is when their voices are mediated through technology, such as on the radio or through an intercom system. This depersonalized and one-way approach to the human voice on film reflects not only a commentary on modern communications but also Chaplin’s personal aversion to the sound era. The film is not just filled with hilarious gags, but contains intelligent social commentary as the Tramp tries and fails to fit into the world of industrialized labor, and really any other part of the modern social order.
Moving away from the Vatican film list, a couple more silent films I’d like to mention:
King Vidor’s virtuosic The Crowd (1928) has some of the most arresting cinematography you’ll see in a silent film. It begins with a man who moves to New York City with the goal of being somebody, of standing out from the crowd. But he lacks the work ethic and talent to be the big shot his father told him he would be—he can’t even hold down a job. If he doesn’t confront his ego, self-pity and despair, his family will not survive.
Another gorgeous silent film (also from 1928!) is John Ford’s Four Sons. Ford is mostly known for his talkies, especially his Westerns like Stagecoach and The Searchers, as well as others like How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath. But he made more than fifty silent films between 1917 and 1928, though only a few survive. In Four Sons, a Bavarian widow and her sons have their idyllic life interrupted by the first World War.
For those interested in learning about the silent film era (if only the American side), I recommend the outstanding documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, narrated by James Mason (viewable on YouTube). The series came out in 1980, when many people from the silent film era were still alive to share their memories. As the title indicates, it is not just about silent films, but about the creation of Hollywood and the movies, period. Astonishing is the degree to which the early filmmakers were making up their craft as they went along—appropriate for an industry that began in a place where the tail end of the Wild West hadn’t yet disappeared. (Warning: there are a couple of moments dealing with the raunchy side of pre-censorship American films where clips with nudity are shown.)
Aside from The Burmese Harp mentioned above, I saw a number of other excellent Japanese films. My favorite is a recent film by Ryusuke Hamaguchi: Asako I & II (2018, and that’s one film). Two years after the disappearance of the young female protagonist’s flaky boyfriend, she meets a guy who is almost physically identical with her lost love. And that’s only the starting point for this unusual story about love, abandonment, and forgiveness, which I won’t spoil further.
The Japanese director who has made the greatest impact on world cinema is, of course, Akira Kurosawa, best known for his period movies about samurai (whose cross-genre influence is evident in everything from classic Westerns to The Mandalorian). One of the perks of living in New York City is that I get the chance to see classics on the big screen: such was my first viewing of Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai. Along with John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, this was probably the first movie whose plot focuses extensively on the assembly of a team—a now-classic conceit most evidently imitated by The Magnificent Seven.
Among Kurosawa’s most accessible films, Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962) feature the iconic Toshiro Mifune as a nameless wandering samurai, cynical and without allegiance, who reveals a more heroic side especially in the sequel. Yojimbo was essentially remade as A Fistful of Dollars—Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” is the same character in a cowboy hat. Both Yojimbo and Sanjuro, with their ultra-cool protagonist, exciting action, and brilliantly creative camera movement, would function well as a teenage boy’s introduction to arthouse/foreign cinema.
An odd but charming little movie by Yasujiro Ozu, Good Morning (1959) is about two little boys who decide to take a vow of silence in protest against their parents’ refusal to buy a television. Ozu gently pokes fun at the changing lifestyles in postwar Japan, and at the way we lubricate social interactions with phrases that don’t really mean anything (hence the film’s title).
All About Eve (1950) is a deliciously chilling piece about ambition and backstabbing in show business. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is a seemingly sweet and naïve young fan who enters the life of her idol, popular but aging stage actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Baxter excels in making hairpin turns from feigned innocence to ice-cold manipulation, as we gradually realize Eve is positioning herself to steal Margo’s career and relationships.
One of the pioneering works of film noir is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is seduced by a housewife (Barbara Stanwyck) into selling her husband a life policy and then murdering him. What stays in your heart and elevates the film to tragedy is the genuine love between Neff and his boss (Edward G. Robinson), a man of strict integrity whose job it is to investigate phony claims.
Holiday (1938) is a swell romantic comedy that begins in screwball mode and becomes more dramatic as it goes on. Cary Grant plays an industrious but free-spirited young man who gets engaged to the daughter of a wealthy banker. As he realizes what kind of life and persona she and her father will expect of him, he is drawn toward her more genuine and unconventional older sister, played by Katharine Hepburn. New Year’s Eve viewing.
Sam Peckinpah was known for directing “revisionist Westerns”, most famously The Wild Bunch. But his earlier Ride the High Country (1962) doesn’t lack for heroism, with an older Joel McCrea in an edifying role.
All That Heaven Allows (1955) stood out to me for a couple of reasons. First, its melodramatic plot about a socially disapproved romance between an middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) and a younger man (Rock Hudson) should be incredibly cheesy, especially given the movie’s emotional directness, but somehow it isn’t. Second, the film’s use of color is stunning and ahead of its time for a film of its era.
I discussed Italian neo-realism above, but that tradition reached other places than Italy: a great example is Kes (1969), considered one of Britain’s greatest films. Billy, a young teenager growing up in a South Yorkshire coal-mining community, finds respite from a dysfunctional family and inhumane school system in learning to train a wild kestrel. There’s one scene in particular, in which Billy gets the chance to tell his class how he trained his bird, that I found intensely moving.
Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996) is a beautiful British family drama. The protagonist, a black middle-class optometrist, after the death of her adoptive mother, decides to track down her birth mother, whom she discovers to be a white working-class woman with her own dysfunctional family. This poignant and funny depiction of different social classes rubbing against each other, as well as the family dysfunction and reconciliation that is universally human, is driven by an outstanding ensemble cast.
Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999)¸ about the working relationship of the 19th-century comic opera team Gilbert and Sullivan, is for most of its running time one of the most sheer fun movies I’ve seen, though following real life, it takes a quite dark and melancholy turn at the end (and includes one obscene scene that must be skipped). Topsy-Turvy has some of the best performances of G&S’s songs you’ll hear in a movie.
Fans of Alec Guinness’s many bizarre roles in 1950s dark British comedies may enjoy The Horse’s Mouth (1958), not only starring Guinness but written by him. In this rough-around-the-edges mocking paean to the life of the modern artist, Guinness plays eccentric and misanthropic painter Jim Gulley, who, as the film begins, has just been released from a one-month prison sentence he received for harassing his patron over the telephone. Searching for the perfect canvas on which to depict the raising of Lazarus, Gulley becomes fixated on a large, blank wall in the home of an aristocratic couple, and while they’re on a six-week vacation, he secretly moves in and begins his work.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the classic German WWII movie Das Boot. Bursting with suspense, filmed on a fully-built submarine set with the actors looking increasingly grimy and unshaven as shooting went on, it is easily the greatest submarine film ever made. If you’ve seen it, you’ve hopefully seen the 208-minute director’s cut rather than the greatly truncated theatrical version originally released in 1981. But the longest version of all was released as a 6-episode miniseries, which James Majewski and I watched in one sitting for an intense, rivet-popping Sunday afternoon. If you like historical war movies, you owe it to yourself to watch one of the greatest of all time, in one of the two longer versions. (Though both, unfortunately, contain some highly distasteful depictions of crude behavior and obscene comments by soldiers.)
Since being introduced to the Mad Max series with 2015’s Fury Road, I’ve gone back and watched the previous entries. Now that I’ve watched them all, I’d say that each one improves on the last. The third installment, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, is the best of the original Mel Gibson movies. In fact, this is the only one of the first three that outdoes Fury Road in one significant respect: the depth and emotional resonance of its world-building. Beyond Thunderdome is also the most chaste of the series.
On television, Better Call Saul concluded its 6-season run this year; featuring the crooked lawyer who was comic relief in Breaking Bad, it’s the rare spinoff some say is better than the original. I was approaching the end with trepidation; as much as I enjoyed this finely crafted show, I was concerned that it would end up as just a repeat of Breaking Bad‘s arc tracing a descent into evil. If something more redemptive wasn’t on offer this time, would the journey have been worth it? I have to hand it to the writers: in the show’s final two episodes they pulled off a stunning movement of repentance and even penance. (With regard to the latter, show creator Vince Gilligan in an interview explicitly referenced his Catholic upbringing, which I hadn’t heard him mention as an influence on his writing before.)
Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for CatholicCulture.org. He hosts the Catholic Culture Podcast and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast.
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Posted by: winnie -
Feb. 01, 2023 11:56 AM ET USA
After enjoying Kindle samples of The Spy & the Traitor and The Gilded Fly., I checked out The Spy and the Traitor at our library & downloaded the Kindle version of The Gilded Fly for a reasonable $6.91. Thanks Phil & Jeff for sharing these recommendations!
Posted by: crazylikeknoxes3387 -
Jan. 21, 2023 2:55 PM ET USA
The only books on this list that I've read are Beowulf and Caps for Sale.