An unexpected Lenten movie night watchlist – America: The Jesuit Review

It’s the first Friday in Lent, and you know what that means: Mandatory Lent Film Party! At least, that’s what it means at our house. As much as we can manage, every other evening in Lent is screen-free at our house. But on Fridays, we assemble the family and watch a movie together. But unlike most other movie nights, the adults get to pick it.
The parameters: Each movie should have a religious or spiritual theme or setting (not necessarily Christian), and it should be well-made enough that there’s a reason to watch it besides the spiritual aspect. We lean toward movies we probably wouldn’t get around to watching otherwise.
Some of the movies are new to us, and sometimes they turn out to be terrible! This is not a problem, as long as we talk about why we didn’t like it. Talking about the movie afterward is also mandatory.
We’ve done this for a few years, and I’ve reviewed these movies as we watch them. (Click the title of the films below for my full review.) I tried to include age recommendations—my kids range from age 8 to 25—but it’s a good idea to check out a site like for specific elements that may make it inappropriate for your household’s audience.
Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from the lesser-known or unexpected films on our Lenten watchlist to date:
Saint Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven” (2010)
This is an entertaining, pleasant, sometimes hokey but heartfelt movie, with one of the most winsome, appealing portrayals of a saint I have ever seen. It has very little to do with the actual life of the 16th-century Italian priest Philip Neri, but the character portrayed in the movie has a real personality, including real flaws. Yet, he’s also convincingly holy, and you see that he has a real, urgent relationship with Jesus. This is hard to pull off and makes the movie worth watching, even if it’s not historically accurate. Suitable for all ages, but does include a brief scene involving a prostitute, so get ready to explain that to kids. Available via Formed in Italian with English subtitles
The Jeweller’s Shop” (1989)
My family really bonded over how bonkers this movie is. It’s based on a play written by Pope John Paul II about married love, and I wanted to be moved so badly by this film and to hear something that would strike me to the core and make me see my life in a new light. But I had no idea what was going on. If you have seen this movie and it meant something to you, please let me know, because I saw it two years ago and feel like I’m still brain-damaged. Suitable for…surely some audience, somewhere. Available via Formed
The Reluctant Saint: The Story of Joseph of Cupertino” (1963)
This movie is somewhat dated in how it portrays people with intellectual disabilities and the presence of the divine and Italians. But once you fall in with the world being depicted, it is engaging and appealing. The film is lighthearted overall and keeps the story and the characters straightforward. It has a few fleeting but intense scenes of holiness that make the simple fish-out-of-water story very much worth watching. Recommended for all ages (though it may distress some viewers as it shows abusive relationships). Available via Formed
Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)
This is a perfect movie. The songs, the casting, the choreography, the dialogue, the cinematography, the pacing: Everything is perfect. It got onto this particular watchlist mainly because of the way Tevye speaks so naturally and constantly to God but also for the theme of “How far can you bend without breaking?” which has many applications. An entertaining, heartbreaking, very funny, deeply affecting and gorgeous movie that will put you through the wringer and ultimately ends with hope. For all ages, but shows violence and tragedy, plus a ghost scene which is comedic but may scare younger kids. Stream via ReelGood
I Confess” (1953)
This is a solid Hitchcock film, tightly constructed, compelling, a little weird and unpredictable throughout the whole movie with lots of dramatic camera work. It centers on a noble and brave priest named Father Logan, who is a regular guy facing a dramatic test regarding the seal of confession. Once the painfully suspenseful part is apparently over and Father Logan has come out victorious, that’s when the really awful part begins for him. A solid and engaging movie, and the final scene packs a good punch. For all ages, with tension and suspense and a little bit of violence and mention of infidelity. Stream via ReelGood
The Robe” (1953)
This is essentially the movie they were making in the loving-spoof “Hail, Caesar,” and wow it is corny. We like some Hollywood cheese (the kids love Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”), but this was beyond the pale, with more thunderclaps and screaming and thousand-mile stares per frame than should be legal. That said, there were a few good scenes: The crucifixion was appropriately eerie and upsetting, and I liked Demetrius’s conversion. It’s not about Jesus per se, but about how his influence grew and spread. Watch as a curiosity and as a chance to see lots of dreamy drapey costumes, but don’t expect much edification. Stream via ReelGood

Ushpizin” (2005)
A poor and childless Orthodox Jewish couple in Jerusalem have their prayers spectacularly answered for Sukkot—but there’s a hitch. I liked the intimate, affectionate way husband and wife pray. It’s explicitly about trusting God in a childlike way, and I was left a little disconcerted by the simplicity of how their prayers are (after some trials) so gloriously answered. But the characters are so fully realized, you can understand that this is something special that happened early in their life journey, and who knows what will come next? It is a heartfelt, funny and appealing movie that shows a world the American viewer rarely sees. Suitable for all ages. Stream via ReelGood
The Trouble With Angels” (1966)
This is an unsubtle, occasionally tedious movie that nevertheless is entertaining and well-conceived with a twist at the end that is thoroughly earned. It shows an episodic series of pranks and escapades by two sassy Catholic school girls; but it is gradually revealed that the various teaching nuns aren’t just all quirky in their ways, but many of them have poignant, sometimes tragic pasts that led them to the convent. The girls gradually mature and the nuns gradually come to love them, and the ultimate message is that following your vocation doesn’t mean giving up who you are. It’s dated but worth watching. Suitable for all ages. Stream via ReelGood
And finally:
“Groundhog Day” (1993)
We actually watched this on Groundhog Day, not during Lent, but it may be a good one to throw in there if your family is getting antsy about somber or uptight movies. This movie is not, of course, overtly about faith; but it is very much about free will, and how every day can be one of two things: the start of another long spell of dark, cold and hopelessness, or a chance to be who you were meant to be, expressed by showing unselfish love to others. Stream via ReelGood
This year, the films we’re considering include “The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928),” “Molokai” (1999) and “The Young Messiah” (2016). What would you recommend?
Simcha Fisher is a speaker, freelance writer and author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. She blogs daily at and weekly at The Catholic Weekly. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and 10 kids.
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