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'Popcorn With the Pope': The Vatican Meets Hollywood

, | February 16, 2024 | By

In 1995, under Saint John Paul II, the Vatican released a list of the top 45 films of all time, divided into the categories of “religion, values and art.”

Bishop Barron's Word on Fire apostolate has now published a new book called Popcorn with the Pope: A Guide to the Vatican Film List.

Religion films on the list include Christian-themed films like Ben-Hur (1959), Francesco (1989, about St. Francis) and A Man for all Seasons (1966).

Under Values are such films as Schindler's List (1993), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and Gandhi (1982).

For Art, things get interesting, with choices including Citizen Kane (1941), Fantasia (1940), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

In Popcorn With the Pope, three academics analyze the films through a Catholic lens, seeing how well each one held up to the subdivision it represented. I enjoyed the book and found it, whether intentionally or not, represented the three pillars of evangelization: beauty, truth, and goodness.


Films and Beauty

Popcorn with the Pope capitalizes on the resurgence of reading as a pastime. The bookstore I went to for Christmas shopping boasted a waiting line at the cashier 30 persons deep. People want the tactile experience of holding and leafing through a book.

My copy does not disappoint.

Printed on high-gloss, heavy stock paper with French flaps, it has an eternal build to it. Opening the book reveals each film to be a chapter to be color-coded with inset boxes: gold shows movie quotes while maroon delivers interesting factoids from each film.

Of course, a book about films would not be complete without stills from the film. My favorite is the iconic black-and-white photograph of Maria Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc in the Religion section.

Films and Truth

The theological analysis of each film is the book’s greatest strength.

Here, the three academics -- David Paul Baird, Andrew Petiprin, and Michael Ward -- are well within their wheelhouses. They explain the Catholic elements in an elevated language that does not come off as too erudite or inaccessible.

The best example comes from the art category, in the film Nosferatu (1922). It's the only horror film of the list, and the writer explains why even fear and terror, inimical to the Catholic faith, nevertheless contain a smidgen of truth.

If evil and even supernatural evil are real, then they must be residual of the reality of good and of God.

Films and Goodness

Each chapter closes with a few reflection questions. If the film or this book hasn’t stirred moral goodness in you, then these prompts may direct you along the way. The most relevant reflection question comes in the Schindler’s List essay in the appropriately titled “Values” section.

The Second Vatican Council’s document Nostra Aetate condemns all forms of anti-Semitism. Have you ever witnessed this form of hatred in the world or even in the Church? What is an appropriate Christian response?

This book may inspire a reader to read further best film anthologies.

Among those, my personal favorite is the late Roger Ebert's (a Catholic of sorts) Great Movies. Employing a sparse, yet effective Midwestern writing style, he cleverly gets to the point of why a great movie executed what it was trying to be about.

His stories are also very personal, taking you back to the first time he saw a movie and/or rewatched them. His essays on great movies read like great homilies.

Finally, years ago I wrote a list of modern pairings with the Vatican top 45. You can read it here.

Has Anyone Watched All These Films?

Yes. If you have three hours and change, you can listen to the the Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast hosts discuss every film on the list. Bless their hearts.


Or, if you just have an hour, you can just listen to their discussion on Popcorn with the Pope:


Image: Canva/Word on Fire Institute

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