9 of the Best Oscar Nominated Films about Catholicism

Hannah Crites

9 of the Best Oscar Nominated Films about Catholicism

I am a huge film history buff. While some people like to indulge the more modern films, I prefer to find entertainment in the classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Roman Holiday, and Singin’ in the Rain. I find that characters were filled with virtue, storylines were original, and the films themselves stand the test of time, even if they are lacking in the special effects department.

The 91st Academy Awards are on Sunday, February 24. I'm not planning on watching it, but I figured it would be fun to review films that are highly decorated by the academy and feature Catholicism and Christ as a central theme leading up to the event. Messages of faith are lacking in modern cinematography, but there was a day when writers and producers were unafraid to bring those messages to the big screen. 

This is your official warning that there will be spoilers in these reviews as many of the central Catholic themes come in full circle at the end of the film.

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

12 nominations and 4 wins including Best Actress (Jennifer Jones)

This biographical drama about St. Bernadette and the Marian apparitions at Lourdes is an adaption of the 1941 book, The Song of Bernadette. The film is not 100% historically accurate, but it’s a beautiful introduction to Marian devotion for those who otherwise don’t know Mary. It also incredibly accurately explains the church’s understanding of the Immaculate Conception.

The film gives us an interesting insight into the conflict between reason and faith. Bernadette’s family forbids her from visiting the grotto again; the civil authorities sneer at her and religion; church authority interrogates Bernadette about the authenticity of her visions. However, as the film progresses, many of their hearts change and lead some to conversion.

Towards the end of the movie, we see St. Bernadette suffering, especially as she approaches the end of her life and contracts tuberculosis. We are reminded of how suffering paves the way to heaven. She is accused of vainglory by her Mother Superior and fellow sisters, but they later acknowledge the error of their ways and recognize Bernadette as a saint.

Bernadette persists regardless of the cruelty of those who surround her. She is obedient in visiting the grotto to see our Most Blessed Mother, obedient to her Mother Superior despite her cruelty, and trusts in God’s plan as she undergoes hardships surrounding the apparitions.

My only critique is that it’s difficult to remember that Jennifer Jones is portraying a 14-year-old girl (Jones was 24 at the time of filming), but she portrays Bernadette as a beautiful, simple, sweet, timid soul who loves her faith and the Blessed Mother; a performance that won her the well deserved 1943 Oscar for Best Actress.

The Song of Bernadette did well at the 16th Academy Awards ceremony and took home more awards than any other film nominated that year, but it was overshadowed in the more competitive categories by the classic film, Casablanca.

Going My Way (1944)

10 nominations and 7 wins including Best Picture, Best Actor (Bing Crosby), and Best Director (Leo McCarey)

Bing Crosby shines as the charismatic Father O’Malley, a music and baseball-loving priest who is assigned pastor to a struggling parish in a rough part of Manhattan where meets former pastor, a curmudgeonly yet endearing Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). Father O’Malley gets right to work by establishing a boys choir to keep them off the streets and out of trouble, figuring ways to satisfy an atheist mortgage collector and keep the church from foreclosing. Father Fitzgibbon struggles to relinquish control of the parish to Father O’Malley but both men begin to bond, forming a beautiful brotherhood.

Of course, no Bing Crosby movie would be complete without him crooning, and he doesn’t disappoint with beautiful renditions of Ave Maria, Silent Night, and Three Blind Mice.

The movie is filled with humor Catholics would appreciate (for instance, the boys are horrified by Father O’Malley’s idea to start a choir out of fear they’ll be put in lace and turned into altar servers), beautiful music, and a positive portrayal of priestly life. Father O’Malley is fulfilled and joyful in his vocation. He always bares in mind that he is a representative of the church and shows the boys, the people of the neighborhood, and Father Fitzgibbon that joy, peace, and hope is found in the Catholic faith. He even wins over the mortgage collector without using God’s name but by being Christ through compassion and generosity. Finally, he is obedient when the Bishop decides that his work at the parish is done and transfers him to another parish.

I hadn’t seen the movie until a few weeks ago. I was reminded of priests in my life as I watched Father Fitzgibbon and Father O’Malley. It was refreshing to see happy, joyful priests portrayed on the big screen who have their fair share of struggles, but have faith and persist.

Going My Way won 7 awards 10 nominations at the 17th Academy Awards, taking home more wins than any other film nominated that year. Barry Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Father Fitzgibbon was the first and only time an individual was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. He won Best Supporting Actor. The Academy amended the rules to prevent a recurrence.

The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

8 nominations (including Best Picture and Best Actor) and 1 win for Best Sound, Recording

Bing Crosby reprises his role as Father Chuck O’Malley in this sequel to Going My Way. The Bells of St. Mary’s follows Father O’Malley to his new assignment at a parish with a struggling parochial school. The fun-loving, charismatic pastor meets the stiff-necked principle, Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). Father O’Malley approaches schooling and discipline with a soft heart, often to the disadvantage of the child. Sister Mary Benedict is strict and firm, though she cares about her students. The film ought to be the official movie representative for Catholic education.

Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby’s on-screen chemistry is electric, though not romantic. Their mutual respect and love for the children they are serving are weaved throughout the whole movie. Interactions between religious and the children of the school are heartwarming (including one scene where sister Benedict teaches a student how to box, as well as a scene with the cutest Christmas play I’ve ever seen).

Watching Ingrid Bergman, one of the most beautiful women of classic Hollywood, as a religious sister devoted to her order and her mission is inspiring. Much like Crosby’s portrayal of Father O’Malley, Sister Benedict loves being a religious and serving the children of the school. She finds fulfillment in it and doesn't feel trapped by it, like many portrayals of sisters and priests do. Of course, Bing Crosby has a couple of beautiful arias as well. The movie as a whole shows off the compatibility of men and women in religious life. Both of them are absolutely essential in servicing the church.

Although it didn’t do as well as Going My Way at the 18th Academy Awards, Bing Crosby’s portrayal of Father Chuck O’Malley made him the first actor in history to receive two nominations for the same character. The honor is also held by Al Pacino for his portrayal of Michael Corleone (The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II), Cate Blancett for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II (Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age), and Sylvester Stallone for his portrayal of Rocky Balboa (Rocky and Creed).

The Robe (1953)

5 nominations (including Best Picture and Best Actor) and 2 wins for Best Art Direction and Costume Design

Richard Burton stars as Marcellus Gallio, the Roman Tribune who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in this fictional epic. Marcellus wins the robe worn by Christ in a dice game among the other Romans during the seemingly routine execution. From the ground, he hears Christ on the Cross forgiving his persecutors and brushes it off as darkness hits that land and chaos following the crucifixion begins.

Following the Crucifixion, Marcellus is haunted by dreams about the event and his leaders believe he is cursed and must destroy the robe, which they believe is bewitched. Miraculously, Marcellus meets followers of Christ who witnessed his teachings and healings. He is inspired by their love and compassion, especially after meeting Peter who invites him to join on his missionary journeys. Marcellus is hesitant; he remembers driving the nails into Christ’s hands and is consumed with guilt. Peter tells him about the night of Jesus’ crucifixion when he denied Jesus three times, yet Christ forgave him too.

Marcellus agrees to go with Peter and they eventually go to Rome, where he is reunited with his wife and tells her about Jesus and the Robe. She is inspired by his new found faith but is hesitant to support him. Eventually, Marcellus is discovered, accused of treason, and placed him on trial. He is adamant that he never betrayed Rome, but refuses to denounce his newfound faith. The emperor condemns him to death. Following the sentencing, Marcellus’ wife is touched by her husband's unwillingness to abandon his faith and announces to the court that she wants to be a Christian and wishes to die along with her husband.

The movie ends with the two of them walking hand in hand towards the firing squad smiling at each other as they are united under one faith, leading each other into the kingdom of heaven.

While many of the details from the Acts of the Apostles are omitted for the sake of the storyline, it doesn’t hinder the watcher from understanding the power of discipleship and evangelization in the years following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Christians experienced brutal persecutions in the beginnings, and the film portrays the fear that they often felt, but joy in their enlightenment.

However, lifelong atheist Richard Burton performance as Marcellus often appeared flat and uninspired. The true gem of this movie is in Marcellus’ Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), who was the first to encounter Christ in the film on Palm Sunday and was often moved to tears as he told Marcellus about these encounters. Michael Rennie's portrayal of St. Peter was also enchanting. Both men reprised their roles in the film's sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators

The Robe took home 5 nominations and 2 wins at the 26th Academy Awards. Some of its rivals included Roman Holiday, Julius Caesar, and From Here to Eternity.

Ben-Hur (1959)

12 nominations and 11 wins including Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), and Best Director (William Wyler)

This epic drama tells the story of a 1st century Jewish prince from Jerusalem named Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) who is betrayed by a Roman tribune, Messala, who was a childhood friend. He is forced into slavery on a galley, a Roman warship where he is subject to a brutal life of manual labor and rowing of the massive ship. As he and the other slaves are marched through the desert to the galleys, he begs for water, but the Romans deny him. He collapses, but a young man revives him, giving him water.

Three years later, he survives an attack on the ship and rescues the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who adopts him as his own son and trains him to be a champion charioteer. Judah returns to Jerusalem as a wealthy Roman and learns that Messala is now a champion charioteer as well and challenges him to a race for the new governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

He wins the race and searches for his surviving family members to discover that they have contracted leprosy. He attempts to bring them to a healer that has been traveling throughout Judea healing and preaching, named Jesus of Nazareth, but discovers that has been condemned to death on the cross. Judah sees Jesus being marched through the streets and immediately recognizes him as the man who gave him water years before. He hears Christ from the cross forgive his persecutors and returns home a changed man, no longer seeking vengeance for the injustices committed against him.

It is a remake of the 1925 silent film and was remade again in 2016, starring Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman.

I hadn’t seen this movie prior to writing this article. But I sat down and watched the 212-minute epic and can confidently say that it is one of the best movies I have ever seen. It has something for everybody—romance, dramatic sporting events, religion, an exploration of human survival, medical crisis, and an amazing redemption arc. The scale and the scope of the film for its time, as well as its ability to bring the audience into the 1st century time period, was jarring.

Although Jesus in the film did not show his face, nor did he have speaking lines, his mere presence was the most significant aspect of the film. Much of this epicness of sort in Jesus comes from the words of other people who heard him speak and share his words with others, portraying the incredible power of evangelization.

Ben-Hur won a record-breaking 11 awards at the 32nd Academy Awards (until Titanic equaled it in 1998 and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004).

The Sound of Music (1965)

10 nominations and 5 wins including Best Picture and Best Director (Robert Wise)

Perhaps the most well-known movie on this list, The Sound of Music is a strong Catholic film that has been beloved for over 50 years. There is an innocence and beauty that cannot be found in most movies today. The story takes place in Austria following Maria (Julie Andrews) a novice in an Abbey who is fiercely devoted to her Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) and thinks she knows what she wants, though she struggles with following convent rules. But Mother Abbess sends her to take a break from convent life to serve as the governess for seven children who have lost their mother, and lack a joyous childhood under the strict hand of their father, Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer).

In addition to bringing joy and music back to the sullen household, Maria brings a spirit of prayer when she prays for the children and their father before she goes to bed and instructs everybody to pray before dinner.

Some may say that Catholicism is not a central theme of the film compared to others on this list, but I argue that it does belong on this list. This is especially prevalent in the scene between Maria and Mother Abbess in the middle of the movie. Maria is struggling between her desire to enter the Abbey and her love for the children and captain whom she believes is marrying someone else. It offers a beautiful lesson in the meaning of vocation. Through a spine-tingling song (and my favorite song of the movie) Mother Abbess encourages Maria to pursue what her heart is telling her, but adds that part of discovering what your heart says must be:

A dream that will need
All the love you can give
Every day of your life
For as long as you live

This is deeper than the blind advice often given to “Follow your dreams.” It involves the greatest love in the world that can only be found at the cross. A vocation to marriage or to religious life is not meant to be self-serving. It requires “all the love you can give…for as long as you live”!

This has been one of my go-to movies for years, especially after studying abroad in Austria and living in the same beautiful scenery as Maria and the Von Trapp family. It’s holistic, pure, and can be enjoyed by the whole family.

The Sound of Music did well at the 38th Academy Awards, taking home 5 awards and 10 nominations with Doctor Zhivago. Both films are among the most commercially successful films ever made.

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

5 nominations including Best Original Score and Best Cinematography

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a historical drama that highlights the relationship between Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) during the painting of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling in the early 16th century.

Most of the movie highlights the conflict between the two men. Michelangelo preferred to create large-scale sculptures, while Pope Julius is threatened with the War of the League of Cambrai and is frustrated by Michaelangelo’s hindrance. He attempts to speed up Michelangelo's work who is suffering from major fatigue as he paints around the clock on the ceiling from high scaffolding. It also portrays the rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael.

The story explores the inner conflict of Michelangelo who loves his Catholic faith and wants to be obedient to the Holy Father, but his temper often gets in the way.

The movie ends with Michelangelo reviewing the space behind the altar where he would later paint his masterpiece Last Judgement.

The film itself often drags. I found it was difficult to stay engaged in the midst of heavy dialogue and little action. But I enjoy art history and Michelangelo is my all time favorite artist, so I was fascinated by the overall story surrounding one of Michelangelo's most famous works and the beautiful sets and costumes.

The Agony and the Ecstasy competed with five nominations at the 38th Academy Awards, the same year as The Sound of Music. But it didn’t take home any wins.

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

8 nominations and 6 wins including Best Picture, Best Actor (Paul Scofield), and Best Director (Fred Zinnemann)

This is a biopic movie is an adaptation of the stage drama about St. Thomas More (Paul Schofield), a 16th century Lord Chancellor of England who refused to endorse the King Henry VIII of England’s (Robert Shaw) divorce from Catherine of Aragon and take an Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII supreme head of the Church of England.

I had mix feelings before watching this movie. A priest friend of mine who is also a movie buff has recommended this movie multiple times, both on the pulpit and in private conversation, However, I noticed that it was directed by the same man who directed A Nun’s Story starring Audrey Hepburn, which I watched hoping to include on this list, but felt was a very inaccurate and poor portrayal of religious life.

Yet upon watching A Man for all Seasons, I was very impressed by this film. St. Thomas More is one of the most underrated saints of the church, but he is one who people are very likely to relate to. He has a successful career and is a patriot. He loves his country and his work. He’s a wonderful husband and father who makes his family a priority. But above all, he loves his faith and was unwilling to compromise on it, despite his family and friends begging him to submit. This led him to become a martyr.

This multifaceted personality of St. Thomas More was portrayed in the movie well. Schofield’s portrayal balanced both the compassionate family man and just politician. It was difficult to watch the man who had everything (honor, power, family, faith, wealth) lose everything because renouncing what he believed was not an option for him.

The film also features a very young John Hurt in one of his earliest roles as Richard Rich, and Orson Welles as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, More’s predecessor as Lord Chancellor.

A Man for All Seasons led the 39th Academy Awards, taking home 6 awards, more than any other film that year, including three of the most competitive categories, rivaling Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Director Fred Zinnemann won the Oscar for Best Director in addition to winning Best Director for his work on The Nun’s Story in 1959.

In 1995, on the 100th anniversary of cinema, the Vatican listed A Man for All Seasons among the greatest movies of all time with Ben-Hurr, Schindler’s List, It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

3 nominations including Best Cinematography

Mel Gibson’s directorial masterpiece tells the story of Jesus’ Crucifixion beginning with the last supper and ending with a brief shot of his resurrection. Jim Caviezel delivered a highly praised performance as Jesus; the musical score is bone-chilling; the makeup is highly realistic and somewhat troubling.

This is the only film on the list that parents should consider waiting to show their children until they are older. As Christians, we are used to seeing the clean images of the stations of the cross.

This film brings forward the reality of how brutal the passion and death of Christ really were, to a point where Christ hardly looks human by the time he is nailed to the cross following brutal torture. It’s a difficult movie to sit through, but it transforms how Christians view the crucifixion and why Christ underwent it.

There are no shortages of stories from the set, it’s amazing the film was finished. The assistant director was struck twice by lightning. Caviezel was struck by lightning, endured debilitating migraines, dislocated his shoulder while carrying the cross, was accidentally whipped twice, and contracted a lung infection and pneumonia while filming his scenes on the cross.

However, a lot of the cast and crew converted after completing the film, most notably Luca Lionello, an atheist who portrayed Judas Iscariot.

In 2016, Mel Gibson announced that he was working on a sequel to this film focussing on the resurrection of Jesus. Caviezel confirmed that he will be reprising his role as Jesus. An official release date has not been announced.

The Passion of the Christ was nominated for 3 awards at the 77th Academy Awards including Best Cinematography, Best Original Music Score, and Best Makeup.