The 45 Greatest Films of All-Time (According to The Vatican)

In 1995, to mark the 100 year anniversary of cinema, the Vatican compiled a list of 45 great films of all-time modestly titled “Some Important Films”.

“Since the first public audience in Paris viewed the moving pictures prepared by the Lumière brothers in December 1895,” Pope John Paul II remarked, “the film industry has become a universal medium exercising a profound influence on the development of people’s attitudes and choices, and possessing a remarkable ability to influence public opinion and culture across all social and political frontiers.”

“The Church’s overall judgment of this art form, as of all genuine art, is positive and hopeful. We have seen that masterpieces of the art of filmmaking can be moving challenges to the human spirit, capable of dealing in depth with subjects of great meaning and importance from an ethical and spiritual point of view.”

Each movie was chosen for their overall contributions to the film industry and their religious, moral, and/or artistic significance.

2001: A Space Odyssey
“Director Stanley Kubrick's epic work, co-written with Arthur C. Clarke, is both science fiction and metaphysical poetry using an unconventional mixture of visuals and music to bridge humanity's reconstructed past, identifiable present and projected future, all tied together by the recurring image of a monolith as symbol of a superhuman existence," wrote the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Wizard of Oz
“Dorothy rides her cyclone to the magic land over the rainbow in director Victor Fleming's classic that skyrocketed Judy Garland's career and has given generations of families prime entertainment again and again."
Walt Disney's only excursion into the world of the fine arts presents eight selections of classical music, including Dukas' 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' with Mickey Mouse and a bucket brigade of brooms, Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' with its massive, earthbound images and the macabre vision of Musorgsky's 'Night on Bald Mountain.' Using different approaches and animation styles for each piece of music as performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Leopold Stokowski, the imaginative work was not only Disney's most ambitious undertaking but it remains an enjoyably creative introduction to fine music, especially for youngsters."
article continues below ad
Citizen Kane
“When a Hearst-like newspaper tycoon (Orson Welles) dies, a reporter (William Alland) interviews the man's former associates (Joseph Cotton and Everett Sloane among them) and wives (Ruth Warrick and Dorothy Comingore) in an effort to pin down the essence of the contradictory, larger-than-life millionaire by discovering the meaning of his dying word, "Rosebud." Also co-written (with Herman J. Mankiewicz), produced and directed by Welles, the movie is a landmark in American cinema, notable both for its superb use of film technique and its intriguing story of a man who came from nothing, acquired fame and fortune but died without the love he sought.”
Schindler’s List
“Sobering account of an opportunistic German businesssman (Liam Neeson) out to make his fortune by exploiting Jewish labor in occupied Poland but the increasing barbarism of Nazi racial policies and the sadistic perversions of the local commandant (Ralph Fiennes) cause him to risk his life trying to save the Jews in his employ. Director Steven Spielberg restages this Holocaust story on an epic scale that gives horrifying dimension to one man's attempt to save some innocent lives, though providing little insight in the German's moral transformation or the individual lives of his Jewish workers.”
It's a Wonderful Life
“Seasonal favorite about the joys and trials of a good man (James Stewart) who, facing financial ruin on the eve of Christmas, contemplates suicide until his guardian angel (Henry Travers) shows him how meaningful his life has been to those around him. Director Frank Capra's unabashedly sentimental picture of mainstream American life is bolstered by a superb cast (including Lionel Barrymore as a conniving banker) and a wealth of good feelings about such commonplace virtues as hard work and helping one's neighbor.”
article continues below ad
Chariots of Fire
“Two young Englishmen (Ben Cross and Ian Charleson) overcome quite different obstacles to win gold medals at the Paris Olympics of 1924. One is a Jew determined to beat the anti-Semitic establishment at its own game and the other is a devout Scot who runs for the glory of God.”
The Seventh Seal
“Intense medieval morality tale about a disillusioned knight (Max Von Sydow) returning from the Crusades to a plague-ravaged land where he forestalls Death (Bengt Ekerot) by wagering his life on a game of chess during the course of which he saves a traveling player named Joseph (Nils Poppe), his wife Mary (Bibi Andersson) and their infant son. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman convincingly re-creates the religious context of the Middle Ages but the knight's quest to find meaning in a world of physical suffering and spiritual emptiness is more directly related to the contemporary search for life's meaning in our own age of doubt and uncertainty.”
“Superb portrait of India's great political and spiritual leader comes to life in Ben Kingsley's authoritative yet sensitive performance. Director Richard Attenborough's epic-scale production re-creates Gandhi's life and times, especially his use of non-violence and hunger strikes to bring together the diverse peoples of India and unify them as a nation. Though its scenes of violence are not for children, the movie's vision of justice and peace is for everyone else, especially young people.”
article continues below ad
D.W. Griffith's epic masterpiece intercuts four stories of injustice -- the fall of Babylon, the Crucifixion, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and a contemporary American story of an innocent man sentenced to death. The movie develops parallel action in each of the stories, though centered principally on the tale of an impoverished couple whose wife tries to save her husband from being unjustly hung and the Assyrian conquest of Babylon which is presented on an epic scale. Though complex in narrative structure, each story is connected to the others by the simple image of a woman rocking a cradle, a device dropped as the tempo increases in the conclusion of the stories. The movie's brilliance in concept, execution and editing is still impressive, dated only by its florid titles and melodramatic characterizations.”
“Director William Wyler's classic Hollywood epic follows the Jewish prince of the title (Charlton Heston) after he's betrayed by his boyhood Roman friend (Stephen Boyd) and subjected to much misery until finally achieving retribution for all his suffering. The narrative's conventional melodrama is transformed by the grand scale of its spectacle, especially the chariot race, and by the stirring performances of its principals who manage to overcome the story's cliches and stereotypes.”
“Silent classic of a future society ruled by an aristocracy living in luxury above ground while the workers suffer miserably underground, comforted only by the religious faith of a young woman (Brigitte Helm) in whose likeness a sinister scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) fashions a robot inciting the workers to rebel but all ends in reconciliation. Directed by Fritz Lang, the story's melodramatic turns and woolly finale may be dated but not its vivid pictorial sense, grandly expressionistic decor and theme of social justice.”
article continues below ad
On the Waterfront
“Classic labor film about a punched-out boxer (Marlon Brando) who, despite the machinations of his shifty brother (Rod Steiger) and with some encouragement from the woman (Eva Marie Saint) he loves as well as a waterfront priest (Karl Malden), decides to stand up to the criminal boss (Lee J. Cobb) of a corrupt union of dock workers. Budd Schulberg's fact-based script is directed by Elia Kazan with stand-out performances and a gritty realism grounded in a working-class milieu, abetted by Leonard Bernstein's rousing score and Boris Kauffman's atmospheric photography.”
Wild Strawberries
“During the day on which he is to be awarded an honorary degree from a nearby university, a 78-year-old retired scholar (Victor Sjostrom in a masterful performance) is visited with dreams and reveries about his past life, especially his failures and disappointments in personal relationships. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman brilliantly develops the man's interior journey from pangs of regret and anxiety to a refreshing sense of peace and reconciliation summed up in blissful images of his happy youth. One of the great films about aging that touches universal chords in mature viewers.”
The Mission
“In the 1750s, the large and prosperous Jesuit Indian missions were divided between Spain and Portugal. In dramatizing these events, Robert Bolt's screenplay focuses not on the religous but on the sociopolitical dimension of the colonial era and its injustices. The epic production is visually splendid but Roland Joffe's direction is erratic and bogs down in contrasting a nonviolent priest (Jeremy Irons) and one (Robert De Niro) who leads the Indians against a colonial army. Although dramatically flawed, the work recalls a past that provides a context for current Latin American struggles.”
article continues below ad
8 1/2
“With both career and marriage in chaos, an Italian movie director (Marcello Mastroianni) protects his overgrown ego by retreating into surreal memories of the past and wild fantasies about the present. Director Federico Fellini has some self-indulgent fun with his profession, semibiographical events from his youth and themes from his movies while taking viewers on a journey through the rich, at times bizarre, imagination of an artist whose attempts to cope with the demands of the real world are resolved in a final flood of optimism as the director joins with all his characters in a human carousel of life.”
Grand Illusion
“Shot down during World War I, a French aristocrat (Pierre Fresnay) is treated as a brother officer by the German aristocrat (Erich von Stroheim) commanding the prisoner-of-war camp, then makes use of his special status to distract attention while two fellow prisoners (Jean Gabin and Dalio) make good their escape to Switzerland. Directed by Jean Renoir, the picture of life in the camp is rich in narrative incident and human detail, neatly supporting a theme dealing with the end of the aristocratic ideal of chivalry and its replacement by mass armies of commoners with no desire for war.”
La Strada
“Two-bit circus strongman (Anthony Quinn) adds a simple-minded peasant (Giulietta Masina) to his act, treating her badly until a tragic encounter with a bantering acrobat (Richard Basehart) who tries to help her. Italian director Federico Fellini's somber picture of lost souls on the backroads of life has its emotional center in Masina's Chaplinesque performance as the poor waif struggling to keep her spirit from being crushed by the brute she serves.”
article continues below ad
The Lavender Hill Mob
“British comedy classic in which a timid bank employee (Alec Guinness) concocts a scheme to hijack a shipment of gold bullion with the aid of professional crooks (Sidney James and Alfie Bass), then melt it down in the foundry of an accomodating sculptor (Stanley Holloway) and recast it as Eifel Tower souvenirs for export to Paris. Scripted by T.E.B. Clarke and directed by Charles Crichton, the tongue-in-cheek depiction of a perfect crime has one hilarious flaw after another, culminating in a wild police chase through London and a neat twist ending in South America.”
The Leopard
"Historical drama set against the background of Garibaldi's 1860 invasion of Sicily where the prince (Burt Lancaster) of an old aristocratic family refuses to adapt to revolutionary times despite the marriage of his more egalitarian nephew (Alain Delon) to the daughter of a wealthy ex-peasant. Directed by Luchino Visconti from the novel by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, the result captures a fascinating period of social, political and economic change in a family saga filled with nostalgia for a past, more elegant age.”
Little Women
“Lovingly sentimental but firmly crafted adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's story of four New England girls cared for by their mother while their father is soldiering in the Civil War. Director George Cukor depicts the joys and woes of the loving March family household with warmth and sincerity, but most memorable is the ensemble performance of a remarkable cast.”
article continues below ad
Modern Times
Charlie Chaplin's insightful fable of man versus machine centers in the artificiality of industrialized society and the anxieties caused by the Depression as Charlie dances his way through the hazards of an assembly line job. A model of silent comedic technique and refined slapstick humor, the movie marks the last appearance of the Little Tramp character as Charlie takes his final walk down the long empty road, this time in the company of Paulette Goddard who adds an element of freshness to the plot's old-fashioned romance.”
“Epic silent chronicle of Napoleon Bonaparte (Albert Dieudonne) from his student days at a military academy through his rise as an officer during the Revolution and Reign of Terror until ending in 1796 when the Directory puts him in command of the army invading Italy. Directed by Abel Gance, the episodic narrative is heavily melodramatic, yet the sheer exhuberance of the actors and the monumental staging of the action carry viewers along in richly visual experience made memorable by Gance's innovative use of portable cameras and triple screens.”
“In this Western classic, a cowboy (John Wayne) wanted by the law on trumped-up charges joins an odd assortment of passengers (Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, Donald Meek, John Carradine and others) on the stage to Lordsburg in the midst of an Apache uprising. Directed by John Ford, the characters are a microcosm of frontier types, each of whom has a different reason for the journey whose dangers are played out against the majestic vistas of Monument Valley, with a brilliantly staged Indian attack and a final showdown on the streets of Lordsburg that brings the story to a rousing finish.”
article continues below ad
Dekalog 1
“Produced for Polish television, this series of ten hour-long programs explores the contemporary meaning of the Ten Commandments as seen in the lives of various residents of a drab Warsaw apartment complex. Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, none of the stories is religious though all grapple with moral conflicts arising from ordinary situations and relationships which most viewers will not see as being at all foreign to them.”
Au revoir, les enfants
“When the Gestapo discover that a priest has hidden three Jewish youths in a Catholic boys' school, he and the boys are arrested and deported to concentration camps. French writer-producer-director Louis Malle re-creates a painful memory from his own youth in a restrained, humbling, well-acted dramatization of a boy's firsthand experience of the Holocaust.”
The Bicycle Thief
“Simple yet compelling study in desperation as a worker (Lamberto Maggiorani) must find his stolen bicycle or lose his new job. Ignored by the police and others, the man and his young son (Enzo Staiola) search the streets for it until, in despair, he himself tries to steal a bicycle. Scripted by Cesare Zavattini and directed by Vittorio De Sica, the result is an engrossing picture of the human realities of life on the edge of poverty, shot on the streets of Rome with a cast of non-professionals that brought a new realism to the postwar screen and a new emotional honesty to the stories it told.”
article continues below ad
The Burmese Harp
“Badly wounded in Burma at the end of World War II, a Japanese soldier (Shoji Yasui) is nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, then devotes himself to searching the jungle battlefields for the abandoned remains of dead soldiers to give them a decent burial. Directed by Kon Ichikawa, the Japanese production takes a strong anti-war stance through a series of flashbacks to the horrors of battle, but uses hauntingly poetic imagery to convey the main theme of life's value and the need to atone for its loss.”
Dersu Uzala
“Russian production about the friendship that grows between a turn-of-the-century explorer in Siberia and his guide, an aging Tungus hunter whose name gives the film its title. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa concentrates on evoking the vast remoteness of the Siberian wilderness, a world the Russian finds forbidding but one in which the hunter is perfectly at home.”
“Director William Wyler's classic Hollywood epic follows the Jewish prince of the title (Charlton Heston) after he's betrayed by his boyhood Roman friend (Stephen Boyd) and subjected to much misery until finally achieving retribution for all his suffering. The narrative's conventional melodrama is transformed by the grand scale of its spectacle, especially the chariot race, and by the stirring performances of its principals who manage to overcome the story's cliches and stereotypes.”
article continues below ad
L' Albero degli zoccoli
“Quiet, richly textured Italian drama about the lives of four peasant families who work as tenant farmers on a Lombardy estate at the end of the last century. Beginning with the fall harvest and ending with the spring planting, the movie depicts the everyday life of rural people who endure with human dignity in spite of the oppressive system which exploits their labor. Written, photographed and directed by Ermanno Olmi, this is a loving portrait of ordinary life in an age of social injustice.”
Andrei Roublev
“Russian production about a 15th-century monk (Anatoli Solonitzine) who perseveres in painting icons and other religious art despite the civil disruptions and cruel turmoil of his times. Director Andrei Tarkovsky visualizes brilliantly the story of a devout man seeking through his art to find the transcendent in the savagery of the Tartar invasions and the unfeeling brutality of Russian nobles.”
A Man For All Seasons
“Engrossing drama of the last seven years in the life of Thomas More, Henry VIII's chancellor, who met a martyr's death rather than compromise his conscience during a period of religious turmoil. Robert Bolt's script is masterfully directed by Fred Zinnemann, with a standout performance by Paul Scofield in the title role, among other notable performances from a uniformly fine cast. The historical dramatization achieves an authentic human dimension that makes its 16th-century events more accessible and its issues more universal.”
article continues below ad
Monsieur Vincent
“Lucid, moving account of St. Vincent de Paul's work among the poor and the oppressed in 17th-century France, from his first labors in a plague-ravaged village and his appeals to the conscience of the aristocracy to the founding of an order devoted to charitable works and his death in 1660. Director Maurice Cloche portrays the poverty of the times and the cruelty of the regime in starkly convincing fashion, providing a solid historical framework within which Pierre Fresnay's performance in the title role shines with a warm compassion and spiritual intensity which most viewers will find irresistibly compelling.”
“Mexican story set in 1905 when a young priest comes into disfavor with his inflexible religious superiors, the civil authorities and even the poor among whom he tries to live a life of simplicity, poverty and charity. Though director Luis Bunuel's work is not very optimistic about the possibility of idealism winning over the world, it's not critical of religion, only pious hypocrisy.”
“Challenging Danish production about different kinds of faith and various sorts of miracles, one of which restores a dead woman to life. Directed by Carl Dreyer, the austere narrative centers on a farming family troubled by the madness of a son (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who believes he is Jesus Christ until, regaining his balance, his faith in God achieves the miracle which brings the story to a positive though less than convincing conclusion some may find disappointingly ambiguous.”
article continues below ad
The Passion of Joan of Arc
“Silent screen masterpiece portraying the heresy trial, confession, recantation and execution of the Maid of Orleans (Maria Falconetti) in a performance of such emotional power that it still stands as the most convincing portrayal of spirituality on celluloid. Directed by Carl Dreyer, the work is essentially the interior epic of a soul, consisting largely of close-ups of Joan's face and those of her interrogators accomplished in a fashion which is never static as the camera explores the inner struggle between human frailties and spiritual strength.”
The Sacrifice
“Swedish production in which a group of adults and a child pass through a night of confusion and fear, including portents of a nuclear-devastated landscape. Director Andrei Tarkovsky's murky religious allegory about an aging writer's bargaining with God to save others relies upon long silences, ritualized dialogue and beautiful but static photography. Subtitles. A very personal film about love and compassion, the effect is strangely cold and distant.”
“French dramatization of the life of St. Therese de Lisieux from age 15 when she joined a cloistered convent of Carmelite nuns to her death there 9 years later of tuberculosis. Director Alain Cavalier's impressionistic account of the young woman (luminously portrayed by Catherine Mouchet) who found personal joy, spiritual liberation and the sanctity of selfless simplicity within the restrictive traditions of an austere religious community will challenge contemporary viewers and confound some.”
article continues below ad
“Overwrought Italian production portrays St. Francis of Assisi (Mickey Rourke) as a spiritual agitator challenging the accepted values of his 13th-century contemporaries by embracing a life of utter poverty and simplicity. Director Liliana Cavani builds an elaborate picture of the period's social injustices but fails to evoke any convincing sense of religious conviction from Rourke's embarrassingly vacuous performance.”
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
“Straight-forward Italian dramatization of the evangelist's account of the life of Jesus and His message of salvation succeeds exceptionally well in placing the viewer within the Gospel events, avoiding the artificiality of most biblical movie epics. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini is completely faithful to the text while employing the visual imagination necessary for his realistic interpretation.”
Flowers of St. Francis
“Remarkable Italian production about the beginnings of the Franciscan Order as its founder sets the example of humility, simplicity and obedience for his first followers at Portiuncula, a little chapel near Assisi, from which they depart into the world to preach peace. Directed by Roberto Rossellini from a script co-written with Federico Fellini, the movie's form is as simple and sincere as the subject of the narrative which relates a series of little incidents realistically, yet with an infectious sense of joy marvellously conveyed by an anonymous cast of monks from a Roman monastery.”
article continues below ad
Babette’s gastebud
“Screen version of a story by Isak Dinesen, set in a rugged fishing village in 1871 Denmark, shows the impact of a French housekeeper (Stephane Audran) on two pious sisters who carry on their late father's work as pastor of a dwindling religious flock. Danish director Gabriel Axel's understated but finely detailed work centers on the preparation and consumption of an exquisite Gallic meal, a sensuous labor of love which has a healing effect on the austere sect and the Frenchwoman who prepared it.”

25 Movies That Audiences Loved But Critics Hated
The 20 Best Spaghetti Westerns Ever Made