Among the various depictions of Catholic clergy and other representatives of Catholic faith on big and small screens in 2014, one that stands out is Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez’s Rev. Mendoza in Scott Derrickson’s “Deliver Us From Evil.”
Horror movies, particularly exorcism-themed films, are the one Hollywood genre in which Catholicism is often a positive presence; recent examples include “The Rite” (2011) and “The Conjuring” (2013). Even so, Mendoza is an unusual screen priest in more ways than one. “I just felt I didn’t want to write the same old Irish priest demon-hunting guy,” Derrickson told me in a 2014 interview.
Ramírez’s attachment to the film was announced in April 2013, scant weeks after Pope Francis’ election to the papacy. Observers might reasonably wonder whether the casting choice in any way reflected a “Francis effect,” but Derrickson says his decision to make the character Latin American preceded Francis’ election.
By mid-year I would have predicted that Mendoza would surely prove to be the best big-screen priest of 2014 — but Brendan Gleeson’s Rev. Lavelle in John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” proved me wrong. The film issues a scathing critique both of the Irish Church and post-Christian Irish secularism, but Lavelle at the film’s center makes for a deeply compelling and attractive ambassador for faith in a desacralized age. (Crux review)
Mendoza and Lavelle weren’t the only heroic screen priests of 2014. Mark Williams continued his portrayal of G.K. Chesterton’s clerical sleuth Father Brown in the popular BBC series, about to begin its third season. (The 13-episode 1974 ITV series “Father Brown” starring Kenneth More also got a new DVD release in 2014.)
The fact-based French film “The Jewish Cardinal” offered a sympathetic, thoughtful portrait of Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jewish convert to Catholicism at age 13 and a child of Polish Jews. Ordained to the priesthood in 1954, he was made a bishop by Pope John Paul II, ultimately serving as archbishop of Paris for most of John Paul II’s reign. A significant part of the film concerns the clash between Lustiger (whose mother died at Auschwitz) and John Paul II over the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz.
The acclaimed Polish art film “Ida,” from director Pawel Pawlikowski, offered a very different take on some similar themes. The protagonist is a young Franciscan novice named Anna raised in a convent and preparing for final vows as a nun when the discovery that she was born Jewish and her parents were killed during the Nazi horror sends her on a journey of self-discovery.
Likable priests figured in the indie Bill Murray comedy “St. Vincent,” about a presumptively Jewish boy attending Catholic school who finds seeds of sanctity in his crusty, misanthropic neighbor. (Crux review)
More substantively, if also more briefly, the civil rights drama “Selma,” starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., includes supportive Catholic priests and at least one nun, as well as Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, among the ecumenical convergence of clergy and others rallying to support King for the famous 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.
Not all screen depictions of Catholicism in 2014 were so thoughtful. The Fox / Nat Geo documentary series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, recycled the anti-Catholic canard of the Church’s war on science with an animated historical segment misleadingly representing the 16th-century Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake by the Roman inquisition, as a martyr of science.
But such broadsides were relatively rare in a year in which the Church’s presence on the big and small screens was both more prominent and generally more positive than in most recent years.