At the movies

Fritz Bauerschmidt’s recent posting on sleepy Easter Vigils got me thinking about portrayals of liturgy in the media.  There are, of course, any number of videos on the web featuring liturgies of various kinds.  I am wondering if readers have examples to offer of liturgies depicted in movies or in fictional / dramatic television productions (not live broadcasts of liturgies).  Comments might address the quality of the liturgy but also such things as the nature and quality of the lighting and camera angles, which of themselves can offer an interpretation of the liturgy.  Perhaps some of you have read novels featuring an account of a liturgy; please feel free to share about those as well.  I am in the middle of grading student work at Villanova so I am drawing a blank at the moment but I look forward to the discussion.


  1. The film version of “Doubt” has several scenes inside the church with Mass a la early 60s. Philip Seymour Hoffman is wearing a damask vestment with the stole OUTSIDE but it doesn’t look like anything is happening at altar. Another is Jason Miller (Fr Karras) in “The Exorcist” saying Mass in Dahlgren Chapel. He breaks the host during the words of institution.

  2. I don’t have a specific example, but every time I see a liturgy portrayed in a show, I think, “I should be a liturgical advisory for Hollywood.” They either have the Collect prayed at the ambo at what seems to be the Liturgy of the Word, or the marriage vows are a strange amalgamation of traditions, or the wrong vesture is worn for the wrong event. Ah well . . . it could be a fun career though.

  3. The TV series Blue Bloods centers around a Catholic New York police family, with fairly frequent instances of grace before meals, or the main character police commissioner (played by Tom Selleck) meeting with the parish priest or a bishop. The few liturgy scenes are never quite right in the details, along the lines noted by Timothy above. Still, a pretty enjoyable series.

  4. I can only speak Anglo-English cinema (it’s a big world out there*). Obviously, weddings and funerals dominate, and not for the better. There is, of course, the most infamous baptism scene in cinema history (The Godfather (I)); the First Communion scene in Part II is more anodyne – in that movie, it’s the benediction during outdoor procession for the Festa di San Rocco in NY’s Little Italy that’s the analogue for the baptism in the first movie.

    I’d say I’d rather have Hollywood leave liturgy entirely in peace.

    * The most indelible liturgical scene of the past decade in my viewing was the subtly chilling ending of Das weiße Band, with Prussian Lutherans, including a coldly ominous grouping of youth, gathered for worship after World War I has begun, with the choir singing:

  5. Are you thinking of liturgies of a specific time period, or from any time/place/cultural setting e.g. Eastern liturgies, medieval liturgies, Latin Masses, etc.

  6. The Nun’s Story with Audrey Hepburn showed her profession; Of Gods and Men showed the Liturgy of the Hours (most memorably to me, Tuesday Night Prayer); Into Great Silence shows pieces of the liturgy (though it is not staged, but a documentary)

  7. Maria’s wedding in the Sound of Music.

    I love the whole scene, but especially the beginning where the Reverend Mother blesses Maria with the sign of the cross before the procession.

  8. The Ingmar Bergman film Nattvardsgästerna (“The Communicants”, in English titled “Winter Light”) opens with a depiction of a Swedish priest saying a Lutheran mass from the verba to the administration of communion.

    postscript: Bergman’s father was pastor of a prominent church. His father was also a Nazi sympathizer. As a child Bergman struggled with Nazism and his father’s adherence to it. Later in life, Bergman became atheist. It is said that this film is in part a coming-to-terms with his non-belief and his father’s legacy and evil. Okay, no more spoilers.

  9. I teach an entire course on “Reel Presence: Liturgy and Film” at Yale, with always shifting examples. There is a ton of those.

  10. The Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony in “The Deer Hunter” – amazing and beautifully filmed. Accurate?

  11. It isn’t a liturgy but the ecclesiastical fashion show scene in Fellini’s “Roma” is an interesting –pointed– commentary on Catholicism via its use of vesture.

  12. Timothy Johnston : I don’t have a specific example, but every time I see a liturgy portrayed in a show, I think, “I should be a liturgical advisory for Hollywood.” They either have the Collect prayed at the ambo at what seems to be the Liturgy of the Word, or the marriage vows are a strange amalgamation of traditions, or the wrong vesture is worn for the wrong event. Ah well . . . it could be a fun career though.

    I think it would be fun, also. There are so many anomalies even in TV series that otherwise seem to spare no expense to get things right according to the period. The latest I’ve seen was a Shakespeare play with a procession suddenly entering the chapel led apparently by a bishop (or abbot) filling in for a missing thurifer, as he was swinging a thurible dramatically. Can’t imagine when any priest would swing a thurible in procession, let alone a bishop. Anyway, in so many movies when there’s a church scene, there is automatically a schola chanting something random, or soft organ music playing. Or a boys’ choir just happens to be singing…not rehearsing, because they don’t stop to work on anything. At some random time on a weekday afternoon.

  13. Of Gods and Men is a 2010 French drama film directed by Xavier Beauvois, starring Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale. Its original French language title is Des hommes et des dieux, which means “Of Men and of Gods” and refers to a verse from the Bible shown at the beginning of the film. It centers on the monastery of Tibhirine, where nine Trappist monks lived in harmony with the largely Muslim population of Algeria, until seven of them were kidnapped and assassinated in 1996 during the Algerian Civil War.[2]

  14. The baptism in Godfather (I) that Karl mentioned is what first came to mind as the most effective example of liturgy in film. If we broaden to popular devotions, the nautical Marian procession in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is another very impactful moment. “Machuca” has the Blessed Sacrament being removed from St. George’s before the military take it over, and of course all of the liturgies in “Romero” are very well done. Outside of the Catholic world, the liturgy of the chapel and that of the domestic church in “Babette’s Feast” are impressive too.

  15. On the “fashion front,” “The Cardinal” cannot be overlooked, right down to purple and red socks on bishops and cardinals. The ferraiola is such a unique item, it naturally lends itself to use in every color available. The liturgies were also very impressive/authentic.
    What makes so many TV representations laughable – if not annoying – is the impression they create when every liturgical vestment a director has ever seen is used in every way (un)imaginable. A chasuble over a suit? Seen it.
    Even on something “so Catholic” as “Blue Bloods, they’ll go to great lengths to dress the bishop appropriately… and then hang a tiny little medal-sized cross around his neck.
    That I remember seeing “The Nun’s Story” as a kid says enough about the strength of its presentation. Oh, Mama Luke!
    I’m all for creating a guild of liturgical consultants (purists) for the entertainment industry!

  16. The scene in Romero when he is assasinated. It seemed to depict the elevation of the cup at the conservatives creation but I have read he was not during the offertory.

  17. I don’t recall any specific liturgy on the TV show “Nothing Sacred” (1997-98). I do recall thinking that it was the most realistic representation of Catholic Parish staff life I had seen at the time.

  18. Bad example- the ordination Mass in the cult horror film “Prophecy.” And its error has nothing to do with horror or the diabolic plot; the Mass seems to be in the dead of night with only clergy present, an invisible chant schola and an otherwise empty Manhattan church.
    The brief nuptial Mass (TLM) scene in the equally ignored “True Confessions” wherein DeNiro plays a slick LA archdiocesan chancellor who straddles the dichotomy of the institutional church v. a hospital for sinners is an accurate summary of the times.
    I performed the role of the seminarian in the play “Mass Appeal” decades ago that was also a movie with Jack Lemmon. There isn’t a liturgy scene per se, but I remember how much license and liberty was taken in both play and film with the order of Mass and the phony homilies and “dialogue Mass” format.

    1. @Charles Culbreth:

      This isn’t a liturgy per se, but in the horror film Carnival of Souls, the organist is known to be possessed by the devil, and then fired, after she plays dissonant music in church. I always get a chuckle out of that, and think that I must have been doomed a long time ago.

  19. Speaking of realistic representation of Catholic life, Cinema Paradiso is another film that comes to mind: Toto was an altar boy who would doze off during the (unreformed) mass.

  20. In Everybody Loves Raymond, the Barone Family is Catholic.
    Here is the synopsis of Episode 14 from Season 4: “Everyone gets on Ray’s case because he doesn’t go to Sunday Mass. When Ray starts feeling guilty about the good example Frank (his father) is setting by attending church, he commits to becoming a regular parishioner. But, when Ray shows up at the church, he quickly realizes what it is that draws Frank to this house of worship week after week—and it isn’t the sermon.” (spoiler: Frank is an usher, and goes to church to hang out in the vestibule with the other ushers and gossip.–maybe a little too accurate for some parishes.)

  21. I don’t mind coming out of hiding for a moment to post on a favorite subject of mine… of examples not already mentioned I can think of:

    “Lilies of the Field” depicts a priest celebrating Mass on the back of a pickup truck. The celebrant wears a fiddleback.

    Some of the second season episodes of Mad Men depict low Mass being celebrated – particularly the episode “Three Sundays,” which takes place over the course of Passion, Palm, and Easter Sunday. I saw the episode only when it was first aired, so I don’t recall if it was accurate – I seem to remember them not depicting the priest turning to the people for the “Ecce Agnus Dei” before the people received communion. It also was very obviously filmed in an Episcopal church. These episodes depicted the home life of one of the main characters, Peggy Olson, and their interactions with a young priest who is new to the parish.

    “The Castle of Cagliostro,” a Japanese anime with the Lupin character doesn’t really depict liturgy and doesn’t explicitly mention Catholicism, but takes place in a sort of fairytale Europe where the people are some type of Catholic (complete with bishops) – a setting that is fairly common in Japanese cartoons. The main character has to stop a wedding being performed in a somewhat bizarre looking church where the altar is made up of a giant stone cross sitting on a giant stone pedestal.

    I recall reading somewhere that it used to be frowned upon to depict liturgical services in Hollywood movies because it might offend the sensibilities of viewers (either because it could constitute simulating the sacraments or because the Mass was too lofty and sacred to be depicted in the low medium of film). Whether or not this is true, I don’t know, but I can’t think of many movies made during the era of the Motion Picture Code that depict substantial portions of the Mass. The biggest exception I can think of is “Christmas Holiday” from 1944, where they filmed a real Midnight Mass and spliced in scenes with the actors

  22. I have always liked the excommunication scene in Becket. If not accurate, it is rather dramatic.

    Then there is also the end of The Mission which appears to be a Benediction. Again perhaps not an accurate scene but rather dramatic in the context.

  23. Much of that which appears in the UK is a just passing reference, often with the presider doing not very well. (For example Rowan Atkinson in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, or the corrupt bishop in ‘Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’.)
    A rather better example is Tom Hollander in the BBC TV series ‘Rev’ in which he plays the role of a priest in a declining inner city anglican parish. There are particularly memorable scenes of Christmas midnight mass and of Good Friday / Easter in which the direction leads the viewer to examine the relationship between the characters and the liturgy celebrated.
    To the list of documentaries, I could add ‘No Greater Love’ on the Carmelite community in North Kensington, London.

  24. One can add the film based on Alexander Dumas: La Reine Margot. There is a rather splendid Royal and Pontifical wedding scene where at the exchange of vows Margot, hesitating, has to be ‘tapped on the back’ to force out air — and it is taken as a sufficient “oui” to complete the ceremony.

  25. So many interesting examples.

    @Joshua #5 – Any liturgy from any time period.

    Like others of you, I thought of the assassination scene in “Romero” and the baptism scene in “The Godfather.” I also thought of the scene in “Chariots of Fire” in which Eric Liddell is reading from Isaiah 40 in church on Sunday. As he reads, viewers see various Olympic athletes competing / struggling.

    On the satirical side, there is the “The Simpsons” episode “She of Little Faith,” in which Mr. Burns turns the church in Springfield into a for-profit institution. A clip is available here:

  26. Oh, yes, and there’s the movie “Black Robe” about French Jesuits in 17th century Canada. There is an understandable language barrier between the Hurons and the French. The Jesuits brought with them a clock which would chime at regular intervals, including for observance of the Liturgy of the Hours. When the bell tolled, the Jesuits stopped what they were doing and prayed. The Hurons assumed that the Jesuits were praying to the clock, a god which says “Dong! Dong! Dong!”

    Not that anyone ever goes to church on Sunday and worships the clock instead of God . . .

  27. As a musician, the musical gaffes (most often from a history/timeline perspective) are pretty funny. The 1960s Mass from “Doubt” has the choir singing music from Taize. And there’s some movie in which Deanna Durbin is a medieval nun, singing Schubert’s Ave Maria. Of course, the pipe organ in Charlemagne’s chapel is also a winner. Playing in perfect tune. In the middle of winter. (The movie was forgettable – but to an organist’s brain this one lapse was memorable.)

  28. Alan Hommerding : The 1960s Mass from “Doubt” has the choir singing music from Taize.

    I think Fr. Flynn in that film carried around a copy of the green volume of the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours, which wouldn’t be published until 1970. But I suppose it could be countered that it was just whatever breviary he would have used in 1964 with a green cover on it.

  29. I draw your attention to a research project on “religious rituals in film” under the direction of the liturgical studies scholar Prof. H.-J. Feulner, Vienna (who also consults with European media on liturgical scenes in film, trying to prevent major gaffes!). His website (in English) has very instructive questions, examples of films, and further links:

  30. Fr Neal Dodd, the founder of S. Mary of The Angels in Hollywood is said to have appeared in forty movies amongst which is ” Father of The Bride.”He was known as the Padre of Hollywood.

    John Moynihan Tettemer, a quondam Passionist as well as an early Liberal Catholic bishop played a cleric in the movies.

    I understand that the bishop in one of the Godfather shows was an Old Roman Catholic prelate.

    The Knute Rockne story is embedded in a requiem high mass with the Hagios Ho Theos from Good Friday.

    Of course “My Big Fat Greek Wedding Part II” is centered on a wedding by a real Greek priest.

  31. Personally, two of my favorite movies with liturgical scenes are:

    1) Becket (1964) — most especially the scene wherein he is consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury by the Bishop of London.

    2) In This House of Brede (1975) — most notably, the rites for reception of the habit, temporary vows, and perpetual vows as well as the truncated glimpse we are afforded of the election of an abbess.

  32. I would have to agree that the liturgical scenes in “Becket” are particularly powerful, although I would not be able to speak on their accuracy. I do remember the first time seeing the film, and that, after the excommunication scene mentioned above, I turned to my wife and simply said, “Ouch!”

    I will admit, though, that the first depiction that came to my mind was the Everybody Loves Raymond episode mentioned above, with the ushers gossiping in the vestibule, and Ray chastising them with something to the effect of, “Shouldn’t Jesus come in here and start turning these tables over right now?” I especially love when the priest runs into the room in a near panic and tells them to stop fooling around because “the offertory’s almost over!” Too close for comfort!

  33. This is a fun thread, but there is also the very real problem that many people in the Church get their ideas of what weddings and funerals should be from what is portrayed on film and TV (and from silly bridal magazines).

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