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Sacred Servants in the Popular Cinema: Research Notes Towards a Taxonomic Survey of the Mundane Holy

Abstract: The average person in today’s Western society rarely comes to intimately know their local religious servants, whether they be priests, nuns, rabbis, pastors, ministers, monks, reverends, preachers, imams, gurus, spiritual leaders, shamans, witch doctors, Zaddik, holy men etc. These mundane holy characters regularly appear in the popular cinema as either: (a) hero- or villain-protagonists, (b) secondary characters to graphically symbolise religion/ authority/the transcendent, or (c) just colourful screen fill with a high recognition factor for essentially amusement purposes. Since public attitudes are informed and shaped by fictional portrayals, an examination of how their religious vocation is treated within the popular cinema is automatically warranted. Drawing upon a review of the contemporary film and religion literature, a preliminary taxonomy of eight basic themes was identified and briefly explicated. Copious filmic exemplars and character-actor details were provided to complement the research notes. Further investigation into this interdisciplinary filed is warranted, highly recommended and certainly long overdue.

Religionists who reflexively examine their own profession within the popular cinema is a new growth area. For example, biblical scholar William Telford recently proffered a preliminary taxonomy of films that was of interest from a religious, biblical and theological point of view, but surprisingly, he overlooked the significant category of Sacred Servants. That is, the mundane holy who are a religions’ officiating ritual experts, the human repositories of sacred knowledge, and the official proclaimers of the faith (as opposed to the non-mundane Holy such as God, Jesus, the Saints and other fantastic celestial beings). Yet, priests, nuns, rabbis, pastors, ministers, monks, reverends, preachers, imams, gurus, spiritual leaders, shamans, witch doctors, Zaddik, holy men etc. (i.e., the “professional” religious class who derive their livelihood and/or social status from their holy vocation and services) are an unavoidable fact-of-life in society. Whether they be ancient or modern, local or foreign, relevant or irrelevant to one’s personal life. These mundane characters regularly appear in the popular cinema as either: (a) hero- or villain-protagonists, (b) secondary characters to graphically symbolise religion/authority/ the transcendent, or (c) just colourful screen fill with a high recognition factor for essentially amusement purposes.

So, the omission of these earthly religious agents in Telford’s filmic taxonomy is surprising and regrettable. Especially considering that, in the minds of most people, the image of missionaries, for example, have “been shaped far more by fictionalised portrayals of mission and missionaries than by respected historical or biographical accounts” (Neely 452). One strongly suspects that for the average citizen, watching a potentially interesting video from the local video shop is far more attractive, convenient and cheaper than buying or borrowing a weighty tome from the local theological library or visiting monasteries, nunneries etc. to know them better. Consequently, a “Hollywood” view of them must inevitable result, especially if not balanced by large doses of other sourced “true” facts. Indeed, Ronald Pies argued that the general public was ambivalent about priests, prophets and psychiatrists because they were “simultaneously revering and reviling them, wishing for their benign intercession while fearing their malign control” (Pies 1).

Film-Watching as a Consciousness Raising and Shaping Activity

Given the cinema’s undeniable consciousness raising and shaping effects, public attitudes toward Sacred Servants derived from mundane film-watching needs to be investigated more thoroughly than currently evidenced to date within the literature. Especially considering that the average person rarely knows their local Sacred Servants intimately because they may not go to church regularly, and may only briefly interact with them at infrequent weddings, funerals, christenings and other traditional religious occasions. Consequently, it behoves one to take seriously how this vocational group is being cinematically portrayed. Although such research is valuable Cultural Studies work in its own right, it is also a necessary precursor to addressing any grievances Sacred Servants themselves may have resulting from their media distortions. Many scholars have begun this important work (Medved), and there are certainly many avenues of the mundane holy to explore. For example, a particular Hollywood favourite is the Christian nun.

The Film Nun: Hollywood’s Brides of Christ

These cinematic brides of Christ are frequently reduced to the “status of absence, silence, or marginality” (Schleich 41), or are forced to “carry a load of sentiment and religious fervour (often of the ultra-pious variety)…in habits that may or may not have been realistic” (Malone, Nun 47). In many nun films, “the convent serves as the metaphor for a repressive environment bent on crushing individualism” (Nolletti Jr. 84).

Hollywood, of course, has traditionally preferred its nuns to be worldly, glamorous, and spunky, like Ingrid Bergman in Going My Way and Bells of St. Mary and Loretta Young and Celeste Holm in Come to the Stable, among others. Europe, on the other hand, has generally taken a more serious attitude toward nuns and the convent, but also a more schizophrenic one, especially after the 1960s when convents could serve as metaphors of various kinds, e.g., sensual excess (Browoczyk’s Behind Convent Walls [L’Interno di un convento]), the Watergate scandal (Lindsay-Hogg’s Nasty Habits), and repression in Spanish life (Almodovar’s Dark Habits [Entre Tinieblas]), etc. In fact, films dealing with nuns practically constitute a genre in their own right (Nolletti Jr. 97).

At the very least, screen nuns constitute a sub-genre in an overarching Religion-in-Film genre (a/k/a Cinematic Theology, Celluloid Religion, Theo-Film). Indeed, the “images of the movie nun — her appearance, her demeanour, her speech — are so embedded in the audience consciousness that serious attempts to portray a credible nun of the past or the present are almost impossible” (Malone, Nun 47). Such is the power of the screen.

Cinematic Character Assassination?

Yet, what exactly do these powerful screen images of the nun and her mundane holy peers say to the public about the religious vocation as a whole? What further elements constitute these stereotypic distortions, and why do they persist? Much insight can be derived from investigations into the phenomenon. Part of the answer is rooted in the financial calculations behind the filmmaking. Religious reality “probably wouldn’t sell many tickets. So Hollywood opts instead to promote a view of women and religion that really doesn’t exist” (Schleich 41). In fact, it is rare to portray Hollywood nuns as respected, down-to-earth persons living life more fully in the religious mode (i.e., not modern day freaks escaping reality). For example, the caring, devout nun Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) in Dead Man Walking is the exception, not the rule. More amazingly, this secular film even had profound religious effects for A/Prof. Jennifer Rike. She reported: “After first viewing the film, I felt though I had been struck by lightning, transformed forever by a fresh vision of the power of love to break down walls. Move mountains — in a word, to redeem” (Rike 353).

Public perceptions of Sacred Servants have, of course, changed throughout the decades, as has the status of religion in society, including the religious practitioners’ own self-understandings of their place, role, function, effectiveness and future. Generally speaking, nun films have tried to find a delicate balance between self-abnegation and heroic purposefulness, between piety and idealism, between patriarchy and feminism, and even between patriarchy and femininity. In fact, the American “nun in film helped to reinsert feminine ideals of compassion, atonement, and sacrifice into the public arena and reconfigure political concerns into pietic or moral concerns” (Sullivan 71). Other nun films were not as noble in intent, execution or effect, but just as interesting. Overall, the whole Sacred Servants category is worthy of deeper scholarly investigation. A good first step in this research process is to survey the scholarly lay of the land before embarking upon any detailed analyses.

Toward a Preliminary Taxonomy of the Mundane Holy

Interest in representations of Sacred Servants in the popular cinema has enjoyed recent academic attention (Grignaffini; Iwamura; Janosik; Malone, Priests; Sullivan), as well as being of occasional interest in the past (Gordon; French; Jones; Lacy; Lindvall; Malone, Century, Medved). However, rarely has anyone surveyed the field and attempted to construct a taxonomy of the basic thematic issues found therein. This is a regrettable scholarly oversight. The following research notes are an introductory response to this deficiency that hopefully will identify important contours and caricatures of the Sacred Servant cinema hitherto missed, ignored or devalued to date.

After reviewing the contemporary film and religion literature within the Judeo-Christian tradition, eight basic thematic categories of almost Jungian style archetypal status were identified. Namely: (a) mature, loving, passionate & dedicated; (b) immature, naive, timid, bumbling, ineffectual or clown-like; (c) fundamentalist, rigid, ascetic, puritanical, fascist or just nasty; (d) tent show evangelists & religious showmen; (e) struggling with vocational, psychotic, erotic or neurotic tensions; (f) breaking vows/rules/ethics, affairs, mistresses & children; (g) conflict & change: social, religious, political, spiritual, personal and interpersonal; and (h) scheming, corrupt, frauds & tricksters: real & implied. Each thematic category was briefly explicated. In addition, copious examples of representative films (historically ordered) were provided, plus character, actor, director and release date information. The following notes and taxonomic lists were not meant to be definitive, but rather indicative of the themes discussed, but it is a good starting point for further investigation and analysis.

1.0 Mature, Loving, Passionate & Dedicated

This category reflects a positive image of the holy vocation that many true believers like to see promulgated and/or wished existed in their own congregations. It frequently utilises the gentle Jesus model and thus portrays the holy practitioners as up-right citizens doing God’s work in a way that the Lord and their congregations would have sanctioned and wholeheartedly approved. These sacred practitioners are not perfect human beings (who is?), but they possess enough maturity, understanding and wisdom to successfully navigate the major shoals of life for themselves and their holy charges. Their sacred mission is an act of diligently applied piety, as they work with, and sometimes battle against, the nature of contemporary secular society. They exhibit many of the positive qualities we would all would like to see exist in the mundane world, especially by persons in whom we are supposed to trust in because they represent and mirror a wise and loving God.

For example, the selfless Vicar of Bray (Stanley Holloway) in The Vicar of Bray (1937, Henry Edwards), prison chaplain Fr. Dolan (William Gargan) in You Only Live Once (1937, Fritz Lang), Rev. Jim Casey (John Carradine) in The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford). Salvation Army Major Barbara Undershaft (Wendy Hiller) in Major Barbara (1941, Gabriel Pascal). Rev. William Spence (Fredric March) in One Foot in Heaven (1941, Irving Rapper). The congenial Fr. O’Malley (Bing Crosby) and equally approachable Sr. Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) in Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945, Leo McCarey). The brave, Fascist-resisting Catholic priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi) in Open City (aka Rome – Open City) (1945, Roberto Rossellini). The dedicated St. Vincent de Paul (Pierre Fresnay) in Monsieur Vincent (1947, Maurice Cloche) and the equally dedicated Fr. Peter Dunne (Pat O’Brien) in Fighting Father Dunne (1948, Ted Tetzlaff). The French nuns Sr. Margaret (Loretta Young) and Sr. Scolastica (Celeste Holm) in Come to the Stable (1949, Henry Koster). The anguished Anglican Rev. Msimangu (Sidney Poitier) in Cry, the Beloved Country (1952, Zoltan Korda). The dying but still helping-to-the-end Rev. William Thorne (Robert Donat) in Lease of Life (1954, Charles Frend). The hard working and dedicated Scottish chaplain Peter Marshall (Richard Todd) in A Man Called Peter (1955, Henry Koster). Fresh-faced and eager Rev. William Macklin II (Mickey Rooney) in The Twinkle in God’s Eye (1955, George Blair). Sincere parish priest Fr. Conroy (Bing Crosby) in Say One For Me (1959, Frank Tashlin).

Brave, compassionate, and ecumenically-focused Italian Mother (Superior) Katherine (Lilli Palmer) and her Jewish children charges being hidden from the authorities and nasty Nazis in Conspiracy of Hearts (1960, Ralph Thomas). Christ-like Fr. Matthew Doonon (Spencer Tracy) in The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961, Mervyn LeRoy). Female tomboy nun with guitar Sr. Ann (Debbie Reynolds) in The Singing Nun (1966, Henry Koster). The take-charge Rev. Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) in The Poseidon Adventure (1974, Ronald Neame). Pious, but on-the-run Polish Rabbi Avram Belinski (Gene Wilder) in The Frisco Kid (1979, Robert Aldrich) who would rather be captured than violate his religious obligations. Idealistic Scottish Presbyterian missionary and part-time Olympian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) in Chariots of Fire (1981, Hugh Hudson). Pragmatic, cigarette smoking, but caring Mother Miriam Ruth (Anne Bancroft) in Agnes of God (1985, Norman Jewison). Determined Br. Thadeus (Donald Sutherland) in Catholic Boys (aka Heaven Help Us) (1985, Michael Dinner). Polish hero-cum-political-religious-icon Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko (Christopher Lambert) in To Kill a Priest (1988, Agnieszka Holland). Oppression-fighting Archbishop Oscar Romero (Raul Julia) in Romero (1989, John Duigan). Upright and forgiving London cleric Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant) in Sirens (1994, John Duigan). Compassionate Sr. Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) who walked a moral tightrope between the murderer and the victim’s family in Dead Man Walking (1995, Tim Robbins). However, Hollywood frequently eschewed positive images of religionists in favour of negative portrayals. Particularly, sin which has always been a bigger draw card in Hollywood than boring piousness, and if not sin, then social incompetence of the unsettling kind:

2.0 Immature, Naive, Timid, Bumbling, Ineffectual or Clown-Like

This thematic category emphasises the ineffectual, negative qualities of Sacred Servants. They are not negative in the sense of being bad or evil, but rather, they somehow missed out in the lottery of life and fell into their religious vocation because they could not survive within society in any other practical way. The historical antecedence of this category is the medieval use of the Church as a dumping ground for the poor, the damaged and societal failures. Alternatively, these Sacred Servants are so heavenly that they are of no earthly use. For example, they are so loving that they are the perpetual targets of exploitation, and so forgiving that it would make even Jesus sick. In short, they were not really meant for this tough human world. If they do not pull up their pragmatic socks quickly, they will be either heading for the next world sooner than they think, or become the sacred equivalent of the village idiot (if they are not that already). Poor social skills are a traditional give-away sign of their archetypal kind.

For example, the aging country vicar Rev. Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson) in The Holly and the Ivy (1952, George More O’Ferrall). The painfully idealistic priest Nazarin (Francisco Rabal) in Nazarin (1958, Luis Bunuel) and the simplistic, easily manipulated Rev. John Smallwood (Peter Sellers) in Heavens Above (1963, John Boulting) who both tried to emulate Christ literally and suffered repeatedly because of it. Simple-minded (mentally damaged?) Sr. Winifred (Sandy Dennis) in Nasty Habits (1977, Michael Lindsay-Hogg). The comical, bug-eyed and physically deformed Br. Ambrosia (Marty Feldman) in In God We Tru$t (1980, Marty Feldman). The sexually naive rape victim (possibly angel-raped) Sr. Agnes (Meg Tilly) in Agnes of God (1985, Norman Jewison). Ineffectual Br. Timothy (John Heard) in Catholic Boys (aka Heaven Help Us) (1985, Michael Dinner). The effervescent Sr. Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy) who gave enthusiasm a bad name in both Sister Act (1992, Emile Ardolino) and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993, Bill Duke). Bumbling and comical Fr. Gerald (Rowan Atkinson) in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1993, Mike Newell). The faithful, if nerdy futuristic priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) in The Fifth Element (1997, Luc Besson). At least he physically met his god-figure, and in that process saved Earth from total destruction because of his faithful devotion to duty in a futuristic world that appeared to have passed him by.

3.0 Fundamentalist, Rigid, Ascetic, Puritanical, Fascist & Nasty

This category emphasised the undesirable, inflexible streaks within their personalities, sometimes bordering on the mentally unstable, which is sometimes taken to the level of an art form. It is as if these Sacred Servants failed normal human socialisation or enculturation in the process of choosing their religious vocation, or at least they had forgotten the love and tolerance lessons of Jesus, their supposed mentor and role model. Alternatively, they were originally “normal” people who were somehow perverted by religious exposure, which is then characterised as a corrosive social agent and a personality warper that had turned them into human “beasts.” These Sacred Servants are so bad that it is enough to make parents glad they did not send their children to private religious schools and/or had stopped them from taking up the religious life behind cloistered walls. Parents may want their children to be religious, but not that religious! Personal power, enforcing rules, focusing on the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law, revenge, manipulation and inflexibility are their archetypal give-away signs.

For example, the jealous and tormented Sr. Marie Theresea Vauzous (Gladys Cooper) in The Song of Bernadette (1943, Henry King). The soldier-priest Rev. Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) in The Searchers (1956, John Ford). Sadistic Mother Sainte Christine (Francine Berge) in The Nun (La Religiouse) (1965, Jacques Rivette). Rigid schoolmaster Fr. Goddard (Richard Burton) in Absolution (1978, Anthony Page). Fire-and-brimstone Rev. Shaw Moore (John Lithgow) in Footloose (1984, Herbert Ross). The tyrannical Sr. Thomas (Anna Massey) in Sacred Hearts (1984, Barbara Rennie). Sadistic Br. Constance (Jay Patterson) and ultraconservative Fr. Abruzzi (Wallace Shawn) in Catholic Boys (aka Heaven Help Us) (1985, Michael Dinner). The stern and sterile Protestant Pastor (Pouel Kern) in Babette’s Feast (1987, Gabriel Axel). The sadistic Br. Leon (John Glover) in The Chocolate Wars (1988, dir. Keith Gordon). The dynamic preacher-boy Danny (Will Oldham) in Matewan (1987, John Sayles) and the austere Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) in Sister Act (1992, Emile Ardolino). All the Calvinistic Elders of the Free Presbyterian Church in Breaking the Waves (1996, Lars von Trier) who looked like death warmed up.

4.0 Tent Show Evangelists & Religious Showmen

This is religion with a showmanship flavour that would have made P. T. Barnum or Cecil B. DeMille proud. This thematic category emphasised religious hucksterism in the pursuit of profits using God as their primary selling tool. Private profit is the true reason for their sacred service. As long as they get to keep the bulk of the donation money, God can keep all the glory for the number of conversions achieved. However, they must get co-credit when it actually counts (i.e., putting the donation money in their coffers and not some other agent of God’s coffers). Like all forms of entertainment, these religious practitioners appeal to emotionalism. Traditionally, it is either applied fear (e.g., of the God will abandon you flavour), or an appeal to holy greed (e.g., do God’s will and earn yourself a place in heaven as a “chosen” or “favoured” one). All you have to do to get into heaven is humble yourselves long enough to fork over your money to them, God’s divinely chosen agents on earth (i.e., as part of His divine religious franchise). Life was not meant to be easy, which is the message they run with all the way to the bank. Their spirit-on-fire, God-infused enthusiasm coupled with repeated pleas for money, interspersed with Lord-praising, is a sign of their archetypal kind, especially evident in the mundane world with God TV channels and their donation hot lines.

For example, Paul Strand (George Hamilton) and Sarah Strand (Mercedes McCambridge) in Angel Baby (1960, Paul Wendkos). Salesman-evangelist Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) and Sr. Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) in Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks) who both made selling religion as easy as selling soap. The fiery tent preacher (John Dierkes) in X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963, Roger Corman), and the more subdued blind preacher Asa Hawkes (Harry Dean Stanton) in Wise Blood (1979, John Huston). The calculating Rev. Freddy Stone (Ned Beatty) in Pray TV (1982, Robert Markowitz), and the false TV evangelist Rev. Edward Randall (Stephen McHattie) in Salvation! (1987, Beth B.). Money-grabbing, manipulative televangelist Jimmy Lee Farnsworth (R. Lee Ermey) in Fletch Lives (1989, Michael Ritchie). Street-smart conman Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin) whom God got back at film’s end in Leap of Faith (1992, Richard Pearce). The sincere but severely sinning Pentecostal preacher Euliss “Sonny” Dewey/Apostle E. F. (Robert Duvall) in The Apostle (1997, Robert Duvall) who demonstrated that you could be a faithful hypocrite.

5.0 Struggling With Vocational, Psychotic, Erotic or Neurotic Tensions

This category focused upon the painfully human side of their Jesus role model. These Sacred Servants are so human that sex must inevitably rear its ugly head to emphasise the depths of the struggle for their faith. Typically, it is a battle as profound as that to be fought with Satan himself. This battle usually takes two forms, one internal and the other external. The internal battle is rooted in fighting the physical sexual urges consuming their body as it struggles to naturally express itself. Their religious vocation is characterised as an unnatural inhibiter to the biological thrust of life. This life/nature “perversion” process is either resisted agonisingly, or they succumbed to its potent drive with a variety of tragic consequences ranging through guilt, disgrace, illness, death and babies. The external battle typically revolves around resisting the “attacks” of sexually frustrated others who find them desirable, and so these Sacred Servants must deal with them tactfully, cunningly or brutally (not necessarily in that order). Since they have given their life (and frequently their body) to God, all else is a distraction from their true vocation. It is a battle that they may or may not win, with varying degrees of neuroticism involved and hopefully resolved. Interpersonal and intrapsychic conflict is a frequent sign of this archetypal kind.

For example, the sexually troubled Priest (Alex Allin) in The Seashell and the Clergyman (La Coquille et le clergyman) (1927, Germaine Dulac). The tension between Rev. John Hartley (Clark Gable) and Polly Fisher (Marion Davies) in Polly of the Circus (1932, Alfred Santell). American missionary Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) and General Yen (Nils Asther) in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933, Frank Capra). Scottish minister Gavin Dishart (John Beal) and the Gypsy Babbie (Katherine Hepburn) in The Little Minister (1934, Richard Wallace). Sexually frustrated Sr. Ruth (Kathleen Byron) with her coveted bright red lipstick in Black Narcissus (1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger). Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) and the strained relationship with his wife Julia (Loretta Young) in The Bishop’s Wife (1947, Henry Koster), remade as The Preacher’s Wife (1996, Penny Marshall) starring Rev. Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance) and Julia Biggs (Whitney Houston). Methodist circuit-rider Rev. William Asbury Thompson (William Lundigan) and his long-suffering wife (Susan Hayward) in I’d Climb the Highest Mountain (1951, Henry King).

Beautiful Irish Sr. Angela (Deborah Kerr) and tough US marine corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum) trapped together in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957, John Huston), and so they are forced to dance a sex-avoiding jig throughout the film. Secret nun, the Sea Wife (Joan Collins) and Biscuit (Richard Burton) in Sea Wife (1957, Bob McNaught) who also had to deal with sexual tension in confined locations. Rev. Anthony Anderson (Burt Lancaster) and potentially straying wife Judith (Janette Scott) in The Devil’s Disciple (1959, Guy Hamilton). Troubled Sr. Gerta (Yvonne Mitchell) in Conspiracy of Hearts (1960, Ralph Thomas). Psychotic Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka) with her “devil” infected nuns in Mother Joan of the Angels (1961, Jerzy Kawalerowicz). The enforced pairing of the nun (Anna Stern) and the sergeant (Robert Webber) in The Nun and the Sergeant (1962, Franklin Adreon). If it worked with Kerr and Mitchum, it could work again. Cool, leather-jacketed missionary Fr. O’Banion (William Holden) and sexy Chinese maiden (France Nuyen) in Satan Never Sleeps (aka The Devil Never Sleeps) (1962, Leo McCarey). The proto love-affair of Cardinal Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tyron) in The Cardinal (1963, Otto Preminger). Postulate-governess Maria (Julie Andrews) and Baron Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) in The Sound of Music (1965, Robert Wise) coupled with annoying singing nuns going on about the trouble with Maria. Spunky nun Sr. Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore) and cool physician Dr. John Carpenter (Elvis Presley) in Change of Habit (1969, William Graham) who engaged in a ritualistic dance that had nothing to do with blue suede shoes.

Neurotic Mother Superior, Sr. Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgraves) and her “possessed” Ursuline nuns in The Devils (1971, Ken Russell). If Polish Jerzy Kawalerowicz could do it so could Britain’s Ken Russell. Courageous, religious radical Monsignor Don Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) and the voluptuously sexy but vexing Valeria Billi (Sophia Loren) in The Priest’s Wife (1971, Dino Risi). The demonic/ mentally disturbed nuns in The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine (Le Scomunicate di san Valentino) (1973, Sergio Grieco). The worrying Mother Superior (Suzy Kendall) in Story of a Cloistered Nun (Storia di una Monaca di Clausura) (1973, Domenico Paolella). Sexually frustrated and inquisitive Br. Francine (Arthur Dignam) in The Devil’s Playground (1976, Fred Schepsi), and you thought a boy called Sue had problems! Sr. Emanuelle (Laura Gemser) and gangster Rene (Gabriele Tinti) in Sister Emanuelle (Suor Emanuelle) (1977, Joseph Warren [Giuseppe Vari]). Unsuspecting Fr. Rivard (Dick Van Dyke) and troublesome young extrovert Sr. Rita (Kathleen Quinlan) in The Runner Stumbles (1979, Stanley Krammer).

Anglican Rev. Charles Fortescue (Michael Palin) and his very friendly prostitute charges in The Missionary (1981, Richard Loncraine). The Chaplain (Manuel Zarzo) and the slippery Sr. Snake/Viper (Lina Canalejas) in Dark Habits (1983, Pedro Almodovar). The psychotic Rev. Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins) in Crimes of Passion (1984, Ken Russell) with Perkins apparently replaying his bad habits from Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock). The amorous, cloistered Carmelite nun Lucie (Helene Alexandridis) bothering the future Saint Therese Martin of Lisieux (Catherine Mouchet) in Therese (1986, Alain Cavalier). Fr. Michael Pace (Tom Berenger) and Mexican lover Angela(Daphne Zuniga) in Last Rites (1988, Donald P. Bellisario). The aging but proper Rev. Francis Ashby (Michael Palin) and the young, in-trouble Miss Elinor Hartley (Trini Alvarado) in American Friends (1991, Tristram Powell). Anglican representative of the Church Mission Society, Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) and his fellow gambling addict-cum-lover Lucinda (Cate Blanchett) in Oscar and Lucinda (1998, Gillian Armstrong). Regrettably, these two young people in a glass house did throw stones and paid the inevitable price.

6.0 Breaking Vows/Rules/Ethics, Affairs, Mistresses & Children

This category is a more potent extension of the above-mentioned inner/external battles. Its emphasis is not so much upon the struggle, but rather, the actual breaking of their sacred vows and the nasty repercussions for doing so. It appears to be designed to highlight the hypocritical nature of Sacred Servants, and reinforce the idea that you really cannot trust them if you left them alone unguarded. It also implies that without the controlling rigidity of their holy orders and structured life styles, they would be a menace to society, especially when “nature” reasserted its powerful, overriding control in the presence of temptation (usually in the form of an erotic woman). As Fr. Peter Malone put it: “there is always better box-office profit in presenting priests with problems rather than priests as heroes. And it is even better when the problems are those relating to celibacy” (Priests 48). Personal moral failure and the horrors of both the transgressive and the transgression are archetypical signs of this kind.

For example, Pastor Joseph Beaugarde (Ivor Novello) and his illegitimate child with Bessie “Teazie” Williams (Mae Marsh) in The White Rose (1923, D. W. Griffith). Anglican curate-cum-Bishop Cyril Maitland (John Longden) and his illegitimate child with Alma Lee (Charlotte Francis) in The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934, Ken G. Hall). Lesbian seducer Mother Superior, Mme. de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver) and the forced upon nun Suzanne Simonin (Anna Karina) in The Nun (La Religiouse) (1965, Jacques Rivette). Sexual libertarian Sr. Ottavia Ricci (Anna Maria Alegiani) in The Awful Story of the Nun of Monza (aka The Nun of Monza; The Lady of Monza) (1969, Eriprando Visconti). The over-friendliness of Augustinian monk Fr. Michael Ferrier (Donald Sutherland) and Anglican choir singer Martha Hayes (Genevieve Bujold) in The Act of the Heart (1970, Paul Almond). Womanising Jesuit priest Fr. Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) in The Devils (1971, Ken Russell). Abbess Flavia Orsini (Gabriella Giacobbe) trying to keep naughty nuns Sr. Clare (Ligia Branice), Sr. Veronica (Marina Pierro) and Sr. Martina (Loredana Martinez) away from the sins of the flesh in Behind Convent Walls (Interno di un Convento) (aka Sex Life in a Convent; Within a Cloister) (1977, Walerian Borowczyk). Fr. John Flaherty (Christopher Reeve) proves that he is no Superman when it comes to the temptations of the glamorous postulant nun Clara (Genevieve Bujold) in Monsignor (1982, Frank Perry).

Lesbian Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) and her delicious younger charges in Dark Habits (1983, Pedro Almodovar). Young Adso of Melk (Christian Slater) and his romantic experiments with peasant girl (Valentina Vargas) in The Name of the Rose (1986, Jean-Jacques Annaud). TV evangelist Rev. Edward Randall (Stephen McHattie) who succumbs to female flesh and blackmail in Salvation! (1987, Beth B.). Elderly, career-trapped, and hypocritical Fr. Leclerc (Giles Pelletier) with his understanding younger mistress Constance (Johanne-Marie Tremblay) in Jesus of Montreal (1989, Denys Arcand). Fr. Mathew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson) and his intimate relations with housekeeper Maria Kerrigan (Cathy Tyson) in Priest (1995, Antonia Bird), but at least he was a more acceptable heterosexual hypocrite and not a homosexual hypocrite like his gay holy peer. Voyeuristic Archbishop Richard Rushman (Stanley Anderson) and his performing, fornicating alter boys in Primal Fear (1996, Gregory Hoblit). Pentecostal preacher Euliss “Sonny” Dewey/Apostle E. F. (Robert Duvall) and his various lovers in The Apostle (1997, Robert Duvall). Comical Mormon missionary-cum-reluctant porno star Joe Young/Orgazmo (Trey Parker) and his excited stunt cock double in Orgazmo (1997, Trey Parker). One waits for future cinematic forays into the theme of choirboys and the sexually abusing priest that is currently consuming contemporary media. This category of offender would match Ronald Pies category of “The Vampire,” that is, professionals who are “cultivated and intelligent on the outside, Pure Evil on the inside” (Pies 2), the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.

7.0 Conflict & Change: Social, Religious, Political, Spiritual, Personal and Interpersonal

This thematic category serves to emphasise the unhappy state of Sacred Servants living their religious lives. They always appear to be in conflict on multiple levels. This is the social-political-spiritual equivalent of the biological sex troubles documented above. Issues of old versus young, traditional versus experimental, conservative versus radical are the basic sub-themes that sustain this archetypical category. One suspects that it was designed, in a neo-social engineering fashion, to provide a media platform for changing the Church without confronting the church directly. It being ideational pre-trialing, a cinematic form of applied gossiping to test the congregational waters by advancing radical propositions (e.g., gay priests) that may not have any hope of success in real-world churches. Alternatively, it is a cinematic cry for help because the hierarchies of the real-world churches will not face up to the problems of modernity (e.g., the homosexual priest issue). Therefore, filmmakers rub their ecclesiastical noses into it to force a response, hopefully followed by a reasoned debate on the issues. Conflict, change, resistance, and hang-on are the signs of this archetypical kind.

For example, Sr. Joanna (Dorothea Wieck) and her foundling in Cradle Song (1933, Mitchell Leisen). Dominican novice Anne-Marie Lamaury (Renee Faure) and prisoner-cum-murderess Therese (Jany Holt) in Angels of the Streets (Les Anges du peche) (1943, Robert Bresson). The oppressed Cardinal (Alec Guinness) and the Interrogator (Jack Hawkins) in The Prisoner (1955, Peter Glenville). The aging Fr. Matthew Doonon (Spencer Tracy) and Fr. Joseph Perreau (Kerwin Matthews) in The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961, Mervyn LeRoy). The formal Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) and trouble-making school girls Mary Clancy (Hayley Mills) and Rachel Devery (June Harding) in The Trouble With Angels (1966, Ida Lupino). Conservative Mother Superior Simplicia (Rosalind Russell) versus progressive teacher Sr. George (Stella Stevens) in Where Angels Go–Trouble Follows (1968, James Neilson). Orthodox Hasidic Rabbi Reb Saunders (Rod Steiger) and son Danny Saunders (Robby Benson) versus Zionist Prof. David Malter (Maximilian Schell) and son Reuven Malter (Barry Miller) in The Chosen (1982, Jeremy Paul Kagan).

Traditional Fr. Tim Farley (Jack Lemon) versus angry liberal seminarian Mark Dolson (Zeljko Ivanek) in Mass Appeal (1984, Glenn Jordan). Progressive newcomer Br. Timothy (John Heard) and sadistic disciplinarian Br. Constance (Jay Patterson) in Catholic Boys (aka Heaven Help Us) (1985, Michael Dinner). Troubled, on-the-run monk Fr. Michael Lamb (Liam Neeson) and his young pupil (Hugh O’Conor) whom he absconded with and eventually murdered for the boy’s own good in Lamb (1986, Colin Gregg). This was one Lamb who had turned the tables on traditional sacrifice offerings. The intrafaith rivalries between Rabbi Hartmann (Bernard Bresslaw) and Rabbi Jobson (Peter Whitman) in Leon the Pig Farmer (1992, Vadim Jean & Gary Sinyor). The valiantly persistent Sr. Mary MacKillop (Lucy Bell) versus the depressing, patriarchal Church hierarchy in the biopic Mary (1994, Kay Pavlou) about Australia’s first saint-to-be. Gay Catholic Fr. Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache) and his gay pick-ups, plus disapproving congregation in Priest (1995, Antonia Bird). Being a sexual hypocrite and gay was a double blow against the true believers of his Catholic parish.

8.0 Scheming, Corrupt, Frauds & Tricksters: Real & Implied

This category is a form of institutional character assassination. It appears to be designed to suggest that Sacred Servants are really and truly corrupt, as many atheists had suspected all along! They are situated one level above the greedy evangelist showmen as documented above, for they have no real need for prancing public pretence (as opposed to scamming tactics). Corruption is the name of their game, and the audience is invited to observe the sophistication of their devious machinations, whether financial, political or religious (sometimes tinged with the erotic for good salacious measure). Even if some of them may be ultimately innocent of the “crime” they are accused of, they are certainly not treated that way for the duration of the film. This category aims to prove that nothing in this world is perfect; corruption exists everywhere, even among those supposedly seeking to be as perfect as possible. The subtext appears to be: “Since it is impossible to achieve “perfection,” then do not bother to even try! If supposedly pious priests with God on their side cannot do it, then what hope has the mundane believer got?!” They may have a valid point here.

For example, sham evangelist Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck) in The Miracle Woman (1931, Frank Capra). Black-souled, manipulative and malevolent Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore) in Rasputin and the Empress (1932, Richard Boleslavsky) and its many cinematic descendants. Plotting Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) with his good-and-evil sermon using his distinctive “love” and “hate” finger tattoos in The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton). Ex-disgraced-seminarian-cum-salesman-cum-evangelist Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) in Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks). Conniving Abbess Alexandra (Glenda Jackson) in Nasty Habits (1977, Michael Lindsay-Hogg). Preacher of The Church Without Christ, Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) in Wise Blood (1979, John Huston). The Right Rev. Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert DeNiro) in True Confessions (1981, Ulu Grosbard). Acid-dropping Sr. Manure/Sordid (Marisa Paredes) and drug-dealing Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) in Dark Habits (1983, Pedro Almodovar). The perturbed dissident Russian Fr. Carafa (F. Murray Abraham) in the Russicum (1987, Pasquale Squitieri). Suspected baby-killing Seventh Day Adventist pastor Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) in A Cry in the Dark (aka Evil Angels) (1988, Fred Schepisi). Mafia-connected Fr. Michael Pace (Tom Berenger) in Last Rites (1988, Donald P. Bellisario). Razzamatazz sham faith healer Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin) in Leap of Faith (1992, Richard Pearce). Scheming Cardinal Vinci (Adolfo Celi) in Monsignor (1992, Frank Perry). The lying Fr. Bobby (Robert De Niro) in Sleepers (1996, Barry Levinson) who deliberately committed perjury for a “good” cause (a cinematic metaphor for the religious enterprise?).


Many more basic Sacred Servant categories are possible. The above taxonomic roadmap and accompanying research notes is a precursory sketch of the rich vein of scholarship still waiting to be mined. Each thematic category can itself be expanded and typologically refined into sub-themes and sub-sub-themes that in due course may also pay attention to the various differences per issue amongst the various Christian denominations (e.g., Catholic versus Protestant). The pedagogic utility of Sacred Servants in the classroom is another area currently under-utilised to date, and yet it contains much unexpressed potential. For example, James Henderschedt screened Mass Appeal (1984, Glenn Jordan) starring Jack Lemon (playing Fr. Tim Farley) because it depicted four major preaching techniques he discussed in his theology classes. More of this type of research and other proactive applications of applied popular film can be performed, and is hereby recommended. It is needed, warranted and certainly long overdue.

Works Cited

French, Brandon. On the Verge of Revolt: Women in American Films of the Fifties. New York: FredericUngar, 1978.

Gordon, Mary. “Father Chuck: A Reading of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s, or Why Priests Made Us Crazy.” South Atlantic Quarterly 93.3 (1994): 591-601.

Grignaffini, Giovanna. “Sisters and Saints on Screen.” Women and Faith: Catholic Religious Life in Italy from Late Antiquity to the Present. Ed. Lucetta Scaraffia and Gabriella Zarri. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 294-302, 366.

Henderschedt, James L. “ML Preaching: The Centrality of Preaching.” Modern Liturgy 14.7 (1987): 28.

Iwamura, Jane N. “The Oriental Monk in American Popular Culture.” Religion and Popular Culture in America. Ed. Bruce D. Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 25-43.

Janosik, MaryAnn. “Madonnas in Our Midst: Representations of Women Religious in Hollywood Films.” US Catholic Historian 15.3 (1997): 75-98.

Jones, Sara G. “Sexing the Soul: Nuns and Lesbianism in Mainstream Film.” Perversions: The International Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 4 (1995): 41-59.

Lacy, Allen. “The Unbelieving Priest: Unamuno’s Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr and Bergman’s Winter Light.” Literature/Film Quarterly 10.1 (1982): 53-61.

Lindvall, Terry. “The Faint Image of the Chaplain in Twentieth Century Combat Films.” Military Chaplain’s Review 16 (1987): 1-26.

Malone, Peter. “The Nun and the Bandit.” Cinema Papers 95 (1993): 47-48.

——. “A Century of Priests on Screen.” Media Development 42.4 (1995): 22-24.

——. “Priests on Screen.” Compass: A Review of Topical Theology 32.3 (1998): 46-49.

Medved, Michael. Hollywood vs. America. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1992.

Neely, Alan. “Images: Mission and Missionaries in Contemporary Fiction and Cinema.” Missiology: An International Review 24.4 (1996): 451-478.

Nolletti Jr., Arthur. “Spirituality and Style in The Nun’s Story.” Film Criticism 18.3-19.1 (1994): 82-100.

Pies, Ronald. “Psychiatry in the Media: The Vampire, the Fisher King, and the Zaddik.” Journal of Mundane Behavior 2.1 (2001): 1-7.

Rike, Jennifer L. “Dead Man Walking: Criminal Justice on Trial.” Encounter 58.4 (1997): 353-367.

Schleich, Kathryn. “Extreme Images: Christian Women in Film.” Christianity and the Arts 2.4 (1995): 38-39, 41.

Sullivan, Rebecca. “Celluloid Sisters: Femininity, Religiosity, and the Postwar American Nun Film.” The Velvet Light Trap 46 (2000): 56-72.

Telford, William R. “Religion, the Bible and Theology in Recent Films (1993-1999).” Epworth Review 4 (2000): 31-40.

Author: Anton Karl Kozlovic (MA, MEd, MEdStudies) is a PhD Screen Studies candidate in the School of Humanities at The Flinders University of South Australia. He is interested in religion, film and philosophy and has published articles in Australian Religion Studies Review, Compass: A Review of Topical Theological, Journal of Christian Education, Journal of Religious Education, The Journal of Religion and Film, Labyrinth: An International Journal for Philosophy, Feminist Theory and Cultural Hermeneutics, Marburg Journal of Religion, Nowa Fantastyka, Organdi Quarterly, Religious Education Journal of Australia, Teaching Sociology and 24 Frames Per Second.

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