Priests were once the backbone of feudal civilization, but such a position of authority comes with lots of responsibility. That's why so many priests and ministers have been at the center of controversy.
Corruption, ambition, and depravity have turned these emblems of morality into widely known abusers who exploit their high positions to get what they want—and even when they're exposed, they evade justice.
Of course, that's not always the case. For every dubious priest, there are also those who live to do good and lift up those in need, even at the expense of their own happiness and safety.
Here are our picks for the best movies about priests and ministers, including those who are good, those who are evil, and in between.
12. The Mission (1986)
Before playing the infamous Musketeer priest Aramis in The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), Jeremy Irons was decked out in his cassock and oboe to play Father Gabriel in 18th century South America.
The Paraguayan jungle isn't normally where you'd find a Christian priest, but Gabriel builds a mission station there to preach the word of God in new corners of the world. As it turns out, bad idea...
Roland Joffé's British period drama makes a good effort to be a hefty epic, but falls a little short on chemistry and emotion. Robert De Niro stars alongside Irons in this visually striking exploration of history.
11. The Scarlet and the Black (1983)
More than 500,000 copies of the script for The Scarlet and the Black were sent out across schools to discuss its historical context and narrative achievement, such was its success.
In The Scarlet and the Black, Gregory Peck stars as Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, a real-life priest who saved thousands of Jews from Italian prisoner-of-war camps during World War II.
Churches have always been one of the most common places for refugees to hide out, living between walls under the protection of God. With the help of clergymen and locals, O'Flaherty ran an underground safe haven despite the immense risk if he were to be caught.
Jerry London commemorates this lesser-known war hero with this TV film, based on J. P. Gallagher's book The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.
10. Doubt (2008)
John Patrick Shanley turned his Tony Award-winning play Doubt: A Parable into a movie that ended up with several Oscar nominations.
The film's accolades and prestigious cast list—Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis—speak volumes to its storytelling technique and success.
Doubt unfolds in a Catholic parish school in The Bronx, 1964. There are concerns about one charismatic, reformist priest (Hoffman) getting a little too close to the new altar boy—the only African-American student.
Despite her lack of evidence, stiff-lipped Sister Aloysius (Streep) starts investigating the two of them, ignoring the cloud of "doubt" that constantly overshadows her. Paranoid, intimidating, and treacherous, Doubt is truly compelling as it treads on the controversial.
9. The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)
Bing Crosby was Golden Hollywood's king of the musical. He'd already bagged an Oscar for his portrayal of Father O'Malley in Going My Way (1944), directed by the same guy behind The Bells of St. Mary's.
Although Leo McCarey's sequel didn't win Crosby another Academy Award, it did receive marginally better ratings, and that's why we're picking this film over the other for this list.
Father O'Malley and the Sister Superior (Ingrid Bergman) put their differences aside to save the rundown St. Mary's parish and school. It's all very wholesome and sweet, with a touch of festive coziness thanks to its December release date and Christmas pageant scene.
8. First Reformed (2017)
First Reformed is surprisingly trippy and surreal for a film about a Protestant minister. Played by Ethan Hawke, Ernst Toller has a crisis of faith while pastor of a fading church in upstate New York.
He's got a lot on his plate, including grieving his deceased son, battling with alcoholism, trying to save his church alongside his own beliefs, surviving stomach cancer, and the suicide of one of his flock.
Paul Schrader's avant-garde drama inspects the dark side of religion, history, and the modern-day world while meditating on environmental negligence, doomscrolling, and what religion means in a messed-up world.
7. Corpus Christi (2019)
After serving a prison sentence for second-degree murder, it's a shock when Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) divulges his dream—of becoming a priest. The thing is, ex-convicts aren't allowed formal study for priesthood.
So, Daniel decides to "fake it 'til you make it" by pretending to be a priest and presiding over a little Polish village. In doing so, Daniel shows us the possibilities of rehabilitation, the importance of forgiveness, and the complexity of being human.
Daniel is a walking contradiction—devout and understanding yet covered in prison tattoos and quick to break the rules of celibacy. Jan Komasa's award-winning drama is quiet and restrained (like a priest) with sudden outbursts of brutality (like a criminal).
6. Of Gods and Men (2010)
Of Gods and Men (or Des hommes et des dieux) refers to a Bible passage:
I said, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince."Psalm 82:6–7
It's shown at the beginning of the movie before a group of monks carry out their mundane daily routines. Their tranquil existence, however, is brought to a sudden halt when Islamic fundamentalists threaten Algeria.
Xavier Beauvois based the film on true events, where seven brave monks were kidnapped in 1996 and killed for their faith. Like in First Reformed, Beauvois zooms out of the film's religious subject to broader world problems like terrorism and a failing government.
Of Gods and Men won the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival in 2010, commended for its minimalist yet powerful mode of storytelling.
5. Silence (2016)
Silence isn't Martin Scorsese's most well-known movie, nor does it star his usual cast of heavy-hitters, but it's still amazing nonetheless.
Based on Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel, this epic historical drama unfolds in 17th century Japan where Jesuit priests are kept prisoner unless they renounce their God.
Of course, Sebastião Rodrigues (based on the real missionary Giuseppe Chiara, played here by Andrew Garfield) has absolutely no doubt about his beliefs and refuses to give in.
Although it's not quite a Christian Bale-level of physical commitment to a role, Andrew Garfield and co-star Adam Driver went through a lot to embody their tortured characters, including weight loss and a vow of silence.
You can tell from the mere scale of Silence that it took a long time to make—over 25 years, in fact. It's a grueling watch but a treat for the senses.
4. Calvary (2014)
Calvary stars Brendan Gleeson as a Catholic priest who's caught in a moral trap, a question that's been asked time and again: Should priests break their confessional vows to report crimes to the police? What if they're the target?
Father James is told he will be killed next Sunday. Not for any personal reason against him, but because this unseen man wants revenge against the religion that sexually abused him. The killer's reasoning? The community will feel the most hurt if they lose a kind priest like James.
Calvary is a rich drama that's anchored in the complex character of Father James, brought to life by Brendan Gleeson's incredible performance. Weighty and sensitive, Calvary delves into the heart of a true shepherd.
3. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Technically, Eli Sunday is a preacher, not a priest. But hey, it's all in the same ballpark, so we're counting it for this list!
Paul Dano gives it his all with his rendition of a lunatic cleric, a performance that rides alongside Daniel Day-Lewis as the oil prospector Daniel Plainview, who spends the whole movie battling the town preacher in dusty California during the early 20th century.
Quentin Tarantino has spoken in length about his love for There Will Be Blood and considered it one of the best movies for studying the art of filmmaking. No surprise, given Paul Thomas Anderson's masterful execution.
2. Spotlight (2015)
In recent years, sexual abuse claims have skyrocketed in the Church. The scandals have inspired all kinds of movies, including Spotlight, which is (sadly) based on a heartbreakingly true story.
The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team really did lead an investigation into child abuse claims in the surrounding area, uncovering a mountain of trauma that went buried and unpunished.
The exquisite ensemble cast of Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci embody the people who brought these crimes under the "spotlight."
Tom McCarthy's biopic is as factually accurate as Hollywood movies go, and it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. There are no cliches, no spectacle, no sensationalism, no obvious tear-jerking manipulations. It's all real, grounded, and unfortunate.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
What would you say if someone asked, "What is The Exorcist about?" If you said it's about a demon-possessed little girl, you wouldn't be wrong. But it would be more correct to say thta it's about the priest.
Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is the one who goes through the hero's journey, at first feeling unfit to counsel other priests, then later fighting off the demon-entity Pazuzu.
Damien goes through hell during the film's 122 minutes, with his mother dying, him having a crisis of faith, and a helpless mother asking him to perform an exorcism that involves getting beaten up, vomited on, thrown out a window, and sacrificing himself to be the demon's new host.
Yes, it's dark, it's gross, and director William Friedkin successfully terrified audiences of the time. But over time, The Exorcist went on to become recognized as one of the greatest horror films in history.