CHRISTMAS is essentially about a story - in John Betjeman's
words, "this most tremendous tale of all". Its truth lies not so
much in details about Mary, Magi, or mangers, but belief in God's
desire that the holy child of Bethlehem be born in us.
Film-makers have seized on this to screen stories that may
sometimes touch only tangentially on the Gospel birth narratives,
but essentially reflect and celebrate incarnation.
Here are my 12 picks. Some of these may be screened on TV over
the festival; but, if not, they are certainly worth renting or
buying. Of course, there are others, but these are a good place to
1. It's a Wonderful Life (U)
It is Christmas Eve. George Bailey (James Stewart), a pillar of
Bedford Falls society, faces imprisonment because of the ineptitude
of his dizzy uncle, and the wickedness of Scrooge-like Mr Potter.
Townsfolk, sensing George's troubles, are praying for him; but, as
mortals weep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. They
send Clarence to the rescue.
The initial attempts of this second-class angel fail, until he
hits on the idea of showing George what the world would have been
like if he had never been born.
This could have been a very schmaltzy movie, but it isn't. It's
warm-hearted and funny, but also quite dark. The director, Frank
Capra, back from the horrors of war, places the name of the film in
quotation marks, treating his title as if it were a hypothesis.
Is it, can it be, possible to claim this life as "wonderful",
when virtue appears unrewarded and evil goes unpunished? And yet,
there is a theological optimism running all the way through the
piece. Like the unlikely circumstances surrounding the birth of
Jesus, there is hope for things unseen, and, whether or not it is
always clear to us, the world is unfolding as it should.
2. Of Gods and Men (15)
The kernel of Xavier Beauvois' film is based on the abduction
and execution by Islamic extremists of seven Cistercians living in
Algeria in 1996. The monks hold fast to their faithful commitment,
not relishing likely martyrdom nor shying away from it.
Gethsemane parallels give way to a tableau suggestive of da
Vinci's Last Supper. The monks sit at table listening to a
recording of the Grand Theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake,
and Beauvois has the camera pan along the table, taking in the
varying facial expressions of the Brothers. Viewers will be not
only moved to tears, but left haunted by its impact.
Shortly after being harassed by the jihadists, the abbot speaks
to the Brothers at their Christmas meal. "That time when Ali
Fayattia and his men left, all we had to do was live. And the first
thing we did . . . we celebrated the Christmas vigil and Mass. It's
what we had to do. . .
"We welcomed that child who was born for us, absolutely
helpless, and already so threatened. Afterwards, we found our
salvation in undertaking our daily tasks. . . Day after day we had
to resist the violence. And . . . each of us discovered that to
which Jesus Christ beckons us. It is to be born.
3. The Fisher King (15)
The late Robin Williams excels as Parry, a deranged down-and-out
who was an unsuspecting victim of a shocking mistake made by Jack,
a radio DJ (Jeff Bridges). Parry turns out to be the wounded healer
in this New York City re-enactment of the Arthurian legend.
God had instructed the Fisher King to protect the Holy Grail,
receiving a debilitating injury for his sinful pride. A Fool
naïvely asks him about his suffering, to which he replies that he
is parched. The Fool offers him water. The King perceives the cup
to contain the Holy Grail. Astonished, he enquires how it was
found. But all that the Fool ever saw was that his King was
thirsty. Meek souls such as Parry perceive what the worldly-wise
fail to see. And, although losing his wife to a violent death has
clearly damaged him, the DJ and the former academic become Christ
to one another.
Parry is the Knight whose quest is to find that vessel of divine
grace. The director, Terry Gilliam, helps us to see that, even if
this ends in failure, we ourselves are the earthen pots in which
God's glory resides.
4. The Gospel According to St Matthew
Pier Paolo Pasolini takes the Evangelist almost entirely at his
word, and transcribes the Gospel on to celluloid. The infancy
narrative is beautifully played among the Italian peasantry who
served as his actors.
There is inevitably interpretation on Pasolini's part: the Magi
are gentle, their garments far from royal in appearance; the angels
are all too human. Mary finds little to smile about - but who can
blame her, beset by potential persecution from Herod's soldiers and
moral opprobrium from her peers? Strangely, or not so surprisingly,
it took an existential Marxist to make the best film ever about
5. X-Men (12)
A young boy realises that he is a mutant with extraordinary
powers. As time goes by, Magneto (Ian McKellen), intent on
dominating the world, teams up with a fellow mutant, Professor
Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who, as his name suggests, wants to
bestow on human beings similar abilities to his own. These X-Men
visit a summit conference on Ellis Island, New York. The world
leaders are sceptical, suspicious even. Drawing heavily on biblical
language the X-Men speak of God "as a teacher; a bringer of light,
wisdom, and understanding". Fear is what prevents people seeing
their own potential.
This is the judgement - straight out of John 3.19 - that light
has come into the world, but humanity prefers darkness. Whereas
Magneto wishes to use power to serve his own purposes, Xavier's
agenda is more akin to the Prologue in St John's Gospel, which
demonstrates the purpose of the birth of Jesus
To those who accept him, Christ gives power to become children
of God. There is a cosmic battle going on between the forces of
light and darkness. In the case of this film, it occurs (very
entertainingly) at the top of the Statue of Liberty. We huddled
masses of ordinary humans have, like the X-Men, serious choices to
6. High Plains Drifter (18)
Westerns are full of Christ-figures (High Noon,
Shane, etc.): lone saviours who, against all odds, squeeze
righteousness out of evil. That makes it hard to choose one movie
from this genre. I've plumped for Clint Eastwood's High Plains
Drifter because of the hero's morally ambivalent, enigmatic
character. The Man With No Name rides into the settlement of Lago,
and meets immediate hostility. He sees what a fallen race he's
Flashbacks tell us that Marshall Jim Duncan was flogged to death
while law-abiding residents stood idly by. We are given to suppose
that the stranger could be the reborn lawman come to judge them.
The Eastwood character paints the town red, and renames it "Hell".
He exalts the humble and meek, making a put-upon dwarf the mayor.
He exposes the preacher for the charlatan he is. Villains are only
dispatched after they have recognised who the stranger truly is.
"You know, I never did know your name," the mayor says. "Yes, you
do," Eastwood says, and leaves.
7. Nativity! (U)
This is the first of the series - Nativity! 3 is
currently doing the rounds. St Bernadette's Primary School, in
Coventry, is putting on a Christmas show with its under-achieving
pupils. Mr Madden (Tim Freeman), goaded by a supercilious teacher
at an independent school, Oakmoor, announces that Hollywood is
making a movie about St Bernadette's show. But how is it going to
happen? With the help of childlike Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton), it
The children bring a joyfulness without too much sentimentality.
The spirit of Christmases past lingers in the air because, in
experiencing this contemporary nativity play, we are likely to get
in touch with memories of when we wore tea towels on our heads and
did our bit in the school production. The director, Debbie Isitt,
attributes the making of this film to having played Mary at her
Roman Catholic school in Coventry. Achievements come in many ways,
not always recognised by OFSTED, but, we hope, by God.
8. Scrooge (U)
There are more than 100 film versions of A Christmas
Carol, but the one that sticks out, for me, involves Alastair
Sim's portrayal of the old miser in the 1951 production. Sim is
able to bring to the story a sense of how past hurts can fashion a
soul. If he is now joyless and twisted, we learn why. Contrast is
made with Mervyn Johns's downtrodden Bob Cratchit, who can see amid
the winter snow what Christmas is truly about. The three ghosts may
frighten, but chiefly they encourage old Ebenezer to enter into the
joy of new birth.
9. The Terminal (12)
Just as his home country, "Krakhozia", experiences a coup,
Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at JFK airport, New York.
Rendered stateless, he is stuck for months in that hell on earth:
the international transit lounge. He earns his keep by doing
favours for passengers and staff, earning much respect through his
kindness. Viktor unwittingly becomes saviour to people in fear of
deportation, others caught up in destructive relationships, and so
on. He typifies "love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely
be". that Steven Spielberg manages to steer us through with great
charm and credibility.
10. Superman (PG)
Richard Donner's 1978 film has many elements of the nativity
story about it. He begins with a baby who literally comes down to
earth from heaven, and is cared for by an unlikely couple, Ma and
Pa Kent. They name him Clark, gradually realising that this is a
wondrous child, one whose astonishing powers they will need to keep
As he grows into adulthood, Clark is employed by the newspaper
The Daily Planet, thus putting him at the cutting edge of
news. He is able to learn immediately what is happening in the
world as it occurs. Christopher Reeve, when not in Superman mode,
is entirely believable as the self-effacing journalist with a soft
spot for Lois Lane.
In a way, Superman presents us with the age-old
Christological dilemma: how could Jesus be both fully man and fully
divine? If the film ultimately gives us a figure more like a Greek
god taking on the appearance of a human being, it is only
reluctantly. Kent, in many ways, epitomises the Christ Jesus of
Philippians 2.6-7. He does not use his supernatural powers to his
own advantage, but "empties himself . . . being made in the
likeness of men". But the moment you see Kent whizz into a
telephone booth, you know that he is about to save the world. Again
11. Love Actually (15)
When Bill Nighy, the ageing rocker, re-records the old Troggs'
hit single "Love is all around", he changes the lyrics to:
"Christmas is all around me Come on and let it snow". It's a neat
substitute, because we have first been given the original lines. In
effect, the rest of the film is about how Christmas and "Love all
lovely, Love divine" are synonymous. A tad sentimental for some
tastes, and perhaps too many storylines going on.
What makes it so tender and amusing is the way it infuses so
many of the secular elements of Christmas - snow, office parties,
gifts, family gatherings, etc. - with the sense that those who live
in love live in God, and God lives in them.
12. The Snowman (PG)
This is not just for children at Christmas. Apart from Peter
Auty singing "Walking in the Air", there is no dialogue. There is
no need for words. Actions - loving ones - speak for themselves in
this piece. A little boy builds a snowman, who becomes a creature
in his own right. He has a life of his own. Initially, the boy has
to instruct his new friend in the ways of our world, and how it
Whatever the version, the author, Raymond Briggs, has shaped a
wonderful Christmas homily, even if he may himself be a sceptic. At
the very least, it is a case of: if you believe, then you will
receive. Unless we become as little children, we will never be able
to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
The Snowman is only ever going to be a temporary figure in the
life of the young boy. He shows him what to look for in this
magical world of ours. As the song puts it: "Children gaze
open-mouthed, taken by surprise Nobody down below believes their
eyes." As a result of watching this film, we down below might start
developing the eyes of faith. And the Snowman leaves behind a
tell-tale reminder of his eternal presence: a scarf, for the boy to
wrap around himself.