A Sacred Look: The Catholic Cinematic Imagination
With Sr. Nancy Usselmann on August 23, 2016

Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world. You can find her entire series archived here. - Editor


We can often take for granted that our worldview is shaped and molded by our childhood experiences. So much of who we are is a conglomeration of our ancestral history, parental wisdom, ethnic heritage, and youthful experiences. The joys and excitement as well as the pains and anxieties of family-living fashioned us into the people we have become. As a Roman Catholic with a German-Italian heritage, I realize how that has formed my cultural perspective and creative imagination. As a child, I loved the billowing incense during the Mass and sound of bells that made me imagine what heaven must be like. The Saints were my friends, real people, often gritty characters who sought to be the most authentic human beings and managed to make it into that communion of bless-eds. Jesus was real to me when I looked at the crucified Christ. I would wonder why he would die such a horrible death. Then the enlightenment of the incarnation and redemption came to me during catechism class. And it wasn’t from a slap of a ruler on my desk! I grasped what was intuitively present in my familial values and beliefs. It became alive for me—a concrete, tangible experience of the Divine.

For Catholics, the physical world is viewed as the place where God makes his presence known to humanity. Andrew Greeley, in his book, The Catholic Imagination, draws the distinction between a Catholic world-view and a Protestant world-view. The Catholic view sees God present in the material universe, in human experience and the gritty everydayness of human existence.[1] It is an analogical view, as theologian David Tracy notes in his book The Analogical Imagination. He delineates how Catholics use analogy in order to arrive at knowledge of God, and so find God present in the material world. Protestants tend to view God as absent from the world yet is known through dramatic moments of revelation such as the incarnation and redemption of humanity through Christ’s passion and death. This is a dialectical imagination.[2] God is seen as other. Richard McBrien distinguishes these two approaches. He says that the dialectical perspective means that there is opposition between for and against. The analogical imagination sees realities as having more similarities than differences.[3] Catholics view life as communal and Protestants tend to emphasize the individual. Both of these are extreme tendencies and rarely are absolute in anyone. Yet, it gives us a way of understanding how Catholic filmmakers, whether they are practicing Catholics or not, view the world through their imaginations that have been conditioned by their early lives’ experience of sacramentality, mediation, and communion.[4] These three elements are what make a Catholic imagination.


Sacramentality is about “seeing God in all things” which Ignatius of Loyola posed to the Jesuits as a spiritual direction. When we are attuned to God’s presence in the everydayness, in the ups and downs of life, in the messiness of relationships, then we are more apt to have a positive, hopeful outlook on life. Not that everything goes perfectly well and life has a fairytale ending. Instead, life has meaning and purpose. This is not the end, no matter how hard our postmodern nihilist society tries to tell us otherwise. The Catholic imagination keeps alive the hope of life beyond death. This world is not all there is. We know it. Life beyond death is ingrained in us. It oozes from our pores and rattles our consciences.

This is seen perhaps most clearly in Martin Scorsese’s films. He is not a theologian and so he misinterprets many points of the Church’s doctrine and even confuses matters of belief. Yet, he is a man searching for meaning and hope amid the suffering. His characters, as dark and morally confused as they seem, are really microcosms of the conscience of the world. The desire for “something more” always lurks beneath the surface. It is the longing for the supernatural, for something beyond what this world alone can offer, the hope for happiness and peace, the hungering for intimacy, communion and connection. Every human being ultimately yearns for God.

Scorsese’s The Departed reflects this human need for redemption, even with desperate and gnawing consciences. The title itself is based on a Catholic concept of “the faithful departed,” those who have died in Christ’s peace. Some may wonder with all the seemingly gratuitous violence in the film, how can it portray the catholic imagination? Catholicism is all about the drama, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and renewed in every Eucharistic Liturgy. It is also depicted in the iconic Sacred Heart pictures of Jesus’ bleeding heart that are present in several scenes of the film. It is through this bloody sacrifice that we are redeemed. Not only through the sacrifice, but also through the resurrection that destroys human sinfulness and restores humanity to a right relationship with God. It is in the sacramentality of a bloody sacrifice that life has meaning. The moral consequences to our actions symbolize the need for redemption.

The Departed, a good cop/bad cop narrative, structured around the Irish Catholic South Boston police department and the mob boss, Frank Costello, is loosely based on the infamous mobster, Whitey Bulger. When two young cops go undercover, in opposite ways, both the police and the mobsters discover a spy in their midst. The two undercover spies then scramble to try to uncover the other before they are found out. It is a story about crime and its moral consequences. As Scorsese says, this is a film that starts at a “moral ground zero.” It is about the choices we make and how those choices have specific outcomes. Matt Damon reflects by saying that the extreme violence is not gratuitous violence in the film because, “The characters all pay a price for the violence they inflict upon the others.”[5]

It is about sacrifice, but at what cost? Is it for another or for selfish gain, as it was for Damon’s character, Colin? He liked the money Costello was dishing out to him to be the mole in the police department. In the end, however, it all comes to nothing. The religious dictum of the Gospel rings true, that what you have you cannot take with you when you die.

Another filmmaker for whose sense of sacramentality naturally presents itself in his art is Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the director who won back-to-back Oscars for Best Director for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) and The Revenant (2015). Both have extensive symbolism and leave the viewer wondering what really happens to the main character and whether the point of the story was ultimately a deeper intuition about the supernatural element of life. However, The Revenant will be our focus on how the terrible force of nature, untamed by human beings, can at the same time present powerful beauty that nurtures and sustains one lost in its fierce wilderness.

It is a story inspired by true events in the life of Hugh Glass, a legendary, 19th century explorer of the American West who struggles for survival after a brutal bear attack when leading fur trappers through the Rocky Mountains along the Missouri River. The film fictionalizes the story for dramatic effect and adds Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) half-Pawnee Indian son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who joins him in the expedition. After the bear attack, Major Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), leader of the party, offers money for two trappers to stay with Glass and his son in order to give him a proper burial. The ruthless John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) volunteers along with a teenager named Bridger (Will Poulter). After several days, Fitzgerald tries to suffocate Glass but is approached by Hawk whom Fitzgerald kills in view of Glass who is too weak to respond. Eventually he is abandoned for dead and thrown into a shallow grave. His will to survive and revenge for his son’s death and his own abandonment, strengthens him to crawl dozens of miles to seek out Fitzgerald.

During Glass’ quest for survival in the brutal winter wilderness he keeps recalling the voice of his deceased Pawnee wife who calls him to survive by saying, “As long as you still grab a breath, you fight.” Throughout the film we hear Glass’ struggle for breath, for life, for justice. His breath is symbolic of the Spirit breathing new life into those who are burdened by pain, sin, and injustice while also offering peace. Another powerful symbol is when Glass rides a horse off a cliff to escape the murderous Ree tribe. He survives by falling into a tree, which cradles him, and breaks his fall to the icy ground. When he comes to, he staves off hypothermia by crawling naked into the carcass of the fallen horse. It looks like a tomb from which he resurrects with new energy and drive. The scene that follows is of the sun bursting through the glass-like icicles on the trees causing them to melt and rain droplets to fall onto him. It is as if beauty is melting away the violence of revenge in his heart.

Glass still pursues his enemy but in the end lets Fitzgerald go to be dealt with by the powerful Ree. Revenge only creates a cycle of violence. As Iñárritu expresses, revenge is “an unwholesome emotion.” He continues, “What is after revenge? It leaves you empty” and it does not bring back what you have lost. The story, according to him, is about how to transform pain and that “violence has huge consequences.”[6] Forgiveness can be the only freeing response, the only way to truly find life.


The second characteristic of the Catholic imagination is mediation. For a Catholic, the created world reveals God’s presence but it is also that specific people and objects function as mediators for God in the world. People become instruments through which God’s grace transforms another’s life. We see this clearly in the film Gimme Shelter directed by Ronald Krauss, based on the story of an incredibly inspiring woman, Kathy DiFiore who once was homeless, turned her life around, and now runs Several Sources Shelters to help homeless women and young pregnant mothers. The story is centered on Apple, a troubled teen of a drug-abusing mother who turns to the streets, then to her absent father who forces her to have an abortion. After she flees from the abortion clinic, she crashes a car landing up in the hospital. Through the gentle spiritual guidance of Father McCarthy, she goes to this shelter for pregnant teens. Life for this young girl is mediated through the directors of the shelter, the priest who led her there for assistance, and through the other homeless young women. Her life begins to have meaning. She finds hope and new life especially through the birth of her child. God very often works through other people for our good.

Another example of mediation in the Catholic imagination are the films comprising The Decalogue, directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, a Polish cultural Catholic who professes to be an atheist even though he is concerned with the transcendent. He seeks the more in many of his narratives. In his The Decalogue, which deals with moral issues based on the Ten Commandments, Kieslowski struggles with the issues of God and belief through avoidance or lightly touching on the topics. His Catholicism, however, has not left his imagination. This idea of mediation is present in many of the films comprising The Decalogue. In the first film, a father’s enthrallment with science teaches his son the very humanist doctrine, that we ourselves can find the answers to life’s problems. Yet, the sister who helps raise the child is a devout Catholic and she teaches him his catechism. When tragedy strikes the father blames himself and rushes into a church. It is there where redemption happens. No answers are given but somehow through the mediation of the faith of others the father feels a connection to the supernatural, to faith in a God who is more present to us than we are to ourselves.


Communion is the third characteristic of the Catholic imagination. As Catholics we realize that we are redeemed as a community. We are individuals on our journeys of life and the need for community is what grounds us. It is because Catholicism expresses its beliefs through communal worship, a sharing of the one meal, the Body and Blood of Christ, together as His body, the Church, that communion is part of the Catholic imagination.

In the movie Wild (2014) starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee, Cheryl Strayed lives a dissolute life of infidelity in her marriage and addiction to drugs. After her mother’s death, she struggles to get her life in order. She remembers what her mother told her, “You can put yourself in the way of beauty.” It is then that she decides to hike 1,100 miles alone of the Pacific Crest trail via California to Oregon. Through the pain, struggle, emotion and blisters Cheryl faces her loneliness in the solitude of the wilderness. She finds herself. Yet, it is not through her own powers that she survives the trek, but through the other people she meets along the way and through the family she eventually has after this experience. We must make our own journeys in life and face our own demons, but in the end, we all need other people to make life livable and joyful while growing in wisdom and understanding. It is that need for others, that sense of communion that molds the Catholic cinematic imagination. Cheryl forgives herself and that forgiveness opens her up to see the grace that is all around her—in nature, in beauty, in relationships.  

The British filmmaker with Irish roots, John Michael McDonagh, a philosophical humanist, offers a view of humanity in need of connection and communion through his films. In Calvary, he presents the senior priest of the village, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), as the one man who possess a moral core. From the very beginning of the film he faces the dilemma in the confessional of a person who says they want to kill him for the past sins of a parishioner who abused him as a child and the church’s supposed lack of response to the crime. The priest then lives out the week going about his pastoral duties as “shepherd of souls” while solitarily wrestling over this dilemma within his conscience. McDonagh says that it is a story about human beings, and, he reflects that it “does end for me on a moment of grace” a “modicum of hope.”[7] What this film offers is the realization that we need other people; we need community. Even though Father James lives the week without telling anyone else about his death threat, he, in his gruff humanness, seeks to bring his congregation of cynical lapsed Catholics back to their faith. His love for his community is what gives him strength in a moment of testing.

With all the Catholic imagery, such as confessionals where we seek forgiveness of God for our sinfulness, the Eucharist as a sign of communion with God and others, pictures of Mary and the saints that offer us inspiration along our journeys, McDonagh, whether knowingly or unknowingly, offers a Catholic worldview that shows that redemption is possible, forgiveness is real, connection and communion are necessary. He provides images of his Catholic imagination for the world to grasp the deeper meaning present in the film, something which Catholics and non-Catholics alike will understand. Calvary is perhaps one of the most Catholic films of the century because of this. What does giving your life really mean? Father James, through his own brokenness, shows us most clearly.


It is in the analogy of the material world that we grasp a glimpse of the Divine. Religious imagination is grounding for those who use art to communicate something of what it truly means to be human. Whether filmmakers are aware of this or not is irrelevant. What matters is that through the material we encounter grace. Through the mediation of other people, events and circumstances we discover the existential yearnings of humanity for what is beyond this world. And it is in the experience of connection and communion with others that grace takes root and transforms us into authentic human beings. Film is an especially dynamic medium for expressing these profound truths. For, it is this vision of sacramentality, mediation, and communion that makes for a truly Catholic imagination.

[1] Cf. Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000)
[2] Richard A. Blake, AfterImage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers, (Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2000), 8.
[3] Ibid., 8.
[4] Ibid., 13-14.
[5] Morality of ‘The Departed’,,
[6] Brett McCracken, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu Talks to Christianity Today about ‘The Revenant’, December 21, 2015,
[7] Tasha Robinson, Calvary’s writer-director and star on faith, hope and glorified suicide,

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.

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