08 November, 2004

You need to watch this film

I sat through the first 30 minutes of Thérèse thinking, This is going to be an awful film. I sat through the last hour and a half of it thinking, This is a really great film!

The film is about the Catholic saint and Doctor of the Church, Thérèse of Lisieux. I recognized most of it from the time I read half of her spiritual autobiography, Story of a Soul. I never finished reading it, I'm afraid; I made it through the first half of the book and asked myself, The Church made her a Doctor for this?!? Sure, it was filled with holy spiritual reflection, and I was vaguely familiar with the "little way" of St. Thérèse, but I don't think it was anywhere near the level of, say, Augustine's corpus of writings.

This movie has definitely changed my outlook on that; I am taking the book to chapel tonight, and I am determined to finish it.

Leonardo Defilippis has made a name for himself in Catholic circles by writing and starring in one-man plays about famous Catholic saints. I remember watching one of his videos some years ago. It was
about St. Maximilian Kolbe, and I didn't like it very much.

I didn't realize this film was one of his efforts, which is a good thing. I probably wouldn't have gone, if I had known it was his. It's not that his take on St. Maximilian Kolbe wasn't very good; it's that I was expecting something different. (Those preconceptions are a real problem of mine.)

That said, this is not a one-man film, but has a large cast of women, and a few men to boot. Mr. Defilippis is nevertheless the best asset of Thérèse, as both in his portrayal as Louis Martin, and in his role as director. I don't know if anyone else could have portrayed her father in such a convincing and humble manner. I really like how the film was directed and laid out — apart from the first half-hour, as I noted above.

What don't I like about that first half-hour? It exhibits all the flaws of explicitly religious films. There are a number of very, very good ideas that the film touches on superficially, but never explores with any depth. The result is that it raises important questions, supplies the usual, shallow answers of so many religious films, then walks away without satisfying anyone who's even a millimeter more than skin-deep.

But hold on.

I definitely fell in love with the rest of the film. Part of it is due to some very clever special effects: Pauline's waving goodbye, or a terrifying dream that Thérèse had. There aren't many, so they're not gratuitous, but very appropriate; that alone would make them special. What I liked even more was that I don't remember seeing anything like some of them before (especially Pauline's waving goodbye).

I don't want to say too much more about the film, because I'm not a very good critic. I would like to say that the film moved my stoney heart just a little, and I repented of some pride that had sat on me like a stone for several days before.

That's why I say that you need to watch this film: if it touched me, cynical and pretentious as I am, it's bound to touch you that much more.


Steven said...


The website previews showed acting that looked as wooden as could be, and piety that reeked of everything I despised in Story of a Soul. So I'm glad to see that it was largely a misapprehension on my part.

Your reaction to Story of a Soul is not at all unusual. The best remedy I can suggest for it, particularly if you want to try a reread, is to get the ICS translation. This translation sets the parts in the actual order of composition and gives you the background of what it became such a sickly piece of pious treacle. There are the verbal excesses one would expect from a young french girl of the late 19th century--but I found it much more readable and far more engaging than Beevers or Knox (both of whom had access to less-than-complete mansucript) and certainly a lot better than the TAN books version, edited by her sister to avoid offending sensibilities of the time.

Thanks for posting this. Perhaps I shall see it after all.



jack perry said...


You write: The website previews showed acting that looked as wooden as could be, and piety that reeked of everything I despised in Story of a Soul.

That's precisely what I disliked about the first half-hour: wooden and excessively pious. Most of the actors never get beyond the woodenness, but I think Defilippis did a wonderful job. As for the saccharine piety, I don't know if that really lessens, but it's somewhat trumped by the profound love Thérèse has for Christ, which helps her triumph over several situations that remind me of my failures. I find it hard to criticize a film's piety when its soul speaks so clearly to mine :-) and really to the challenges we all face. I can't really put it into words, as I discovered when I was writing the review, which is why it ends rather abruptly.

I am in fact reading the ICS translation. (I linked to it!) Rereading it last night, I found it much more charming and interesting than when I put it away 6 years ago or so. I have no idea why, except that 6 years ago I was fighting a losing battle against myself to stay in seminary. That may have had something to do with it.

I'm really glad to hear that you also disliked the piety of Story of a Soul. All these years I figured something was wrong with me; now I realize that something is wrong with us. :-D