19 September, 2008

How not to make a movie about St. Maria Goretti

The makers of a recent RAI dramatization of St. Maria Goretti's life set out to prove that you can take a story about chastity and forgiveness, recast it as a morality play about social injustice, greedy capitalists—er, nobility, and abusive fathers, and still make a decent film. I grant that they succeeded. In the process, however, you empty the story of so much meaning that only sentimentalist pablum remains.

I do not mean to imply that social justice has nothing to do with the story of St. Maria Goretti; to the contrary, there are some things that should be said. That said, social justice is not the focus of her story, let alone a useful crutch to misrepresent and/or beat the dead, while ignoring certain important aspects.

Such as, you ask? Geez, where to begin?

  1. Maria Goretti did not teach the priest attending her deathbed about the importance of letting go of hatred. Rather, the priest asked her to forgive Serenelli, and she consented.
  2. Alessandro Serenelli (the murderer) was so fond of pornography and salacious tales that he posted suggestive images on the walls of his room. You will not find any hint of this in the film, even though modern Italian culture could use this reminder.
  3. According to at least one source I've read, Serenelli's relationship with his father was not that of an abused child to an alcoholic father, as portrayed in the film. Rather, it was "respectful". These notions may not contradict in and of themselves, but the film does not portray a respectful son. Nor does it portray another aspect of the relationship I've read, that the two shared some vices beyond hatred of the landowner.
  4. The film ends with Maria's funeral. No indication is given that for many years Serenelli refused to repent of the crime, or that he besmirched her character in court. To the contrary, Serenelli is shown weeping immediately after his crime. Likewise, no mention is made of Serenelli's famous dream some years later, where Goretti visited him and gave him lilies, which burned his hands.
  5. The chronology of the events of the murder are changed, only slightly, but my wife, for example, found certain aspects of the story incredulous.
  6. Goretti's famous remark after her first Communion—that her special wish was to receive Jesus again—is missing. (A common pious practice of the time and region was that children should make such a request at their first Communion, something like a birthday wish.)
In general, the film ignores supernatural aspects of religion, focusing nearly exclusively on questions of social justice. Jesus isn't completely absent from the film, but Maria's profound love for Jesus is not accurately portrayed. The narrative arc of the film focuses on the prevalence of malaria in the Pontine marshes, and the landowner's resistance to paying for quinine to prevent and treat malaria among the laborers. The uninformed viewer could not be blamed for thinking that the cause of Serenelli's attack was the hatred he nourished against the landowner, transferred through complex psychological pressures onto Maria, rather than his own unrestrained lust, nurtured somewhat by his dissolute father.

A great many religious stories are likewise detranscendentalized* in contemporary retellings. The usual consequence is to empty the story of a great deal of religious meaning. I'm not sure if they actually realize that something is missing, but filmmakers usually try to make up for it with saccharine imagery.

Regerettably, the makers of this film are no exception. Even one softened image of the sun shining through Maria's radiant hair would have been one too many, but the filmmakers place so little restraint on their aesthetic sensibilities that the cringe factor increases by several orders of magnitude.

On the bright side, Ennio Morricone scored the music, so the film wasn't a complete waste of time. The first few minutes also succeed at grabbing the viewer's attention in a good way, but it was all downhill from there.

The reader will find another review here. It's not quite as harsh as mine.

I rented it from Netflix, but Ignatius Press will be happy to sell you a copy.

*If "detranscendentalized" isn't a word, it should be, considering how often it occurs in modern religion.

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