Advent Happenings

Our annual Christmas Party for Kids on Saturday was a big success as always, thanks to the 20 volunteers who helped with everything–from dressing families into costumes for their photo with Baby Jesus, to inflating balloons, serving cake and juice, and face painting! Several families told me that this has become their family Christmas tradition. One father told me that, when his children saw the date advertised on the sign outside our Pauline Books & Media Centre, they were so excited they went home and wrote it on the family calendar. “That’s the first time they’ve ever put something on the calendar,” he smiled. “They’ve been looking forward to it and reminding me about it all month.” Another mother brought her two teenaged boys because “We’ve been doing this for ten years and we can’t have Christmas without coming!”

The joy of the day was tangible in the air, and this year a number of children were not too shy to have real conversations with our special visitor, St. Nicholas. At the end of the day, I felt very blessed to have been able to spend such a joyful and lively time with such beautiful families–even if we did run out of cake and almost ran out of balloons!

Our Daughters of St. Paul Choir has also had a busy week of concerts, traveling to New York, New Jersey, Cleveland, and Alexandria, Virginia. This coming weekend they will be singing in the Boston area.

Saturday night I was not able to get to my computer, but the new Salt + Light radio show is available for download. I came up with some unexpected movies to review! Here is the write-up for the hour long program:

Are you a mother trying to cope in today’s hectic world? This week on S+L Radio we speak with Dorothy Pilarski about her new book, Motherhood Matters. And if you’re wondering about the purpose of your life, we’ll also speak to Ken Yasinski, founder of Face2Face Ministries. He tells us about his book, The Fullness of Purpose and we listen to his music. Our Saint of the week is St. Ambrose and Sr. Marie-Paul Curley reviews Winnie-the-Pooh and Last Holiday.

Talking about Family Films on Salt + Light Radio

Just a quick note to let you know that I’m doing a short 5-minute segment on Salt + Light Radio called DVD Picks, in which I comment on recent or upcoming DVD releases. This week, I talk about Soul Surfer and Rio as family-friendly films that have a “little bit more” to them than just good entertainment. You can listen live on Sirius Radio XM 129 this weekend: Saturdays 3-4 pm ET, or 10-11 PM ET, or Sundays 2-3 PM ET. You can also listen online here sometime after tonight, or you can do what I do, which is subscribe here or on itunes and listen to the show at your convenience!

Here’s the write-up for this weekend’s complete show:

Oct 1, 2011 What do you know about Dogmatic Theology? Probably not a lot – but you have heard the word “dogma” before – to explain it all in a way you can understand, this week we are joined by Fr. James Mallon, producer and host of the new DVD series, Dogmatic Theology; Sr. Marie-Paul Curley has some suggestions for movies to watch and a featured chat with singer/songwriter and spinal chord injury survivor, Renee Bondi.

The Cardboard Village Film Commentary

Budget and time were tight this year so I only made it to see one film this year at TIFF, despite a short list of five that I really wanted to see. However, the one I saw was well-chosen: The Cardboard Village, or il villaggio di cartone, written and directed by Ermanno Olmi.

It’s always fun to pick out films to watch at a film festival, but this was a no-brainer. One of Olmi’s films made it onto the Vatican’s Best Films List: The Tree of Wooden Clogs. (By the way, Tree of the Wooden Clogs has been #1 on my ziplist for months, but I’m still waiting for it to come! I hope Zip really does have a circulating copy!) But I was also interested in the subject of the film: how does an elderly, retired priest respond to the closing of the parish church he has served in his entire life? The write up that TIFF gave the film suggested a character study, and a compassionate look at the issue of illegal immigrants in Italy (and Europe), an issue that came to a very real crisis in Italy this spring. The film did not disappoint.

The Cardboard Village
is an unhurried, richly-detailed film that rewards those who pay attention to its visual symbolism. It is a parable that intensely explores the imperative to love which lies at the heart of Christianity.

The Cardboard Village begins with the dismantling of the interior of a typical small Catholic church, as seen through the eyes of its elderly pastor, who futilely and embarrassingly resists. It’s a scene all too familiar in North America, and is powerfully lensed. The striking cinematography of the crucifix dizzily spinning as it is taken down could disorient the audience as much as it would have the pastor, played by Michael Lonsdale. Lonsdale, who recently acted as one of my favorite monks in Of Gods and Men, gives an understated performance of the paralysis of finding one’s self too old, no longer needed, and perhaps no longer relevant. After the church has closed, he gives a homily to the empty church in which he reveals his own dark night of the soul.

The pastor’s running monologue ranges from amusing to irritating to profound. Yet we need it, because it is in huge contrast with the almost entirely silent, visual narrative of the African refugees who find temporary asylum from the police in the locked-up church. The refugees’ characters are well-sketched visually, but the extremely limited dialogue leaves most of their stories up to the imagination of the audience.

The film takes place almost entirely inside the church, the sacristy, and the rectory. The outdoor shots are completely lacking in detail and simply show the invasive headlights of construction equipment or the police cars coming to detain the immigrants.

The extremely close-up scope, the lack of details, and the overt Christian symbolism make the film more a parable than a realistic narrative, although some moments are strikingly real. It’s up to the audience to imagine the ending, and to interpret the meaning of the characters’ choices that we witness.

The unmistakable Christian symbolism makes this film a meditation on the true purpose of the Church and the law of love that is the heart of Christian discipleship. What usually happens in a Catholic Church takes place in an unexpected way as the refugees hide in the torn-down church: new life, washing, Eucharist, betrayal and forgiveness, even a reference to sharing the Word of God.

Olmi’s choice to bring us into the details of the present moment of the story, without giving a satisfactory sense of what has happened before or what will happen afterwards, can make the film more intense. But the slow pace and attention to exquisite detail could make the pacing seem ponderous. The lack of closure and explicit narrative arc makes the film confusing and perhaps less accessible for some viewers.

The orchestral film score is beautiful but rather than always integrating seamlessly with the narrative, it sometimes draws attention to itself. For some, this might heighten the emotion; for me, this stylistic choice distracts from being present to the most powerful moments of the film.

Window to the Soul?
The Cardboard Village is a powerful visual parable that works on several levels. The spiritual journey of the elderly priest was, for me, the most compelling piece of the film, but the refugee narrative contains wonderful symbolism about the meaning of the Christian life, as well as an invitation to reverence and welcome the Other.

The Cardboard Village (Italian, with English subtitles)
il villaggio di cartone
Written and Directed by Ermanno Olmi
Release in Italy: October 7, 2011

For those who are interested, themes included in the film are:

  • Dark night of the soul
  • Faith
  • The “ordinary” sacramental moments in the life of the Church
  • The human condition and the human community
  • Illegal refugees and the question of social justice
  • Jesus’ law of love

The Tree of Life: an incredibly rewarding experience

I’m haunted by a film I saw this week. By haunted, I don’t mean the usual sense of the term–as in scared by a ghost. Rather, I mean it in the sense that Flannery O’Connor used the word: a surprising and (usually) deeply moving moment, scene, or event in a story that gives me such deep insight that I will remember it for a long time. (For a definition closer to Flannery’s, and some wonderful examples of what she meant, check out Kris Rasmussen’s 2009 list of Top 10 ‘Haunting’ Movie Scenes.)

The Tree of Life
is a soul-haunting experience. As our media-saturated world becomes ever more experiential, writer and director Terrence Malick has created a film that is much more than powerful story: it’s a cinematic experience that is deeply satisfying and probing at the same time.

There is no way to describe in one sentence what this film is about. The trailers show that it is the story of one family’s journey–father, mother, and three sons–but it’s more than that because their story is placed within the context of the human experience, with plentiful “commentary” in the form of cinematic, visual poetry–I really don’t have words to describe it, but it was an amazing experience. Here’s a completely inadequate one-sentence description:

The Tree of Life seeks to explore the scope of the human experience by dramatically contrasting the intimate life of one family in 1950s Texas, with the creation of life on earth.

The fact that I cannot “capture” what this film is about in one sentence means that Malick has done what the greatest film directors do. As Flannery O’Connor used to say when people asked her what her stories meant, “If I could tell you, I wouldn’t have had to write the story.”

This film has instantly rocketed to my list of top ten films of all time.

Visually, auditorily, and narratively, this film is a delight. The scope of the film is simultaneously vast and tiny–we ponder both the evolution of life on earth, the depth of grief and loss, and the specific characteristics of a particular family living in the 1950s. The cinematography makes this journey very personal for the audience, bringing us in close and deep–to each character, to each subject, with a creative eye for details. (When the boys play “kick the can”, we watch it almost from the perspective of the can itself before it is kicked away. The close-up of the newborn son–so close it distorts–is striking.)

One of my favorite things about the film is that it demands that the audience actively engage in the narrative. Nothing is given away. There is no easy to follow, contrived storyline. The scenes from the family’s life are not in chronological order, so we must puzzle out the clues we are given, imagining what is left out. The cinematically poetic imagery and music which provides commentary on the narrative not only give us more clues, but encourages us to reflect on our own experiences: of love, of acceptance, of sibling rivalry, of the first betrayal, of the power that parents wield over their children, of the startling first consciousness of moral choices.

While we are not given a complete picture of the details of the story, we are given a well-rounded, deep perspective of the characters of the family: the parents and the two older boys. As I was watching, I didn’t even think about the actors because they were so fully the characters they represent onscreen. The film was particularly profound for me simply because the characters were so real: I have known these people in my own life; at times, I have been one of these people. Incredible directing and acting.

In places, the film is filled with one-liners that could become a power idea for your entire life, such as the mother’s line in the trailer: “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

Yet, The Tree of Life is much more than a narrative: director Terrence Malick plays with the cinematic form to create an experience for the viewer that includes both narrative and commentary. The “commentary” contains very few words. Instead, through powerful music and gripping imagery, it evokes the audience’s emotions, encouraging us to engage even more deeply, contrasting the details of our tiny lives with the immensity of the creation of the universe.

Malick, a truly masterful writer and director, shows his mastery in using all the power of the cinematic medium to evoke not just a powerful story of the human experience, but the audience’s emotions about their own experience. I left the theater wrung out, moved, inspired, and extremely grateful for the giftedness of life.

The meditative, sometimes-impressionistic style of the film may discourage some casual viewers. It’s not an easy film to watch. (At its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, it was both applauded and booed by the audience. It then went on to win the Palme d’Or–the top prize of the festival.) The engagement required by the film isn’t instantly gratifying, and this may prevent some viewers from staying with the film to experience the deep satisfaction of the journey.

The only other limitation is that The Tree of Life should be seen on the big screen. I think it might lose a lot of its power on the small screen, such as the contrast of the vast scope and the tiny details, the raw energy of some of the visuals, and the immersive experience of going so close on the details.

Window to the Soul?
The Tree of Life is absolutely a radiant window to the soul that achieves what few films do: a sense of the transcendence of God. This film is a profound exploration of the human experience: what it means to be human, to “be” family, to make a moral choice, to experience grace.

The film is framed by a quotation from Job 38: 4, 7: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding; when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” It encourages a profound reflection on the nature of the human person, on how we can discover God in the world and in our lives.

For those who are interested, themes included in the film are:

  • Giftedness of life
  • Family
  • Fatherhood
  • Motherhood
  • Presence of God
  • Loss
  • Life and death
  • The Question of Suffering/Evil in a World Created by a Loving God
  • Prayer
  • Morality

Soul Surfer

Since completing the first draft of my book, I’ve been busy trying to catch up with everything else. I am preparing for several upcoming Faith & Film Nights, as well as creating some new online content for the readers of my last published book, See Yourself Through God’s Eyes. I’m also delighted to be presenting a workshop on the Theology and Spirituality of Communication at an upcoming Media Literacy Education course being offered by our own Pauline Center for Media Studies, with the Archdiocese of Boston.

That’s not an excuse for why I haven’t been blogging, but an explanation (and update on what I’ve been doing).

This week I took a break from catching up and went to see Soul Surfer, the film based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a talented young surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack at age thirteen, and how she and her family coped with the tragedy.

Soul Surfer is a straight, uncomplicated story that fits solidly into the cinematic sports genre for a younger audience, with the “team” being Bethany’s family and friends who support her. Sequences of amazing surfing–at least to this non-expert–intentionally dazzle, as they should. Refreshingly, the Hamiltons are not a family in crisis, and the close family interactions give the film both its most entertaining moments and an endearing wholesomeness. True to its name, Soul Surfer takes a lighter approach, skimming over the surface of character and story, rather than plunging more deeply. But this style balances the harrowing tragedy which the film fearlessly takes on. Ultimately, as a film, Soul Surfer aptly matches Bethany’s inspiring courage in the waves.

The big performances of this film make it a joy to watch. AnnaSophia Robb has matured as an actress and convincingly plays Bethany. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt are the parents who make their strong and healthy marriage not only credible but enviable. The fact that they don’t always agree on how to help their daughter move forward is played subtly and wonderfully.

In the film, the Hamiltons come across as a faith-filled family, with scenes of the family in church, Bethany going on a mission trip and participating in the church youth group. The positive image of a strong and faith-filled family and community is welcome, as is the portrayal of Christian faith as a vital and natural part of life.

The shots of the beautiful ocean and spectacular surfing celebrate God’s creation and the beauty of the human body. Bethany’s love for surfing drives the film both plot-wise and visually. This singleminded approach is a strength for those who love the sports genre, but perhaps a bit of a weakness for other viewers.

The film’s script is less complex than it could be, with only one major storyline and little character development. The lack of complexity limits the film to surfing over the depths of Bethany’s life and faith. But perhaps this is a wise choice that, in the end, is more respectful of and true to Bethany’s life.

Window to the Soul?
The overall Christian worldview of the film is evident and provides the opportunity to reflect on many themes. The most powerful moments for me were when Bethany struggles with the question, “Why did God let this happen to me?” The film does a good job with this: it doesn’t shy away from the big question, and it also avoids giving an easy, unsatisfactory answer. This excellent approach allows us as viewers to look for insights into Bethany’s character and determination, and then accompany her on her struggle to not only accept what has happened to her, but turn it into something she can give to God.

For those who are interested, themes included in the film are:

  • Faith
  • Family
  • Being a good sport
  • Community
  • Overcoming adversity
  • Where is God when bad things happen?

Film Commentary for Of Gods and Men

I had the privilege Monday evening of viewing Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Xavier Beauvois, the film won both the Ecumenical Award and the Grand Prix du Jury Award at Cannes this year.

If you’re in the Toronto area and still plan to catch a film at TIFF, there’s another screening on Friday afternoon (September 16).

Of Gods and Men is the moving true account of the Trappist community of Mt. Atlas, Algeria, and their response to the rising violence of Islam extremists in the mid-1990s. Despite the breathtaking cinematography, to those accustomed to a Hollywood version of things, this film is in many ways a minimalist portrayal. There is no romanticizing of monastic life, nor of martyrdom. These seem to be ordinary men who dig deep–into the grace of their vocation, into their faith, into their very selves–to be faithful to their commitment. Instead of choosing to shock, the film draws its audience in, immersing us in the paschal experience of these reflective, prayerful, and peaceful men who choose to witness to hope in the midst of a world disintegrating around them.

I am not overly familiar with the story of the monks, and the exact circumstances of their deaths are still unknown, but the film is done in a way that almost plays down the drama. It feels very factual. There is no sensationalizing, even though the decisions of the monastic community has life-and-death consequences. My impression as a woman religious is that this film is a faithful rendering of both the monks’ experience and of the way they would have liked their experience interpreted. The humanness of the monks is candidly expressed and portrayed, and the prayerful routine of their life echoes in our consciousness, much like the chant reverberates in their simple chapel.

I especially appreciate the way the film highlights community. The monks are a part of the larger village community, engaged in serving the needs of the villagers. And while certain monks are more noticeable or memorable, no one monk stands out as the protagonist. It would have been very easy for the filmmaker to focus on the superior of the community, or on one member. Instead, he allows the beauty of community life to shine forth, showing the place that each monk holds, revealing subtly the strength that comes from so deeply sharing a commitment to Christ and God’s people. The monks move together, unique individuals who are ultimately faithful to their commitment to build unity and peace, both within and outside of the monastic walls.

The film gets off to a slow start, inviting the audience into the rhythm of the monastic life. At first, the deliberate tempo of the film seems to conflict with the story–the reflective, attentive, peaceable behavior of the monks versus the extremism of the fanatics, the ambiguous, threatening government presence, and the fear of the ordinary people. Yet through this slower pacing, we are invited in to reflect, like the monks, on what this increasingly dangerous conflict means.

The paradox of martyrdom is highlighted by the wonderfully understated acting, and the realistic dialogue, which also uses Scripture and some of the Testament of the superior as he faced his death.

I didn’t find any, although this film’s European sensibilities may make it less popular here in North America.

The intentional pacing shouldn’t limit the film’s audience because it combines the strength of a documentary-like reality with the added realism that a feature can give when directed by a filmmaker who is not obsessed with impressing or shocking, but instead seeks to sensitively draw out the depth of the experience of the protagonists.

The film makes the audience work more than a typical Hollywood film. Of Gods and Men has many beautiful and touching moments, but few easily “satisfying” moments that resolve the suspenseful dramatic question building up through every scene–what will these ordinary men do in the face of their possible murders? We share the unrelenting strain with them, and it forces us to reflect on what we would do in their places.

How is this film a Window to the Soul?
Of Gods and Men is a true “window to the soul” that dazzles the audience cinematically, but even more so with the light of the Gospel as it was incarnated in the lives of these peace-loving men. They were ordinary men who did not want to die as martyrs. The film doesn’t let us look away from the painful paradox they lived in their radical commitment to Christ, nor from the heroism, however reluctant, of their choice.

The Human Experience Film Commentary

The Canadian premiere of The Human Experience screened on Friday night at Dante Alighieri High School. It was a low-budget setting–in the auditorium, with hard folding chairs, and no air conditioning. The filmmakers are working on increasing the film’s distribution and hopefully will succeed because as of now, there are no scheduled showings in Canada. Here’s a brief commentary on the film that might be helpful.


The Human Experience is the documented experience of two brothers, Cliff and Jeffrey Azize, who decide to open themselves to new experiences in order to grapple with questions of identity, the meaning of life, and what it means to be human. In “reality TV” style that for the most part rings sincere, the brothers’ journey takes them to share life with the homeless in a New York city winter, spend time with children who suffer from severe disabilities in Peru, and encounter people who suffer from leprosy and HIV/Aids in Ghana. The Human Experience resoundingly reaffirms the giftedness of every human life, the importance of family, and the resilience of the human spirit amid tremendous sufferings and challenges. The vision of the film is a powerful and uplifting tool to encourage young people especially to reflect on the brothers’ honesty and the insights of the various experts and companions on their journey. The repeated “summing up” of lessons learned, and a forced ending makes this a powerful educational tool for the classroom, but less appealing to a more general audience.


With the exception of the ending, Cliff and Jeffrey’s honesty and sincerity leap touchingly off the screen, and compel attention. Their courage in so dramatically leaving their comfort zone and to so honestly share their experiences is undeniable. The filmmakers effectively share the vibrant voices of the people that the brothers encounter–their shooting 150 hours of footage really pays off because the shots and the encounters are effective–every moment in New York and Peru feels real. Nothing staged, nothing exaggerated. Well-paced and well-shot, the film is reality-based but also easy to watch.


The goal of the brothers is not as compelling as it could be–a generic desire to grow into better human beings by expanding one’s experience is admirable, but it takes the film in many directions and fragments its sense of unity. This lack of unity is illustrated best by the disappointing ending which, although admirable in itself, is disconnected from the rest of the film and feels forced. In addition, several times the story’s focus shifted from the brothers to various companions on that lap of the journey. This meant that the compelling sense of narrative was lost, dissipating the power of the brothers’ testimony, and making the film feel more “preachy” than it needed to be. Lack of subtlety in the soundtrack and in the repetitious “summing up” of issues by various experts also gave some sense of feeling manipulated or preached at, rather than witnessed to. The film might have stronger general appeal if the narrative themes were tightened and the commentaries of the experts limited. But as a classroom tool, this film is powerful as it is.

Definitely a Window to the Soul

Brothers Jeffrey and Cliff, director Charles Kehane, and writer Michael Campo deserve great credit in grappling with the “big questions” of life in a coherent narrative that is compelling and timely. Using the personal memoir/reality TV genre that is familiar and fascinating, they took difficult material, personalized it, and turned it into a journey that many young people can relate to. This so easily could have been an intellectual, philosophical and moral jumble that was completely unwatchable. Instead, they pull it off, impressing indelible images into the minds and hearts of the viewers–images that can open the door to the questions that all of us need to pay attention to.

For those who might find it helpful, here are some of the themes that the brothers’ journey highlights:

  • the giftedness of each human life
  • the importance and gift of family
  • brotherhood
  • the implications of a child lacking the love of one or more parents
  • the power of forgiveness
  • the importance of the desire to grow as a person
  • the interconnectedness of every life–the fact that we are all connected because we are all human
  • the beauty of the diversity of human experience–in culture, beliefs, attitudes, etc.

Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us

popieluzskofilmthoughtfulOn Saturday night, I attended the second showing of the North American premiere of the Polish film Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us. The film courageously attempts to capture the life, character, and brutal murder of the Servant of God, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, popularly known in Poland as the “solidarity priest.”

For those who don’t know him, Father Jerzy Popieluszko was born into a devout Catholic family in eastern Poland in 1947. Despite the political atmosphere, he decided to study for the priesthood. After two mandatory years of military service, he was ordained and served in several parishes, finally being assigned to St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in the city of Warsaw. In 1980, Solidarity was born, and Popieluszko was asked to celebrate Mass for the striking workers. He became their chaplain and their champion. On December 31, 1981, the government imposed martial law and started persecuting the leaders of Solidarity. Father Jerzy was tireless in assisting the workers and their families. He also became famous for his widely attended monthly Mass for workers, where he preached about human dignity and the possibility of peaceful change. After several years of intimidation by the government (including arrest, imprisonment, and death-threats), Father Jerzy was brutally murdered by the Polish secret police on October 19, 1984. Here’s a link to a one-page biography:

The film, Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us, is not always easy to watch–but for those with a little patience, it is compelling and rewarding, because of its artistry, its attempt to “bear witness” to the life of Father Jerzy in a respectful and honest way, and the hope it offers to all who have known oppression.

Biopics, when well-done, are probably my favorite genre. But many are so poorly done that they seem to fall into another, separate genre altogether. It is extraordinarily difficult to weave the many strands of a person’s life into one compelling portrait that is also a cohesive story with unity and thematic depth. Poor biopics seem to use the fact that it’s a “true story” as an excuse to avoid this difficult work. Which means good, solid biopics are to be appreciated all the more.

popieluszkofilminformalPopieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us achieves this. While the film may not be a “great” film, it compellingly covers the major events of the Father Popieluszko’s life, and gives us glimpses of other, less important events which, nonetheless, give us insight into his character. Actor Adam Woronowicz actually seems to become Popieluszko onscreen, imitating his very gestures. The film is slow in places, even grueling–because during its 2 1/2 hours, we witness an oppressive government’s efforts to crush the soul of the Polish people. But writer/director Rafal Wieczynski skillfully directs the acting and pacing, so that it builds to a powerful end where we not only accompany Fr. Jerzy in his martyrdom for truth, but also begin to grasp the powerful impact this humble man has had, and may continue to have, on so many.

One aspect of artistry which stands out is the filmmakers depth of research and commitment to accuracy.

popieluszkofilmglempThe film seems to capture well the tension of those times where it was dangerous to say the rosary with too much devotion, never mind express a political opinion. One interesting facet of the film is the director’s choice to occasionally cut in real historical footage, which, rather than distracting, heightens our awareness that this is a true story.

I know of no other feature film where a cardinal acts as himself onscreen, and yet this is exactly what Cardinal Glemp does. (And the first scene is not so complimentary.) This gives a unique “texture” of authenticity to the scenes where Father Jerzy interacts more directly with his superiors–a texture which otherwise might be hard to believe: that someone so actively and intensely devoted to the spiritual care and the human dignity of his people could combine that with a humility about his own opinions and a real trust in the obedience he has vowed, in the persons of superiors who did not always agree with him.


Another distinction that the film makes is that, while the government called his preaching “political,” Father Jerzy was basing his preaching on the social teaching of the Church. From what I have read, the film actually underplays the intimidation and threats from the government that Father Jerzy suffered in the last years of his life. As the film progresses, we see his awareness and preparedness for giving his life grow dramatically.

How can a story that ends in a brutal murder be uplifting? Despite my tears and the turbulence I felt at the end of the film, I have been uplifted and inspired since Saturday night. The beautiful strength of the film lies in its gradual revelation of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, tracing his spiritual journey of transformation from an ordinary, devoted priest with attitude, into a pastor who grows always more Christlike and, in the end, willingly lays down his life to defend the rights of the people he serves. Father Jerzy Popieluszko’s cause for canonization was introduced in 1997. October 19th, 2009, was the 25th anniversary of his martyrdom.

popieluszkoempirePopieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us is a powerful and insightful film, well worth viewing. It is not being carried nationwide, but can be seen locally at the Empire Theatre at Square One in Mississauga in the upcoming week. I have not yet seen a rating for the film, but due to its violence, the film can be quite disturbing and is not suitable for young children. Made in Poland, the film is in Polish with English subtitles.

Unusual Take on “Lourdes”

For the first time in three years, I was in Toronto during the Toronto International Film Festival. But, in contrast to my experience at the Montreal World Film Festival, during which I saw 30-odd films in 10 days, I was only able to see one film. However, it was a great choice.

lourdesThe French film Lourdes is not what a good Catholic would expect–it doesn’t retell the story of young Bernadette Soubirous’ amazing visions, nor is it a documentary on the miraculous. Instead, director Jessica Hausner chose to focus on what it’s like to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes today in search of healing. Every character in the story has a different approach to faith: the devout, the casual believer, the superstitious, the desperate, and the cynic. Despite the unusual perspective of the film, I think that St. Bernadette would like the unusual and very human protagonist, Christine.

As I was planning my own review, I received the news that Lourdes won both the SIGNIS award and the Fipresci Award (from the International Federation of Film Critics) at Venice Film Festival. SIGNIS’ statement describes the film so well (and better than I could) that I include it below:

SIGNIS STATEMENT – September 14, 2009

The new film, Lourdes, is a project written and directed by Austrian Jessica Hausner who has a Catholic background. However, she does not approach the subject from an explicit Catholic point of view. Rather, she wanted to put on the screen the Lourdes pilgrimage experience and to raise the issues of the nature of God, the possibility of miracles and the ‘fairness’ of God in granting healing to some and not to others.

The film-makers discussed the project with the bishop of Tarbes, where Lourdes is situated, and received collaboration during the making from the shrine authorities. It is certainly a film Catholics can be comfortable with, the presentation of devotion and faith, the range of perspectives of the pilgrims themselves, the experience of healings. The questions the film asks are those that believers and non-believers must ask.

The film shows a group of French pilgrims, with their chaplain and assistants from the Order of Malta, following the rituals of the visit to Lourdes: the grotto, the Eucharistic blessing, confession, processions, bathing in the water… The central character, Christine, has severe MS and is paralysed. She has come with some devotion but, principally, for a trip. The elderly lady she shares a room with is prayerful and solicitous for her. During the pilgrimage, Christine feels a growing strength and seems to be healed. There are various responses from the group, joy and suspicion, and the film is open-ended concerning Christine’s future.

What the Audience Sees

Non-Catholics have been puzzled and some admiration for what they see. The gathering of the sick seems to some just like one of those revivalist tent gatherings, full of enthusiasm, which have sometimes been exposed as frauds. Confession is often problematic for those who have never participated in it. The touching of the grotto wall, the statues and candles may seem quaintly devout. Outside the precincts of the shrine is the kitsch-commercial paraphernalia of images, candles and souvenirs.

The film’s attention to detail will be appreciated by Catholics. It may not lead anyone in the audience, except the devout, to think that Lourdes is a place that they should visit. The sceptics in the audience will generally remain sceptical though they may appreciate better that authorities in Lourdes have procedures and doctors to examine those who think that they have been cured. The psychological benefit of religiously going to such a shrine will be appreciated – believers realising that this can be a personal healing experience in itself.

The priest with the group is down-to-earth (playing cards in the evenings and showing a sense of rhythm in dancing at the social at the end of the stay) but the lines he is given, inside and outside the confessional, tend to be the abstract sayings about God and freedom along with rather facilely quoting texts from the scriptures about completing the sufferings of Christ in our own bodies.

A great strength of the film is the performance of Sylvie Testud as Christine. As an ill woman, confined to a wheelchair and completely dependent on others, she is both sweet and kind, extraordinarily patient despite her confessing to being angry. She is a woman of faith, joining in the hymns, prayers, visits to the grotto. However, she also wants to socialise, experience the pilgrimage as an outing. Her experience of healing is at first tentative, not immediately very spiritual, an entering into the ordinary, even banal, world of day-by-day. Is this a miracle? Not? Does she deserve this experience? Will it last – and does this matter? Does her experience challenge her deeply? Spiritually?



Almost all of the characters believe in God. The characters do not question God’s existence. That questioning may be for many in the audience. What the characters do is express different aspects of belief.

One of the difficulties in discussions about God is God’s seeming arbitrariness in dealing with suffering people. If God is God, why does God not intervene directly in the world and in people’s lives (while we fail to remember how much most of us resent parents and authorities when they do intervene and take away our freedom and freedoms)? The other question is that of suffering – and one needs to reflect on Elie Wiesel’s response when asked where was God in the holocaust. His answer suggests that God was in the ovens and with the suffering concentration camp victims.

Jessica Hausner has remarked that one effect of making Lourdes was to make her question more strongly the ‘fairness’ of God in dealing with different people, favouring some and not others.


There is an unfortunate presupposition amongst believers and non-believers alike that discussion of faith limits itself to the intellectual aspect of faith: believing what God says, intellectual assent to the truth. This keeps the discussion in the realm of the mind and focuses on ideas, reason and logic.

However, faith is something lived, lived in ordinary day-to-day life as well as in crises. It is what St Paul calls ‘faith from the heart’. Faith is a spirituality in action, sometimes heroic, sometimes faint. This is dramatised in the characters in the film but, in the context of the Lourdes experience and people being prone to focus on faith and ‘truth’ in discussion, drawing attention to this more explicitly without being didactic would have enhanced the film and given more nuanced attention to the characters. The traces can be seen in Cecile, the Order of Malta leader, and her rather ascetical lived faith, and the old lady, pious and kind, who looks after Christine.


In the early centuries of the church, miracles were claimed at the drop of a crutch, many of the reported miracles being enhanced storytelling. In the century of ‘Enlightenment’, the 18th century, Benedict XIV tightened criteria for the acceptance of a miracle. The language was used of an occurrence (generally a cure) being outside the laws of nature. More recent theological reflection highlights another criterion: that the cure take place as a response to and in the context of prayer. Maybe an occurrence is a psychosomatic experience but, in the context of faith and prayer, it can be described as ‘miraculous’, even though the ‘big’ miracles are those which seem to transcend the laws of nature.

Bringing this line of thought to what happens in the film, Lourdes, raises interesting issues of whose prayers are answered, whether Christine has experienced something miraculous (‘big’ or ‘psychosomatic’) and what is the nature of her spiritual experience – of the healing and its consequences for her life, of the challenge to her intellectual faith and to her faith from the heart, of her witnessing God’s healing love and power?

There are some suggestions in the film – and Jessica Hausner does not want to make a propaganda film – but visitors to Lourdes have testified that they have experienced so much more of this faith from the heart which transcends previous experience.

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SIGNIS is the World Catholic Association for Communication, bringing together radio, television, cinema, video, media education, Internet, and new technology professionals.