Rarely does a movie affect audiences like the new St. Bernadette of Lourdes.
“It was such an incredible experience watching it. We laughed, and we cried. It has total honesty,” said an enthusiastic Alex Sepkus after he and his wife, Dange, of Ossining, N.Y., saw this movie. “I think it will become a Catholic classic.”
Excitement and emotion ran equally high among the audience of 350 at the one-hour-and-17-minute feature film’s recent premiere at St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk, Conn.
St. Bernadette of Lourdes is true to the saint’s story, is professional-quality, and what is most extraordinary: has an all-children cast. It’s the first feature film from Navis Pictures in Danbury, Conn., which has quite a story itself.
“This whole endeavor,” says Jim Morlino, Navis’ president, director, producer and screenwriter, “began within our own family and our desire, which is shared by many parents, to protect the innocence of our children and foster in them a love and appreciation of beauty, especially mindful of the Author of beauty.”
Jim and Fran Morlino enjoyed watching family-friendly entertainment with their six children, and Jim decided the family should make their own movies, believing beautiful art could be made by kids in their own backyard.
In 2007, his idea turned into a Catholic version of Robin Hood starring the Morlino children and their friends. It was such a hit with those families that Morlino began envisioning a film production apostolate focused on children’s cinema.
Morlino chose the name Navis Pictures. Navis is Latin for “ship.”
“The Church is called the Barque of Peter,” Morlino said. “I had this image of this ship navigating those treacherous waters of life. If we stay true to our course, Our Lord wants to lead us home to him, to the safe harbor of heaven.”
While his children are novices to filmmaking, Morlino isn’t. In San Diego, he received a music degree and a Master of Fine Arts in acting. He acted professionally for 25 years in television, off-Broadway and in regional theater. For the last 10 years, he has produced videos for Catholic charities and corporations.
“I see art as a response to the Creator, in thanksgiving and the act of glorifying him and praising him by using what talents he has given us,” Morlino said.
Bringing Bernadette to the Screen
Morlino guided 50 families and 166 children in the making of St. Bernadette.
The screenplay is based on two books on Lourdes. Costumes and settings look authentic. The beautiful musical score is composed by Yale-educated David Hughes, organist and choirmaster at St. Mary’s.
The children were blessed with water from Lourdes on the first day of shooting and began every day with the Angelus. Priests visited the set. Location filming included holy places: a Lourdes shrine and a convent.
It was the children’s acting that made the film.
“Many people said they did not expect to see the level of performance they see from these kids,” said Morlino. “But I would argue the potential for moving performances by amateur, untrained children is greater than people think, because no child needs a lesson on how to put on a costume and play make-believe. It’s written in the kids’ souls that they do imitate the ideal, seek the truth, and wish to conquer evil. You don’t need a degree from NYU to teach you how to do that.”
“If you can capture that innocent energy many kids have and foster its growth and direct it gently,” he added, “many times extraordinary things can happen.”
Alex Sepkus saw that honesty, which had “such incredible purity in it.”
Heather Voccola, mother of Alyssa and Rebecca, who play Bernadette’s mother and sister respectively, agrees: “The kids brought the aspect of purity and innocence. What they were doing was sheer joy for them, and that translated on the screen. Jim is such a great talent. The kids respect him because he makes them feel they’re important and what they have to say matters.”
Alyssa said she “loves working with Mr. Morlino because he’s very patient with us. He works with us until we understand exactly and we’re able to do it.”
Bernadette is played by 14-year-old Genevieve Morlino. Her favorite scenes included the apparitions, where Bernadette is “so happy to be with Our Lady, knowing Our Lady loves her so much. I liked that theme in it.”
Her father doesn’t think those tears are a performance. “The magnitude of Our Lady’s love for her brought Genevieve to that emotional place,” he said.
“Genevieve hasn’t had an acting lesson in her life,” he pointed out, “and she turns in a more truthful performance than I ever have on stage. That’s directly related to her correspondence with grace.”
Given the chance, “those good, innocent, energetic performances have an opportunity to shine through all the more effectively.”
That goes for all the actors, including his five other children, ages 3 to 13. Dominic plays Bernadette’s brother; Mary Claire, Cecilia and Annette are nuns, and Vincent is a soldier.
Morlino acknowledges “the work of the Holy Spirit in this entire venture, Our Lord and Our Lady smiling on us, St. Bernadette smiling on us, too,” because the logistics involved upwards of 80 child actors some days, yet everything went smoothly.
By the end of filming, his children had a deeper appreciation for Our Lady’s role in human history and how Our Lord allows her to bring the world timely messages.
Morlino emphasizes the spiritual benefits: “If I have done something that benefits our souls, that’s a good. Period.”
Morlino dreams of taking his family where the geography will dictate other stories, such as filming a movie about Our Lady of Guadalupe in New Mexico or Texas. He would love to film the St. Joseph Staircase story and the Battle of Lepanto as well.
The latest effort: Navis Pictures is now in pre-production on a training video for children actors/filmmakers with all of the pertinent how-tos, from writing a script, placing cameras and directing, all in a way 7- to 17-year-olds can understand and appreciate.
“My hope,” says Morlino, “is they take this only as a beginning, an inspiration to go on and study in the film and art and music schools, and make our culture what it should be.”
Genevieve already realizes this mission, hoping viewers “will try to reclaim the culture, appreciate innocence and convert.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
INFORMATION To learn more, purchase the DVD, or arrange a parish or group viewing, visit NavisPictures.com or call (203) 798-0523.