St. Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the most popular saints of our times. The facts of her life were simple, but her impact has been great. Often called the Little Flower, she was born Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin, of a haute bourgeois family, in 1873 in France. In 1888 she entered a Carmelite convent where she wrote her autobiography, Story of a Soul. She died at the age of 24.
In Thérèse, French director Alain Cavalier tries to capture the essence of her sanctity. The film is made with the same spirit of simplicity and humility that the saint herself displayed. The camera rarely moves. It stays close to the people in its frame, recording the smallest movements and gestures. Its sense of spiritual power derives from its evocation of the little things in its characters' lives. The movie won the Jury Prize at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, and six Cesars — the French equivalent of the Oscars.
The film opens on Thérèse (Catherine Mouchet) as a young teenager living with her widowed father and older sister, Celine. She asks that a Mass be said for a three-time murderer, Pranzini, who is scheduled for execution. She prays that he will ask for forgiveness.
When Thérèse learns that he kissed the crucifix before his death, she believes she has had some effect.
“What a gift you have,” her sister remarks.
“I'm in love with Jesus,” the saint-to-be declares. “I want to pray to save a lot of people for him.”
Thérèse hopes to enter the Carmelite convent in Lisieux by age 15. Two other sisters have already taken their vows there. As the Rule of Carmel permits only women 21 years and older to enter, there is opposition. Town gossip whispers that her father is trying to get rid of his daughters. The local priest and bishop deny her permission, but she refuses to take “no” for an answer. On a pilgrimage to Rome, she asks Pope Leo XIII for help.
“If it be God's will, you will enter,” the Pontiff replies.
A year later she is admitted.
The filmmaker shows Thérèse dressed as a bride when she's accepted into the order. His camera lingers as she says good-bye to her family and friends and it focuses on her radiant smile while her hair is trimmed. She is giddy and schoolgirlish, very human and in no way a plaster saint.
Thérèse's special calling slowly emerges. She's shown to be humble in her day-to-day living and her service toward others. We see her lovingly bathe an older nun, who confesses to her a sin she had previously concealed.
The mother superior asks Thérèse to write down her thoughts.
“It's like fishing,” she later remarks. “I write whatever pops up.”
These reflections, of course, later became Story of a Soul, which has been translated into 60 languages.
The film includes relevant excerpts from the book on the sound-track as we watch her struggle to get to know Jesus Christ at a personal level. Their relationship goes through stages, with ups and downs, but eventually a deep bond is established.
Thérèse contracts tuberculosis, and the film pulls no punches in showing the disagreements between the mother superior and a local physician about how to treat her. Thérèse bears her great pain with silent dignity, and her suffering brings her closer to God. She learns to perceive the opportunity for grace in every instant of her life. She tells the mother superior she wants to be a saint in secret so that only God will know of her goodness. There is always joy in her eyes even when she is too sick to get out of bed.
Thérèse was canonized in 1925, just 28 years after her death. Along with St. Francis Xavier, she was declared the patron saint of foreign missions. In 1947 she was named with Joan of Arc co-protectress of France. On Oct. 19, 1997, Pope John Paul II proclaimed her a doctor of the Church for the wisdom of her writings — an honor given to only 33 persons in Church history.
Thérèse gives us a glimpse into the saint's soul, quietly inspiring us to learn from her life and work.
Next week: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.