Remember, Remember the Saints in November (on Film)
Worthwhile movies feature the holy ones.
Besides being the “Month of Holy Souls,” when Catholics especially remember the faithful departed in purgatory, November is also the “Month of Saints.”
Starting with All Saints’ Day, the month goes on to commemorate many notable saints and beati (Martin de Porres, Charles Borromeo, Leo the Great, Frances Cabrini, Miguel Pro, and Andrew Dung Lac and companions, to name just a few).
Watching saint movies in November is a great way to celebrate the end of the Church year and to prepare for Advent. Which saint movies? There are plenty to choose from, but here’s the rub: Some are classics that are so well-known — movies like The Song of Bernadette, Becket, and A Man for All Seasons — that they hardly need recommending. Then there is a plethora of less familiar productions that aren’t necessarily worth recommending.
In this column I’ll focus on three timely picks: two released this year and one that celebrates a saint who was canonized just weeks ago.
The October 2018 canonization of Óscar Romero makes this a good time to check out the 1989 Christopher Award-winning production Romero, starring Raúl Juliá as the martyred archbishop of San Salvador. (Romero is available in a brand-new collector’s edition streaming on Amazon Prime and on DVD and digital.)
Written by West Wing writer-producer John Sacret Young and directed by John Duigan (Wide Sargasso Sea), Romero follows an arc in some ways reminiscent of Becket: A new archbishop and primate of his country, initially thought to be pliable to the interests of leading elites, is unexpectedly transformed by sacred responsibility, proving so troublesome to the elites that it leads to his martyrdom.
But where Richard Burton’s Thomas Becket was transformed overnight by the idea of duty to the Church, Romero struggles through an incremental conversion in response to particular atrocities, including the excessive violence both from the country’s military leaders and from the Marxist guerrilla resistance.
Even the clergy are divided, with respectable bishops siding with the wealthy elites and radical priests aligning with the resistance.
Romero rejects both extremes — first in a wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road way, but then increasingly with prophetic zeal, denouncing the evils and especially the violence on both sides. The Church must suffer with those who are persecuted, he argues, not contribute to the cycle of violence.
Similar questions plague the early Christian community during the Neronian persecution in Paul, Apostle of Christ, starring Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner. (Paul, Apostle of Christ debuted in March and is now streaming on Amazon Prime and available on DVD.)
Catholic writer-director Andrew Hyatt (Full of Grace) recreates the last days of Paul (Faulkner) in Rome during the Neronian persecution, depicting the story of Paul’s life in flashback as he relates them to Luke (Caviezel) for eventual posterity in the Acts of the Apostles.
For some in Rome’s underground Christian community, like Joanne Whalley’s Priscilla, the city is their home, and they have no wish to leave despite the persecution. But others, like John Lynch’s Aquila, believe the time has come to depart. Then there are some, especially among the younger members, who favor joining with other Romans opposed to Nero and engage in violent resistance.
Like the title character in Romero, Luke repudiates violence in the name of Christ and the temptation to seize power by any means necessary. And, like Romero, Paul, Apostle of Christ ends with martyrdom.
But not all saints have eschewed violence. Take the military heroine Joan of Arc — a screen heroine for longer than she’s been a canonized saint, most recently seen in Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. (Jeannette debuted in the U.S. in April and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.)
By her canonization in 1920, Joan had already been celebrated by filmmakers for more than two decades, but her best-known screen incarnations include Carl Dreyer’s 1927 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (one of the 45 films of the 1995 Vatican film list), mid-20th century films by Roberto Rossellini, Otto Preminger and Robert Bresson, and more recent productions like Luc Besson’s The Messenger and the 1999 miniseries starring Leelee Sobieski.
Most of these aren’t great as films, the notable exceptions being the two treatments of Joan’s trial by Dreyer and Bresson — very different but austere, arty films. Dumont’s film is also arty and in a way austere, though in almost every other way it could hardly be a greater contrast to those two, which, in its own way, it bizarrely complements.
Jeannette takes a musical approach to its hero’s early life, with anachronistic, eclectic musical textures from electronica and hard rock to Baroque themes. Yet its text is drawn straight from the writings of the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy, giving it a theological depth and even a medieval spirit richer than any other Joan of Arc film I’ve seen (especially in the first half, which reflects Péguy’s mature Catholic views).
Joan struggles over suffering, war, perdition and the seeming ineffectiveness of Christ’s redemption. In the film’s best sequence, a Franciscan nun named Madame Gervaise — inexplicably played by twins who also portray Sts. Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria — offers a triumphant soteriological theodicy rooted in the transcendence of eternity over time. (More simply, Jesus has already won, and redemption is an ever-present reality.)
As powerful as Madame Gervaise’s account of evil and redemption is, it is not Jeannette’s destiny to accept her Franciscan counsel of abandonment to divine Providence and nonviolent acceptance of suffering and evil. In contrast to nonviolence counseled in Romero and Paul, Jeannette sets out to “kill war.”
Yet we know that Joan’s story, like Romero’s and Paul’s, ultimately ends in martyrdom. Joan waged war in obedience to voices from heaven, but her ecclesiastical judges, acting in the Church’s name, condemned her to death.
What is the Christian response to evil, oppression and violence? There are situations where some may be called to fight, and a few saints like Joan show us this.
Ultimately, though, it is by taking up our cross that we follow Christ, by accepting death — the death of baptism; death to self, to sin, to the world; martyrdom if necessary; and, inevitably, bodily death — that we overcome. That’s something that we learn from every saint, one way or another, and every saint movie worth watching.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.