St. Faustina in Film
A new documentary coming to theaters for a pair of stand-alone screening events adds to a growing film library about the Divine Mercy devotion and its founder.
St. Faustina Kowalska, the first saint canonized in the new millennium, is far from the best-known or most venerated saint of the 20th century — but the impact of her calling is out of all proportion to her popular celebrity.
Indeed, perhaps only her fellow Pole St. John Paul II has had a more decisive influence on the shape of Catholic theology and spirituality. It’s not inconceivable, moreover, that canonizing Faustina and advancing her vision could ultimately be John Paul II’s most enduring contribution to the life of the Church.
From the time the original Divine Mercy image was first displayed in Vilnius, Lithuania, during the Easter season in April 1934 to the institution of the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday at Faustina’s canonization by John Paul II on that very day in April 2000, the explosive spread of the Divine Mercy devotion has been without precedent in Church history.
Divine Mercy is a powerful devotion in part because of its polyfaceted character. It is an image but also a prayer (the Divine Mercy Chaplet) and especially a novena, associated with a particular hour of the day (the hour of mercy, 3pm, the time of Jesus’ death) but also with an annual feast.
Now, in the wake of the feast of St. John Paul II on Oct. 22, a new documentary about Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion, Love and Mercy: Faustina, is coming to theaters for a Fathom Events screening on Oct. 28, at 7pm.
In response to viewer interest, distributors have added an encore screening on Dec. 2, at 7pm.
Love and Mercy: Faustina is far from the first film to explore the life of this saint and her vision.
In 1987, less than a decade after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith lifted the ban on promulgating the Divine Mercy message, the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception produced a 47-minute docudrama with the odd title Divine Mercy: No Escape, starring Melanie Metcalf and narrated by Helen Hayes.
The well-known Divine Mercy advocate Father Seraphim Michalenko served as theological adviser and cowriter on the film. I haven’t seen Divine Mercy: No Escape, but it’s available on DVD.
A few years later came a lovely Polish-language drama, Faustyna (1995), also known as Faustina: The Apostle of Divine Mercy (Ignatius Press DVD title).
Directed by Jerzy Łukaszewicz and starring Dorota Segda, the 75-minute film offers an impressionistic portrait of Faustina’s life and spirituality told in flashback through the eyes of an elderly nun looking back on her relationship with Faustina from her younger days.
After a prologue offering a brief but startling glimpse of a vision of Christ in Faustina’s childhood, the film takes the form of a spiritual confession made by Sister Feliksa (Danuta Szaflarska; young Sister Feliksa is played by Agnieszka Czekanska) in the sunset of her life, recounting to God her complicated feelings of jealousy, bafflement and admiration for Faustina.
Zdzislaw Najda’s rich cinematography floods the film with light — golden-hour rays falling on faces; sunbeams in the doors and windows of the convent basement or in sunshowers on the street — as if to fill the world with the rays emanating from the Lord’s heart.
Perhaps the best thing about the film is the perplexity with which Faustina’s visions and ideas are regarded by confessors and fellow religious. Most of these, unlike Sister Feliksa, aren’t suspicious or resentful of Faustina; they’re simply ordinary human beings who don’t know what to make of her.
One confessor ingeniously suggests that the best way to take the Lord’s command to “paint an image” according to the vision she has received is to “paint” Jesus “in your soul,” to make one’s life a portrait of the Lord.
Later, transferred to Vilnius, Faustina meets Blessed Michael Sopoćko (Maciej Małysa), a priest and assistant professor of theology who becomes her spiritual director and, later, an advocate for her vision.
Although no more comfortable with her strange “confessions” than her last confessor, Father Sopoćko does his best to support her, ultimately connecting her with the artist Eugeniusz Kazimirowski (Janusz Chabior), who paints the original Divine Mercy image.
Divine Mercy devotees may be intrigued by a 2008 short called The Last Appeal: The Life of Faustina, available for rental from Amazon.
A little more than half the length of Faustina, the 35-minute English-language drama is a student film written and directed by Bala Udumala while an MFA student at Loyola Marymount University. Andrea Syglowski, whose credits include roles on How to Get Away With Murder and Blue Bloods, plays Faustina.
The Last Appeal is visually impressive, with fine black-and-white cinematography and sometimes imaginative lighting. But the writing is dull, and, while no one looks for great acting in a student film, the straightforward narrative foregrounds the acting, making it harder to overlook.
Perhaps most importantly for St. Faustina devotees, what we do see of the saint’s life isn’t particularly accurate or illuminating.
For viewers interested in learning more about the image itself, The Original Image of Divine Mercy (2016), a two-hour documentary is available on DVD and streaming via Vimeo.
First-time filmmaker Daniel DiSilva crafts a generally engaging blend of first-person voiceover narration and occasional onscreen interaction, location shooting and interviews with subject-matter experts and other talking heads ranging from the likes of Bishop Robert Barron and George Weigel to comedian Jim Gaffigan and musician Harry Connick Jr.
There are also, of course, lots and lots of close-ups of the original Divine Mercy image — and of many other versions of the image — with commentary on the meaning of various features of the image (the dark background, the positioning of the hands and the feet, and so forth).
There’s also a critique of sorts of popular versions of the image based on the work of the Polish artist Adolf Hyła, who is responsible for the Divine Mercy variant I find least appealing, with the Lord making eye contact with the viewer and tilting his head to one side. Like many Divine Mercy artists, Hyła didn’t have a good source to work from, but he also apparently refused to take Father Sopoćko’s attempts to correct him from Faustina’s descriptions.
Then, of course, there are insights into the original image’s sometimes surprising history. I had heard of the two women who recovered the image from a Soviet guard at the government-shuttered Church of St. Michael in Vilnius, where Father Sopoćko was rector. But the “kidnapping” operation to rescue it from another shut-down church in Belarus — which involved swapping it with a replica — was news to me.
Among minor missteps are an overreliance on Christian pop songs, suggesting a lack of trust in the audience. And a few interview clips surely could have been left out (did we need to see Gaffigan’s gaffe confusing Michelangelo and Leonardo?). For the most part, though, The Original Image of Divine Mercy is highly watchable and worthwhile.
Another 2016 documentary, The Face of Mercy offers a one-hour meditation on the significance of the Divine Mercy devotion directed by David Naglieri, the Emmy award-winning documentary director of Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism, and narrated by Jim Caviezel.
Produced by the Knights of Columbus and the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, The Face of Mercy opens with Pope Francis speaking about mercy en route to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day in 2013.
Linking Faustina to Francis through John Paul II, the film partly mirrors Original Image, with theological and history commentary from Catholic voices like Weigel, Scott Hahn, Cardinal Seán O’Malley and others.
The heart of this film, though, is a cluster of inspirational testimonies from celebrities and ordinary people regarding the role of Divine Mercy in their lives. Interviewees include the Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza, a pair of athletes who turned their backs on pro sports to serve Christ in different ways, a drug dealer who became a priest, and a young widow struggling to forgive her husband’s murderer.
Billed as a docudrama, Love and Mercy: Faustina might be better described as a documentary with dramatized recreations as well as talking-head commentary, location shooting and archival images. If that still doesn’t quite capture it, that’s because the production is formally too slapdash and inconsistent, alas, for a clearer characterization.
The film opens with a startling prologue beginning in Genesis 1:1 and briefly recapping, in two or three minutes, the six days of creation, the fall of mankind, the coming of Christ and the founding of the Church, quickly fast-forwarding to distortions of Christ’s teaching by Catholics and the arrival of Faustina.
Told in voiceover with a montage of what look like stock clips from nature documentaries and religious epics, the prologue blends canonical biblical language with editorial commentary. (Is it true, for instance, that after the Fall “man lost the true image of God” and “saw him only as harsh and punishing, completely forgetting about his mercy”?)
The film then abruptly shifts to dramatized scenes from Faustina’s early life (a quarrel with her parents about her future; the dance where Christ first appears to her). At first these play the present tense, but then a retrospective voice-over from Faustina frames them as memories.
The docudrama scenes go on just long enough to make the first sudden cut to a clerical talking head (Father Joseph Roesch, the Marians’ vicar general) another surprise — an aside so brief that it feels like a random intrusion rather than a formal choice.
Although the docudrama sequences feature Polish actors who played the roles speaking Polish, each scene was shot twice in Polish and English, so the English version of the film features actors speaking English with Polish accents. This was once a more common technique, but in a historical recreation today, it feels cheesy and inauthentic.
Likewise, when interview subjects speak Polish, their voices fade and a translator speaks for them, like in radio interviews. Do the filmmakers not trust The Passion of the Christ audience to be willing to read subtitles?
As the film progresses the editing becomes less jarring, and the film becomes fitfully watchable. The dramatized bits are competent at best and most of the talking-head sequences are dully composed, so by default the best sequences are those that use voice-over with location shooting or other images.
Much of the content, of course, will be familiar to devotees, although there were some surprises for me. For example, the artist Kazimirowski, who happened to live in the same building with Father Sopoćko and thus became the painter of the original Divine Mercy image, was a Freemason, in an awkward detail left out of most treatments.
Nor had I heard that his later paintings included images of himself as Judas — nor that, like Judas, he committed suicide by hanging. (At least, according to Matthew; Luke describes Judas’ death differently. Curiously, Kazimirowski’s death seems likewise ambiguous: The Original Image of Divine Mercy suggests that he died of pneumonia!)
I can’t recommend Love and Mercy: Faustina, except to pious viewers for whom the sacred subject matter alone is enough of a selling point. (It did win an audience award at a Polish film festival in Wrocław, so it’s not without appeal to some viewers.)
Fortunately, there are other options that do better justice to the story of this extraordinary visionary and the powerful devotion that continues to spread around the globe.