St. Therese of Lisieux and the Problem of Filming the Story of a Soul

therese-movieJan 2 is the birthday of Therese Martin, born to a well-off and pious Catholic family in France in 1873.

Like her four sisters, Therese entered a convent. For her, like three of her sisters, that meant the cloistered Carmelite community of Lisieux, Normandy. She died at 24 of tuberculosis, but not before completing her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” which laid out her “little way” of piety, love and self-sacrifice.

The style of “The Story of a Soul” — very much that of an emotional, sometimes melodramatic young woman — is not to everyone’s liking. But Therese’s detractors seem to be in the distinct minority compared to those who’ve had their lives changed by the slim volume.

Her writings and simple philosophy had such an impact that she was canonized only 28 years after her death, becoming Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face — a k a “The Little Flower — and her feast day is on Oct. 1. Although her short life contained no great accomplishments in the usual sense, and certainly no world-spanning adventures, her spiritual depth caused Pope John Paul II to name her a Doctor of the Church.

Her parents, Louis and Zelie Martin, were later also canonized. Her sister Leonie, or Sister Francoise-Therese, was declared a Servant of God, and there is a canonization cause for her as well.

It’s not surprising that people have made movies about Therese, but it’s proven a challenge to make a good one that appeals to Catholic, non-Catholic Christian and secular audiences.

Looking at two, one made in 1986 and the other in 2004, it’s interesting that the first one got the best secular review.

“Therese,” is a French production, directed by Alain Cavalier, who co-wrote with Camille de Casabianca.

Having seen it at a film festival, legendary New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby called it “cool, unsentimental, astonishingly handsome” and “resolutely objective.” He refers to star Catherine Mouchet’s performance as being done “radiantly and with a good deal of humor.”

From the review:

Therese loves Jesus with a fervor that seems to be an end in itself, and that the film makers regard as no less sincere (and miraculous) for possibly being a sublimation of other longings. Jesus is real to her. She’s even amused by a another nun who says something to the effect that it’s her misfortune to be married to a man who’s been dead 2,000 years.

The film celebrates Therese’s mysticism in a manner that always remains utterly rational – exemplified by its series of short, pungent scenes that have such visual clarity they appear to have been lighted by bolts of lightning.

The 2004 film, also called “Therese,” – directed by Leonardo Defilippis and co-written by Patti Defilippis and Saint Therese (yes, that’s what IMDB says) — got a different reaction from the secular press.

From The Austin Chronicle:

An inspirational tale aimed at believers, Thérèse is unlikely to make new converts or deepen the faith of the sympathetically inclined.

In fact, the film seems to make a case for Thérèse being a spoiled, willful child whose desire to join the convent is just another of her self-centered whims.

A more sympathetic review, from a non-Catholic Christian expresses puzzlement.

As an evangelical Protestant, however, I felt as I watched this first full-length English-language film portrayal of the young lady of Lisieux that I had somehow wandered into a theater playing a foreign film without subtitles. Something was being communicated just below the surface here, I thought, in telegraphic symbols and catchphrases, but I was too dense to quite catch the deeper meaning. I felt uncomfortable, as if I sat with a sign around my neck reading “clueless Protestant.”

The point of this cinematic morality tale (I can hardly call it a biography, let alone a history) is both painfully clear and bewilderingly alien to Protestant sensibilities: the road to intimacy with Jesus must run through renunciation and suffering. The small struggles and untimely death of a cloistered young woman can touch us and show us the way to true sanctity.

Lest you think it’s just because an Evangelical can’t grasp the subtleties of Catholic imagery or imagination, let’s turn to Catholic Deacon Steven Greydanus. He reviewed the movie for a piece that originally appeared in the National Catholic Register:

While he admired how the movie made Therese seem very human, he writes that it doesn’t quite capture what made her saintly:

Yet the movie tells rather than shows. When Thérèse speaks of giving up her own will and pleasing others, there’s a brief montage of Thérèse bringing her father a drink in the field and the like, but the film never takes Thérèse’s interest in the happiness of those around her, or of its connection with Thérèse’s actions.

Nor do we learn what was so distinctive about Thérèse’s little way. We never see her, for example, as a postulant suffering under and finally learning to mistrust the heavy ascetical practices that Carmel required, or resolve that, rather than presuming to impose great suffering upon herself (which she was aware can “quickly become a work of nature rather than grace”), she would instead in humility accept without complaint whatever suffering Jesus should send her. We never learn that she was later in charge of novices, or see her putting aside those harsh penances for her charges.

He does say it’s “sweet” and “inspirational,” but …

Realistically, hopes of Thérèse’s appeal reaching outside the believing world, or even outside the Catholic community, are unlikely to be realized. The film lacks the psychological depth and spiritual insight that attracts non-Catholics to Story of a Soul. But nominal or lapsed Catholics could be moved by its simple portrait of devotion and piety, and inspired to return to a more earnest practice of their faith.

So, what’s a filmmaker to do? Stop making movies about saints because you can’t please everyone? Certainly not, but in telling the stories of Catholicism’s most compelling figures, filmmakers have to tread a tricky path among biography, hagiography (an idealized, probably not entirely factual, biography) and evangelism. A saint’s chief purpose is to spread the Gospel, and one would think that any Catholic who makes a movie about one has the same aim.

But if the movie isn’t understandable to non-Catholics, or appealing to secular audiences, it won’t really do that (also, on a practical level, it won’t get wide distribution or make much money).

Hollywood is expert at taking morally questionable or plainly evil figures and making them seem heroic or attractive on film. We have to learn to do the same with the good people in our vast cloud of witnesses.

Speaking of which, here’s how Bishop Barron spoke of Saint Therese in the documentary miniseries “Catholicism”:

Image: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/St. Luke Productions-Xenon Pictures

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.