"Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it's bad art, it's bad religion, no matter how pious the subject."
—Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water
As with Mel Gibson's Passion, the recently released Thérèse movie, directed by Leonardo De Filippis, had some troubling pre-press. Pugilistic journalists had a field day portraying Passion's director as a sado-masochistic Rad Trad who viewed Vatican II as a conspiracy perpetrated by Jews and Freemasons. In the (much smaller) case of Thérèse, some internet buzz was suggesting that the project suffered from a wanton lack of professionalism overlaid by an illuminist presumption that God would, notwithstanding its amateurish shortcomings, make the film a great artistic and popular success, in spite of the devilish dissings of Babylon Hollywood.
In both cases, having kept my ears to the ground throughout, I entered the theaters with a sense of caution and reduced expectations. In Mel's case, I exited with my heart wrenched and my aesthetic senses reeling. I didn't give a damn, to be perfectly frank, whether Mel preferred his liturgy in Latin or English, or was silly enough to believe that the Holocaust hadn't happened. The proof of the man's vision, so went my thinking, was in the pudding; or rather, the celluloid: the thing was a masterpiece, and a wonderfully strange one. Yes, I agreed with the enthusiastic throng, I am a Christian, I love movies, and I want more movies like this! At least I wanted more good movies like this.
I was hopeful, in the case of Thérèse, that once again critics might prove spectacularly wrong.
I was hopeful, therefore, in the case of Thérèse, that once again critics might prove spectacularly wrong; that even if Thérèse was not, perhaps, a masterpiece of religious cinema—two in one year? Not bloody likely—it might prove at least an artistic and box-office success, and win one more for the Gipper of faith-based cinema.
Unfortunately, the film that I have now seen, though earnest and pious and crafted with great care, perhaps even great love, was not so much a movie as a plodding, poorly-scripted catechism of dreadful "on-the-nose" dialogue. The audience was supposed to be persuaded, for example, of the Martin family's great mutual affection by seeing them all hugging one another every few minutes, and telling one another how much they adored each other. This may be informational, but it's lousy storytelling. As a member of a large and loving family, I didn't even find it particularly truthful.
Moreover, though the film's silk and lace and draperies were of admirable craftsmanship, I couldn't help but wish that the time, attention, and money that had obviously been spent on getting the furniture right had been otherwise invested on professional actors. A post-viewing perusal of the movie website imdb.com confirmed my suspicion that Linda Hayden, who played Therese's sister Pauline—the only cast member whose performance resonated with me, or made me think of a real live person rather than a badly-written bit of hagiography—was also the only experienced film actor of the bunch. Ms. Hayden, it turns out, cut her teeth—so to speak-playing half-dressed vampires in cult British horror films. I don't mention this as a criticism of the actress—on the contrary. Ms. Hayden's experience and professionalism showed, however exotically she got it. My criticism is that there weren't more like her in the cast. Did Jennifer Jones need to be a believer and a devotée of the Blessed Virgin to give us a memorable portrait of innocence and sanctity in the classic Song of Bernadette? No, she only needed to be a good actress. And for her efforts (not her piety) she got an Oscar. If no one's in danger of that with Thérèse, it won't be, as it might be argued with Passion, due to Tinseltown anti-Catholicism.
But these quibbles don't constitute the heart of my complaint against this movie, which I wanted so badly to like. I fault the film for its artistically inappropriate tone. One friend, who'd seen Thérèse before I did, and largely liked it, put the case this way: "It's a very pretty movie," she said. "Not like Passion." Not to perpetuate Passion comparisons, which are probably unfair even if inevitable, but my friend's offhand comment was just about the scariest thing I'd heard anyone say about the movie before I'd seen it myself. It also turned out, alas, to be the truest.
Any film about her could be about only one thing: Thérèse’s interior life. Her huge, monstrously huge, interior life.
Thérèse is a very pretty movie. I like pretty movies. I love Enchanted April and A Walk in the Clouds, A Little Princess and Emma, all very pretty movies. Their prettiness suits their themes and fairy-tale-like stories, all wonderfully told. The problem with the tone of the Thérèse movie is this: Thérèse Martin's brief nineteenth century bourgeois life contains little of what one might call "cinematic" value. (She didn't call hers "the little way" for nothing.) Therefore, any film about her could be about only one thing: Thérèse's interior life. Her huge, monstrously huge, interior life. An interior life that was many things, but not pretty.
Given the fallen nature of human beings, this is more often than not the case, even with saints. The interior life is big, oh yes. Like the Church, as Chesterton put it, it looks much bigger from the inside than from the outside. It is also mysterious and adventurous, sometimes dark as pitch and messy as a hospital birthing room; and as glorious. It is even, occasionally, beautiful. But it is rarely pretty. And when it is, one had better have one's spiritual radar fully engaged and an experienced confessor hard by, because never is one's interior life in so much peril as when things start looking pretty.
Thérèse's spiritual life, as she herself records it in her autobiography, was a Herculean battle of the will to do small things perfectly, and to maintain her faith in the teeth of a grinding interior darkness—a darkness that in hindsight seems somehow more appropriately expressed with military metaphors than any other form of discourse. Hers was a spiritual battle against ravenous emptiness that was perfectly suited to grace a graceless century that gave us Flanders Field and the ovens of Auschwitz. But instead of trying to do something cinematically—I hardly know what, that's the filmmaker's task, not mine—to give the audience an inkling of the spiritual trench warfare being waged behind the veil of that spoiled child's tiny body, we got cloying voice-overs decorating dewy pictures of curly-haired children waltzing in fields of wildflowers; the swish of silk dresses and a bad CGI of a porcelain Mary, glowing. All as pretty as a picture, and a Thomas Kinkaide at that. For this film-lover and supplicant of Thérèse, such a portrayal no more resembles the steely little being portrayed in Story of a Soul than the movie's dove-white (cum rose) poster of its star resembles the clenched-jawed, in-your-face single-mindedness of the real Thérèse Martin in her familiar photographs.
To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, the movie is an art form, and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it.
To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, writing in one of her letters about novels, the movie is an art form, and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it. "I didn't make this up," O'Connor adds, "I got it from St. Thomas (via Maritain) who allows that art is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made, it has no utilitarian end. If you do manage to use it successfully for social, religious, or other purposes, it is because you make it art first." Because Thérèse was unconvincing as art, it was also unconvincing, to me at least, as religion.