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Pretty as a Picture: A Review of 'Therese'

The ‘Thérèse’ movie is as pretty as a Thomas Kinkaide painting—and that’s the problem. Thérèse Martin’s spiritual battle against ravenous emptiness was anything but pretty.

Offical Therese Movie Poster, Saint Luke's Productions


"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.

I was hopeful, in the case of Thérèse, that once again critics might prove spectacularly wrong.
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, 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 hagiographywas 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 actresson 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.

Any film about her could be about only one thing: Thérèse’s interior life. Her huge, monstrously huge, interior life.
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.

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.

To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, the movie is an art form, and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it.
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 cinematicallyI 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, 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.

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October 13, 2004

Debra Murphy has written articles, with her husband Daniel, on family culture and spirituality for the Catholic press in the U.S. and the U.K. Her short story, "Yardsticks," won the 1998 Kay Snow award, and appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of "Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion." Debra's debut novel, "The Mystery of Things," will be published in December 2004 by Idylls Press. She lives in Oregon with her husband and six children.

Copyright ©2004. All rights reserved.

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READER COMMENTS
10.23.04   Manuel says:
My name is Manuel de Teffé, I am writing from Italy and I am a director myself.In January 2003 I saw the movie in Dallas during the NEA (New Evangelization of America) and a few months later, in May, I helped Luke films and director Leonardo Defilippis to organize a screening in Rome.When I watched the movie in Dallas, I immedialtely understood that what I was witnessing went simply beyond the film itself : I had a religious experience. A saint I had always ignored, suddenly became very close to me. I did not see the movie, I saw the saint. I had had that very same experience just before leaving for the States . In Rome , Cinecittà, Mel Gibson was shooting the Passion, and invited on the set i had the opportunity to know Jim Caviezel.Seeing the shooting of the "Jesus in chains" I had not seen the actor, for the actor had immediately brought me to the Lord: the actor was a visual shortcut to get to the Lord. This was what I had experienced on the set.When the screening of Therese was organized in Rome, the movie theatre was full. I will never forget the atmosphere of pure joy and amazement the movie conjured up.After the screening director Defilippis and actress Younce talked about faith and art. We were all in tears.I consider "Therese" a masterpiece. And I will always be grateful to Mr. Defilippis for allowing me, through the vision of his movie, to have grown up in my faith. No other work of art has ever had such effect on my spiritual life, except "Marcelin pan y vino" a movie mentioned in a letter above.I deeply reccomend to see "Therese", a milestone for the New Evangelization through cinema.I bumped into this site by chance, I think you all do a wonderful job.Manuel de Teffé manueldeteffe@yahoo.it

10.18.04   alexander caughey says:
Lillyrose, I am evidence of the truth of your last paragraph. For in the depths of my pit of emptiness, the hands of Our Saviour found me in need of help and His help continues to lead my way into my future.

10.17.04   lillyrose says:
It seems as though the "Therese" movie succumbs to the prime temptation of hagiography--sugar-coating. In other words, it makes the saint into a person with whom there is no point of contact--her life seem too perfect, her actions too pristine. I for one am a fan of Alain Cavalier's 1996 film "Thersese." With its spare, somber cinematography it seems to capture what the new film doesn't--her darkness and her struggles. I first watched this film about 6 years ago when I barely knew anything of Therese other than the saccharine cult that seemed to surround her. After watching it I practically sprinted up the stairs to grab an unread "Story of a Soul" off our shelves and devoured most of it in the next day or two. Therese is a living answer to the question of why we suffer. In Cavalier's movie there is an arresting scene (not, as far as I know, an actual occurrence, but true enough to Therese's spirit). She is on her sickbed and tells her sister, "When I say 'I suffer," you say 'Good'." Her sister does not want to do something that seems so unnatural, but what we see next are a series of moments when Therese is moaning "I suffer," and her sister answers her, as requested. What I took from this scene, what I continue to take from Therese (for, indeed, she has become a dear friend!) is the truth of the cross. Only in darkness, in the depths of our soul can suffering be converted into something that is good. And when the story of a saint skips the cross, it skips Christ. The sugar-coating of Therese makes her story both un-real and un-Christian.

10.14.04   alexander caughey says:
I have not seen this film, so will not comment on the review. The only religious film that has made any impression on me was "Marcelino pan y vino". A Spanish/Italian monochrome production from 1955, which I had chance to watch, just to kill some time. As an adult viewing a family motion picture, I should have found the film rather passable but on the contrary was deeply affected by this very simple example of how friendship and sacrifice was translated into a work of love. No religious film has had such impact on me, as did this dedication to the simplicity of friendship bound in the loving embrace of Christ for his children of faith.

10.14.04   Godspy says:
The Therese movie is as pretty as a Thomas Kinkaide painting—and that’s the problem. Therese Martin’s spiritual battle against ravenous emptiness was anything but pretty.

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