It may surprise the reader to learn that St. Therese of Lisieux is a saint who has played a huge role in my life. I must have read her autobiography cover to cover four times, and have read many other books about her. From the neurotic teenager to the young monastic novice, St. Therese’s Little Way got me through many a night. Although I have now definitively put most of that stuff away as a grown man of the world, nostalgia for a time when I looked to her as my prime example of the spiritual life still overtakes me. Even though all of that is so far away now, I cannot help but still respect the one saint who apparently did the least to achieve her prominence among the Catholic faithful.
Recently, I finally watched the Alain Cavalier’s French film Therese on the life of the beloved saint. The film was less a biographical film than a series of vignettes that take place around the life of St. Therese. With minimal stage props and a background always in gray or light brown, the whole film has the feel of a play, or even a passion play, with pretty decent actresses playing normal women living in extraordinary circumstances. One never gets the sense of Therese (played by dead-ringer Catherine Mouchet) being some sort of iconic heroine. She’s just a girl with a lot of neuroses and a lot of dreams. The lack of soundtrack, the portrait shots, and the ever-present quotations from the Song of Songs, give a real portrayal of the religious life as it would have been lived in the late nineteenth century. I at least was also very aware while watching it that many women became nuns because not a lot of other options were open to them. It was, as most people’s lives back then, very harsh and not at all glamorous. (The fish gutting scene was the best one in this regard.) Nevertheless, sanctity often grows out of necessity, not aside from it.
I could not help but compare this movie to the recent Leonardo Defilippis film by the same name; an amateurish production that attempted to make the life of Therese Martin into a techicolor dream world. I was rooting for it to work, but it just fell short in every sense. Their petit-bourgeois family life is so ideal, with only a Disney-like portrayal of hardship. The convent looked more like a girls’ camp than a religious house, and Lindsey Younce played the protagonist like a saint with her halo on too tight. In the end, it was a thoroughly American film in that it had no sense of history or continuity, always wanting to triumph over harsh reality with forced optimism, and so shining with false radiance that it seems like the people represented in the film had had all the blood drained from their bodies. It is the film of the American Catholic right looking itself in the mirror.
What I liked about the Cavalier film is that it brought back memories, mostly of my Lefebvrist seminary. The menial tasks, the barren cells, the silent work periods, the bitter cold and heat all speak of things that no one can imagine who has not gone through them. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I am hesitant to speak directly on theological topics, and only refer to them obliquely many times. I know that we in this world outside of those places live in too much noise to listen to the voice of God. I look at the journals I kept while in the cloister and see another person, a simpler person, that I in many ways no longer understand. The Cavalier movie for me at least can take me back to that world of joyful sorrow, to quote Schmemann, a world where you have nothing yet possess much, a world where only God matters and all you do is think of Him. It is nothing to be envied since we know that God is a consuming fire, and fire burns. But that fire is beautiful nonetheless.
All I know is that the Defilippis film did a great disservice to the poor saint, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Like most Catholic discourse in this country, it is affected by a false nostalgia for a past that never was. You’re better off reading the book.