e-mail us

Winter Books

Stumbling into divinity at the movies

by Theresa Sanders
Mercer University Press, 200 pages, $20

Reviewed by ROSE PACATTE

What do Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir Angela’s Ashes and Theresa Sanders’ recent book, Celluloid Saints: Images of Sanctity in Film, have in common? The story of St. Agatha, virgin and martyr, and how her breasts were lopped off when she refused to yield her purity to the evil Quintian, that’s what.

Well, OK. McCourt gets Agatha’s story mixed up with St. Christina the Astonishing (see Butler’s Lives of the Saints for July 24 as compared to St. Agatha on Feb. 5) in his hilarious account of his adolescent encounter with virgins and martyrs at the local library in soggy Limerick. But this inaccuracy is a small matter. Sanders tells Agatha’s story in reference to how “martyr tales” have been handled by cinema beginning with Cecil B. De Mille’s controversial “Sign of the Cross” (1932). Both McCourt and Sanders make their point, however: Martyr stories are juicy.

The tale of the severed breasts belongs decidedly to St. Agatha. But the compelling description of our ambivalent Catholic fascination with highly sexualized stories of virgins and martyrs contrasted with our puritanical response to their retelling through film, including the life of Christ, belongs to Sanders. And that’s just the start of it.

Sanders’ accessible and credible tribute to cinema, saints and theology begins with the inevitable human search for meaning through story. “If we think of theology as rooted in story,” she writes in the preface, “it should come as no surprise that some of the most profoundly theological works of the past century have been movies.” Hear, hear! She doesn’t like every movie she has seen about saints and holiness, but she’s seen enough to convince her that you can stumble into God at the movies.

Sanders goes on, through 10 gentle and persistent chapters, to explore the nature of holiness and how filmmakers have sought to represent it in celluloid (and videotape) over the last 100 years. She delves into the meaning of holiness in philosophy, spirituality and theology and accurately defines what it means to be canonized a Catholic saint. From there Sanders moves on through other aspects of sanctity and film to the sensitive issue of stories of holiness brought about by the Holocaust.

Here she refers to movies made about now canonized saints who died in the Holocaust, specifically St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein. Sanders focuses on the historical fact of St. Maximilian Kolbe’s association with anti-Semitism in pre-World War II Poland -- something that is not even remotely covered in the 1995 film “Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz,” for example. Sanders implicitly asks the filmmakers to think critically about the stories they tell so that their interpretation will present the real story, and not just something they think people will expect to see about a saint or holy person, or that does not touch real issues associated with their journey to sainthood.

Sanders examines the history of how both Greek philosophy (belief in an afterlife) and the Jewish tradition (only an emerging belief in an afterlife) viewed the human body and immortality and compares these conclusions to how Catholics make meaning about the human body today. The physiognomy of martyrdom, the meaning of death and Christian ambivalence to both, help create the context for Sanders’ rich and layered analysis of her subject: holiness in the movies. And the conviction that the representation of holiness in cinema cannot be separated from a vision of God or the human body on the part of filmmaker and audience, is critical to appreciating Theresa Sanders’ important book. Sanders’ intelligent and heartfelt appreciation for Lars Von Trier’s 1996 film “Breaking the Waves” bears this out.

Even more interesting is her account of ss. Thomas Aquinas’ and Augustine’s views of the feminine form. Whether as a male body missing essential parts or as being mistakes of nature, these ideas about the female body have led filmmakers (and hagiographers) to depict stories about women saints and holiness tinged with hysterical (root word: huster‚ Greek for womb) flare in varying degrees (“The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” 1999; “Household Saints,” 1993; “Song of Bernadette,” 1943). Above all, Sanders constructs a picture of the confusion that surrounds the representation of the human body, mostly the human feminine body, in art, philosophy and Western civilization, including cinema that persists to our day. Then she helps us understand it, though she asserts, “It is difficult to be a saint if you are defective and misbegotten and not truly made in the image of God!”

For its history of the theology of the body alone, this book should be mandatory reading in seminaries. I think of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ video “Renewing the Mind of the Media” and regret that Theresa Sanders was not on the advisory team that produced it. She could have taken the producers a step beyond isolating the depiction of sexuality and violence in the media as the major threats to the faith community to a more holistic and mature understanding of the body that reflects both freedom and responsibility.

Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” presents the perfect case for thinking about what the representation of the body is all about. Sanders details some of the vehement reactions of Christian groups to this film, quoting one in particular as writing to Universal Pictures that, “[Jesus’] sublime perfection assures us that he practiced the virtue of chastity in the most absolute way and always maintained that state of perfect chastity that is intrinsically superior to the matrimonial state.”

What is the image that Christians have of Jesus? Is he really true God and true man? Get ready for a little trip down “docetism” way, where the author will treat you to the history of a fifth-century heresy that along with its 17th-century companion, Jansenism, continues to influence the Christian community’s concept of the human body and the nature of Jesus even today in unhealthy ways.

There is nothing trite about Sanders’ analysis of the diverse films she has chosen, which include Rossellini’s “Il Miracolo” (1948), the Oscar-winning “Song of Bernadette,” Derek Jarman’s “Sebastiane” (1976) and made-for-video productions such as “Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz.” Sanders knows theology and film, and loves both subjects well. She examines the films in a forthright manner that betrays only a slight bias in favor of films about St. Francis, the 1989 Paulist film, “Romero” and Agnieska Holland’s “The Third Miracle” (1999). She deftly establishes several criteria for her analysis: ascetiscm, mysticism, missiology, miracles, poverty, the Holocaust, the Blessed Virgin Mary (and women) and finally, the perceived narrow line between sainthood and psychosis (and women). She then proceeds to consider some in depth and others by reference only.

As a media literacy education specialist, I am always focused on issues that concern critical thinking, representations of power and authority, race, age, gender, social status and religion. I don’t think Theresa Sanders set out to write a book from the media literacy perspective, but it is to her credit that she did do this and even went a step further. She placed questioning cinematic representations, official interpretations of them, and how audiences negotiate meanings about these kinds of movies smack dab in the context of the faith community. Principles of Catholic social teaching, especially the dignity of the human person, as well as liberation theology, are the natural basis for her study. And she has done all this with clarity, relevance, respect and warmth.

Some of the features of the book are worth noting: It has an index, is well footnoted and includes a list of additional movies about saints not mentioned in the book. It is unfortunate that a complete list of all the films and videos in the book is not included, however. Celluloid Saints has a flowing, readable style, an artistic cover, and the size and layout make you want to read it. I did. From cover to cover, and with great relish. I recommend it to anyone who loves the idea of “stumbling onto divinity” by way of the movies.

Throughout Celluloid Saints, the author primarily looks at how Catholic sanctity, canonized or not, has been and is represented in cinema. It’s easy, she says, to portray many aspects of lived holiness, though often (as in the case of the life of St. Vincent de Paul in “Monsieur Vincent”) facts are changed and nuances created that truly diminish the story of the person because the stories say what they are expected to say. The implication is that filmmakers don’t try hard enough, or have not yet found the story-telling key (as so many others before them) that will convey the spirituality of the saint, in addition to the “facts.” Though I immediately thought of Neil Jordan’s 1999 version of the Graham Greene novel, “End of the Affair,” that accomplishes what Sanders proposes (a film she does not mention, the only serious lack in an otherwise excellent tome), the one question Sanders does not seem to answer -- though she poses the question well enough -- is: How can filmmakers incarnate an image and sound the desire for God in truly meaningful ways for our own times?

Thus, Theresa Sanders offers a challenge to erstwhile Christian and mainstream filmmakers as well, because her book could be considered a guide and obligatory reading for all of them before they are allowed to touch a script about holiness, Catholic or otherwise. Indeed, a whole other book could be dedicated to the universality of holiness, and I hope Theresa Sanders will write it.

Alas, it will not be St. Agatha’s breasts that will be meaningful for the audience today and tomorrow, as juicy a tale as their loss may be. Rather, how well we can tell stories about the desire for God, and God’s desire for us, is the stuff of which great movies -- and holiness -- are made.

Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Boston.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002