Global Perspective

April 3, 2006 Vol. 4, No. 1

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Antonio David Sison is a Filipino theologian who works in the interdisciplinary area of theology and cinema. He is also a digital filmmaker and a brother-candidate of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, Cincinnati Province. His e-mail is


Real to reel saints

By Antonio David Sison

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Hagiography, a term derived from Greek roots (hagios = holy; graphe = writing), has come to refer to an idealized biography of a saint or a saintly person that works to buttress his or her venerable stature. Not a few hagiographers tend to put their subjects in the best possible light and treat their life stories with measureless, one-sided reverence.

It is thus not uncommon to find hagiographies that airbrush real life quirks, frailties, and “sins,” inadvertently deleting the very qualities that would highlight the genuine humanity of the saint.

The temptation to “canonize saints a second time” becomes harder to resist when it comes to cinematic or reel hagiographies. After all, the silver screen is the perfect medium for larger-than-life dramatizations. As legendary film auteur Ingmar Bergman rightly noted, “Film is an illusion planned in detail.”

There are some reel hagiographies that display the tendency to portray saints as one-dimensional characters who have an exclusive direct line to God and who can bear all sorts of crosses with a ready luminous smile on their faces.

An iconic example is “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (UK/Italy, 1972), a film on the life of St. Francis of Assisi lensed by Italian director Franco Zefirelli. Here, Zefirelli often frames Francis in lingering close-ups and bathes him in ethereal lighting, evoking purity and radiance. As he reverences the beauty of the moon and the stars, the saint’s spaced-out expression seems to perpetually behold the glory of God’s presence even as angelic music swells in the background. The Francis of “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” is immune to struggles and tensions, almost as a spirit who floats on earth under the guise of human flesh. Thus, Zefirelli created a cinematic statue of Francis, flawless and as unreal as plaster.

Relentlessly hagiographical depictions can also be seen in other films such as Henry King’s “ Song of Bernadette” (U.S., 1949), Filipino filmmaker Nick De Ocampo’s “Mother Ignacia” (Philippines, 1998); and three relatively recent releases, Ricky Tognazzi’s made-for-TV movie “John XXIII: The Good Pope” (originally “Il Papa Buono,” Italy, 2003), Eric Till’s “Luther” (Germany, 2003), and Leonardo Defilippis’ “Thérèse: The Story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux” (U.S., 2004).

Laudably, a number of reel hagiographies have tried to portray their subjects with a more regardful sense of balance between divinity and humanity.

Alain Cavalier’s art film Thérèse” (France, 1986), is based on the autobiography of Thérèse Martin of Lisieux whose “little way” of faith and eventual fast-track to sainthood was based largely on her finding the divine in the ordinary. Going against the grain of the tried-and-tested pious filmic portrayals of saints typified by “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”, “Thérèse” abandons the ethereal lighting, stirring musical score, and lyrical dialogue that scream “canonized.”

“ Thérèse” takes an austere look at mystery, grace, and transcendence not by crowning Thérèse with an iridescent halo but by portraying her as an authentic human being who finds the silver lining through the thorns in her life. Thérèse is innocent and passionately in love with Jesus yet she has an off-kilter humor and a tiny glint of rebellion in her eyes. There are no plaster saints in Cavalier’s film, only flesh-and-blood human beings, who, like everyone else, have to deal with their personal demons.

Another example is John Duigan’s “Romero” (U.S., 1989), a film that chronicles the life of Salvadoran Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero who was not officially canonized but is revered by many as a saint. Financed by the United States Paulist Fathers and built around the story of a martyred man of the cloth, “Romero” might have been indiscriminately labeled by some critics as just another pietistic excursion in reel hagiography. For sure, it is not. Duigan’s opus subverts traditional hagiography when it portrays the untold struggles and pains that its lead character had to endure. While the radical archbishop is clearly represented as a modern-day prophet and a tower of virtue who denounces society’s powerholders and powerbrokers, he is also constantly struggling with personal angst and fear as he pays the costly price of authentic discipleship. It is also noteworthy that the film resists unqualified valorization by depicting Romero frequently immersed in the sociopolitical realities of the collective whose interests he represents.

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Although not overtly religious, the recent film “Hotel Rwanda” (UK/Italy/South Africa, 2004) traipses the hagiographical pathway as it portrays the life of its real-life lead character, Paul Rusesabagina of Rwanda. Manager of the 4-star Milles Collines hotel, Paul finds himself caught in the crossfire of a civil war rooted in the former Belgian colonizers’ handling of Rwanda’s two opposing tribes. Bloodshed becomes the order of the day and Paul sees no other option but to open the doors of the European hotel to refugees who are in desperate need of sanctuary. He becomes a Rwandan version of Oscar Schindler (although less nefarious) using his business acumen to save the lives of the innocent. “Hotel Rwanda” depicts the deepening of Paul’s moral conscience; he finds the courage to envision a different world and a different self within it. Consequently, he saves some 1,200 lives at the risk of his own in what is considered the worst genocide in recent history.

In the film, Paul does not mirror divinity through some other-worldly state of religious consciousness but through a profound identification with a shared humanity. The unobtrusive documentary-style camerawork and gritty, realistic sets and settings work to support this portrayal.

The subjects of “Thérèse,” “Romero” and “Hotel Rwanda” are grounded in an admixture of devout faith and robust humanity rather than an unsullied, demigod sanctity. These films bridge the dualistic tendencies that separate flesh from spirit, an age-old notion that only functioned to under-conceive the Christian theology of incarnation -- that Christ is Emmanuel, God made flesh. One of us.

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