Joan of Arc, the warrior-saint who wore men’s garb and was burned at the stake, would at first glance seem to be an odd role model for a girl whose greatest aspiration was to wear the habit of a cloistered nun and who died in the convent of tuberculosis.
Yet as we see in Miracle of Saint Thérèse, an excellent, reverent biopic on the life of St. Thérèse Martin of Lisieux, as a young child Thérèse chose Joan of Arc for a role model while listening to stories of the saint read by her father — and in her own way she quite lived up to her model’s example.
Like Joan, Thérèse defied social conventions and expectations out of a sense of extraordinary vocation, appealing directly to the highest authority to be exempted from the rules that would have prevented her from following her calling. Like Joan, Thérèse was deeply concerned with the fates of peoples and nations; for her the battle front was the mission field, so much so that she has been named patroness of missions, even though she supported the church’s mission work only spiritually.
She was questioned, doubted, harassed, and finally she died young, an agonizing death, consumed with divine love rather than flames. It seems somehow fitting to learn, as the film tells us, that Thérèse has become France’s second patron saint after Joan of Arc.
Neither the vaguely sentimental-sounding English title Miracle of Saint Therese nor the strangely officious original French title Procès au Vatican (Cause in the Vatican) really reflects the achievement of this well-made biopic.
The film does begin and end with documentary-style footage of Thérèse’s cause for canonization. And it does include a number of small miracles, including Thérèse’s dramatic recovery at the age of eight from a life-threatening illness upon seeing a statue of Mary smile at her, and the adorning of her entry into Carmel by an unusual April snowfall.
Yet the film is neither the story of a miracle nor a treatise on Thérèse’s case for canonization, unless the miracle and the case are both Thérèse’s own life. Blending historical drama with elements of documentary, Miracle of Saint Thérèse effectively brings the saint’s story and spirituality to life.
The film offers a number of glimpses into Therese’s “little way” of spiritual childhood, including the conflict occasioned by the contrast between Therese’s insights and the accepted pieties of the day.
In one scene the mother prioress rebukes Thérèse (France Descaut) for “intemperate” presumption in aspiring to be a saint, but Thérèse replies that since it is Jesus who told us to “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” she sees no presumption in taking him at his word.
Later, as mistress of novices, Thérèse shocks the prioress by exempting a novice from one of the typically harsh penances of the convent, taking the view that it is better not to do a penance that injures the body and impairs one’s ability to do one’s work.
Beautifully shot in black and white, the film makes excellent use of convincing locations, sets and costumes, and is persuasively mounted throughout.
Long available only on out-of-print VHS, Miracle of Saint Thérèse is now available on DVD from Ignatius Press. The DVD is well worth getting, although the bare-bones disc disappointingly offers only the dubbed English and Spanish tracks; apparently Ignatius couldn’t obtain the original French track. A superior DVD release would be welcomed, but at least the hard-to-find VHS is no longer the only option for seeing the film.
VHS Note: Plot-summary information in some catalogues and on the back of the video box, possibly based on a mistranslation, inaccurately indicates that the film depicts Thérèse’s father opposing her desire to enter Carmel. In fact, the film correctly depicts the abbé of the convent — not Thérèse’s papa — opposing her.
“Ordinary girl. Extraordinary soul” is the tagline of Thérèse, Catholic actor-director Leonardo Defilippis’s reverent, uplifting, straightforward biopic of the Little Flower. Of the tagline’s two clauses, the film’s special burden seems to be the first part, “ordinary girl.”
Alain Cavallier’s stark, austere reflection on the mystery of the little saint of Lisieux’s romance with Jesus is a reverie rather than a meditation, built of fleeting minimalist vignettes, almost snapshots, glimpses of its subject rather than an integral portrait. There is no sense of judgment, of approval or disapproval of its subject’s life, or even, finally, of real understanding. His Thérèse is a riddle, and we must make of her what we can.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.