Thérèse Martin of Lisieux, called in religion Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 24 in the Carmelite convent at Lisieux.
Apart from a trip to Rome at the age of 14, Thérèse never traveled far from Lisieux, where her family settled when she was four years old following the death of her mother. Unlike, say, Mother Theresa of Calcutta (whose name in religion was taken from the saint of Lisieux), Thérèse founded no order, did no great works, and lived a life of complete obscurity.
Her only legacy was her memoir, written under holy obedience to her sister Pauline who was then prioress of the convent. So unremarkable, indeed, was her life that as her cause for sainthood went forward one of the sisters of her convent remarked that Thérèse “hadn’t done anything.”
Yet Thérèse’s impact on the world has been startlingly disproportionate to her obscure way of life. Her memoir, L’histoire d’une âme or Story of a Soul, has been translated into over 60 languages, first in a heavily edited edition produced by her sister and then in a restored critical edition, and has sold over 100 million copies.
A favorite of Catholic piety, Story of a Soul is written in a charming, unsophisticated style that can be a stumbling-block to the jaded, but its spiritual depths have commended it to popes and theologians, Protestants and even non-Christians.
Canonized in 1925, Thérèse was declared “the greatest saint of the modern age” by Pope Pius X, and was later named one of France’s two patronesses, along with her heroine Joan of Arc. In 1997 Pope John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Universal Church — only the third woman so honored among the Church’s thirty-three Doctors.
“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.” As depicted here, Thérèse (played in childhood by Melissa Sumpter and from approximately 10 to her death by Lindsay Younce) is certainly pious and devout, but unlike many movie saints there’s nothing off-puttingly otherworldly or ethereal about her.
When a classmate at school picks on her, calling her a “spoiled princess” and telling her that no one can stand her, she responds not with magnanimous forbearance but with ordinary hurt feelings and anger. We see Thérèse playing with her sisters, struggling with quadratic equations, getting upset over Christmas presents. Later, in the Carmelite convent, we see her putting together a pageant with two older sisters, also Carmelite nuns. “You Martin sisters and your bourgeois ways,” a superior clucks.
The Thérèse of this film is, indeed, so ordinary that one might ultimately feel a sort of disconnect as a closing title informs us that “Because she showed the world a ‘little way’ to get to heaven, she has been called the greatest saint of modern times.”
Had the closing title mentioned that she is also the third female Doctor of the Church, the sense of cognitive dissonance might be greater still. An “ordinary girl” this Thérèse certainly is, and a virtuous, deeply religious one. Yet admirable as she may be, there’s little sense here of the saint’s “extraordinary soul.”
Thérèse covers the major events in the saint’s life as recounted in Story of a Soul, but offers little insight into her teaching, little exploration of her “little way” of spiritual childhood. We do see the spiritual transformation that occurs at her fifteenth Christmas, when Thérèse said she received the grace to “grow up” and “forget myself and please others”; and we are told that she began to sacrifice for others by giving up her own will “in little ways no one noticed.”
There are also a few references to Thérèse’s littleness and simplicity. “I knew I was a very little soul who could offer only little things to God,” she writes in her memoirs. Later, when a superior tells her, “You are a very simple soul, and the closer you get to God, the simpler you will become,” Thérèse responds, “I don’t need to grow up — I need to become little and weak.” We also hear the key line, “At last I have found my vocation — my vocation is love.”
Yet the movie tells rather than shows. When Thérèse speaks of giving up her own will and pleasing others, there’s a brief montage of Thérèse bringing her father a drink in the field and the like, but the film never takes Thérèse’s interest in the happiness of those around her, or of its connection with Thérèse’s actions.
Nor do we learn what was so distinctive about Thérèse’s little way. We never see her, for example, as a postulant suffering under and finally learning to mistrust the heavy ascetical practices that Carmel required, or resolve that, rather than presuming to impose great suffering upon herself (which she was aware can “quickly become a work of nature rather than grace”), she would instead in humility accept without complaint whatever suffering Jesus should send her. We never learn that she was later in charge of novices, or see her putting aside those harsh penances for her charges.
The excerpts from Thérèse’s writings incorporated into the screenplay by Patti Defilippis are welcome, but they lack Thérèse’s most arresting insights into spiritual childhood, her most creative expressions of the extravagance of divine love. Take her kaleidoscope metaphor, drawn from an experience with a childhood plaything. Dismantling it, Thérèse had discovered that all the magical patterns were nothing more than bits of colored paper and cloth, reflected in geometrical beauty by an array of mirrors.
As with that kaleidoscope, she later wrote, our trivial actions, reflected in the love of the Blessed Trinity, take on splendor and brilliance — yet apart from God’s love, they are merely dross, soiled and worthless deeds. In Thérèse’s writings this colorful visual image is merely black and white words; on the screen it could have been realized in living color, from the childhood experience of that kaleidoscope to the moral drawn later. Unfortunately, Thérèse is more focused on the saint herself than on her teaching.
In its zeal to honor Thérèse’s virtue, the film ironically neglects to acknowledge adequately the natural obstacles she had to overcome. As a child, Thérèse was somewhat spoiled and immature, hypersensitive, obsessively scrupulous, and easily given to tears. She was deeply shy, yet formed fierce private attachments even to casual acquaintances, with heartbreaking consequences. All this is either absent or barely acknowledged in the film.
A fleeting scene depicts Thérèse’s father (well played by director Defilippis) cheerfully calming her scrupulous worries about such offenses as taking the biggest piece of cake. Later, on that momentous Christmas, we see her run upstairs in tears at overhearing her father’s comment about this being Thérèse’s last Christmas for presents in her slippers. But that’s about it.
Selfishness, petulance, and quarreling are unknown in the Martin household. “You are the most perfect sister in the world,” Thérèse tells her sister, who replies, “No, you are.” It’s a close call; all the Martins are about as perfect as can be. Of Thérèse’s tearfulness (other than that Christmas scene, though in fact Thérèse did not cry on that occasion) or her occasional bickering with her sisters, and certainly of sister Léonie’s dark troubles — of the malicious maid who secretly abused her, and the emotional difficulties Léonie suffered as a result — there is no hint.
Toward the end, when Thérèse undergoes her greatest spiritual trials, the film spares us her real inner turmoil, giving us only an voiceover of Thérèse writing, “Jesus has permitted my soul to be invaded by a thick darkness.” As Thérèse, Lindsay Younce is unaffected and engaging, but her reading of such lines lacks conviction; she doesn’t sound like her soul has been invaded by a thick darkness. On the other hand, her performance in the deathbed scene, when Thérèse can hardly catch her breath, is uncomfortably affecting.
Among the film’s better moments is a lighthearted sequence in which Thérèse, assisting a crotchety old sister to supper, is incorrigibly distracted by a heavenly song in her heart, and can’t stop herself from swaying back and forth to the music, much to the discomfiture of her unsteady companion. And Defilippis effectively suggests rather than shows his character’s slow, sad slide into dementia with a poignant shot of the old man shuffling away down the road into the distance.
Despite its flaws, Thérèse is sweet, inspirational moviemaking that will be enjoyed by Catholics who love the Little Flower, or who are open to learning about her. Promotional materials cite the Merchant-Ivory film A Room With a View as a touchstone, but Thérèse is closer in spirit to such inspirational classics as The Song of Bernadette, and is old-fashioned enough to accompany moments of disorientation or reverie with a tinkly harp effect on the soundtrack. Unlike the Merchant-Ivory films, it isn’t interested in psychology or complex motivations, but in faith and goodness.
Realistically, hopes of Thérèse’s appeal reaching outside the believing world, or even outside the Catholic community, are unlikely to be realized. The film lacks the psychological depth and spiritual insight that attracts non-Catholics to Story of a Soul. But nominal or lapsed Catholics could be moved by its simple portrait of devotion and piety, and inspired to return to a more earnest practice of their faith.
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.
Alain Cavalier’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.