Faustina, Polish director Jerzy Lukaszewicz’s beautifully made film on the life of St Maria Faustina Kowalska (Dorota Segda), belongs on a very short list of deeply spiritual portraits of faith and religion, alongside such films as Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet, Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and A Man Escaped, Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse, and Cloche’s Monsieur Vincent.
Made in Faustina’s native land and tongue, the film follows major events in the life of the visionary nun who emphasized God’s mercy as the greatest of his attributes, and whose mystical experiences led to the creation and veneration of the Divine Mercy image of Christ, the observance of Divine Mercy Sunday on the second Sunday in Easter, and the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy prayer.
Faustina is remarkable among spiritually significant films in the directness of its approach to Faustina’s encounters with the transcendent. Because attempts to portray the miraculous or visionary can easily fall flat, most artistically successful spiritual films wisely take a less-is-more approach to depicting the miraculous, either avoiding direct depictions altogether, or relying on low-key, minimalistic evocations, or else at least carefully set up the moment to engage the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Well-known examples of such strategies include Zeffirelli’s Annunciation scene in “Jesus of Nazareth” (in which Olivia Hussey’s Mary sees, hears, and speaks to an angel that is invisible and inaudible to the audience) and the carefully deployed Marian apparition scene in The Song of Bernadette (where preceding events and musical cues prime us for the moment).
Faustina’s approach, from its very first scene, is diametrically opposed to this. Without context or explanation, Lukaszewicz plunges the viewer into Faustina’s world, confronting us with with an early experience from Faustina’s childhood, challenging us to take this story on its own terms. It’s a surprisingly powerful approach, as transcendent in its own way as the restraint of Bresson or Dreyer.
Like Cavalier’s Thérèse, Faustina uses the perspective of a less saintly nun who is in a way opposed to its protagonist as a way of seeing the saint through ordinary eyes. There are also other notable similarities in the two stories: Both center on an extraordinary, physically afflicted woman religious who dies young (of the same affliction, in fact), and who has a special vision for a new spirituality with a special emphasis on childlike humility before God (Thérèse stressed trust and self-surrender; Faustina stressed God’s mercy and compassion). Both also make a written record of their ideas at the urgings of a superior.
Artistically, though, Faustina and Thérèse couldn’t be more different. Thérèse is so minimalistic that it could almost be a stage production, and so restrained that refrains from clearly committing to or affirming Thérèse’s life and ideas. Faustina is both more affirmative of its subject and more cinematic in style. Zdzislaw Najda’s painterly cinematography is rich and gorgeous, and the haunting main theme, whether original to the film or some traditional composition, goes through the viewer like an arrow.
Faustina’s story is largely seen through the eyes of Sr. Feliksa (Danuta Szaflarska, also played as a young woman by Agnieszka Czekanska), whom we meet in an early scene as an aging nun decades after Faustina’s death, making a spiritual confession to God of the conflicted feelings she still has from her encounters with Faustina. Nor is Sr. Feliksa the only one who isn’t sure what to make of Faustina. Faustina’s superiors, her confessor, her bishop, and even a psychiatrist all approach her with reactions ranging from caution to discomfort to skepticism.
Yet Faustina resists reducing any of these characters to one-dimensional opponents, or even obstinate skepticism. For the most part, they’re simply exercising reasonable prudence, coupled in some cases with an all too human reluctance to confront such a difficult case. (Note especially the bishop’s insightful comments about Church’s characteristic slowness and caution, which he once resented but now appreciates, and the mildly surprising conclusion to one particular interview.) In fact, watching Faustina’s confessor trying to cope with her increasingly lengthy and complicated confessions (if you can call them that), one can’t help feeling a bit sorry for these hapless ordinary people unlucky enough to have to judge and govern a saint.
Even viewers unfamiliar with the saint’s biography, if they have any familiarity with other such stories, will have little trouble foreseeing Faustina’s end. Why does it seem saints and mystics so often die young? Are their sufferings, like St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh, given to prevent them from growing prideful as a result of their privileged status?
Or could these privileges in some cases be a consolation God gives in partial compensation for the crosses they must carry? Or could it be that their sufferings are partly what qualifies them for special closeness to God in the first place?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.