"Thèrése" and the Hope for a Renaissance of Catholic Film

Leonardo Defilippis Discusses Why His Film Could Signal a Rebirth

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ROME, MAY 18, 2003 (Zenit.org) - Recent screenings in Dallas and Rome of the new major motion picture "Thèrése" have stirred excitement about the possibility of a renewed Catholic presence in the film industry.



Before the presentation of the film to the Roman Curia on May 8, ZENIT spoke with the film's director, Leonardo Defilippis, about the vision behind the film, the person of St. Thèrése and the prospects for the use of film in the new evangelization.

Defilippis, a Shakespearean-trained actor, is the founder of St. Luke Productions, whose subsidiary, Luke Films, Inc., produced "Thèrése."

Q: How do the dramatic arts, and film in particular, contribute to the life of the Church?

Defilippis: I think they contribute a lot. Drama has a great impact on the imagination of the people. It has a very incarnational aspect to it. The arts, and especially drama, have great evocative ability on our faith and can deeply inspire us. It makes stories real.

Performance arts have a great cultural influence, especially if you look at different world cultures and their particular ceremonial rites filled with pageantry. This can especially be seen in the Mass, which is really a drama with a stage; the re-enactment of the Paschal mystery on the high altar.

In our age, film is the most influential cultural tool in the world and the most powerful medium for communication. Everyone loves movies. And I think doing religious movies, which is pretty rare, is something that needs to have a new renaissance, and that is why we made "Thèrése."

Q: Why did you pick the story of St. Thèrése for your first major film?

Defilippis: In choosing Thèrése, I don't think we were choosing someone to have this big impact or because she is the most popular woman in modern history. That was not our intention. We just love Thèrése and want to honor her.

Thèrése is a very difficult subject. You look back and wonder why there hasn't been a motion picture about the most famous and popular saint of modern times, as she is becoming. I think it is very difficult subject matter, especially the interiority. But we chose her for that subject matter. We had no idea of the seed that it would grow into.

Q: Will viewers be surprised by your depiction of Thèrése? Is your film a departure from the Thèrése one sees depicted in statuary and some "lives of the saints"?

Defilippis: I guess the best answer is that we tried to portray her in a very honest way and not with some secret agenda, nor to show her as this purely sentimental type of saint -- the plastic or plaster figure so often depicted with the roses and crucifix.

I think we want to show her as part of a real family. But we're going to be honest. She came from an unusually religious family -- a very gifted family -- and we want to portray something really beautiful.

We also wanted to do something really difficult and challenging which was to communicate in film the inner life of a saint -- the inner life of a human being.

But in the film, you feel the presence of God. It is hard to describe. I think it is something you have to surrender to. Once you surrender to this little French story about the life of this girl, you can see the handprint of God on her life.

Q: St. Thèrése is a Doctor of the Church. Will viewers be able to gain a sense of her spiritual wisdom and teaching from the film?

Defilippis: I think so, especially Thèrése's "Little Way," which she is famous for. Thèrése is called "Doctor of the Science of Divine Love" and I really think you will feel not just the presence of God and grace being imparted, but really feel the love -- the love within her heart.

It's also been noted that this story is like a romance; a great, loving romance. You see she really is a disciple of St. John of the Cross and St. Thèrése of Avila where, like St. John of the Cross, in her own spiritual canticle she rises to the heights the spiritual life and she becomes the bride depicted in the Song of Songs with that incredible loving relationship.

What is so beautiful about Thèrése is that she desired to be hidden away and forgotten, singing her canticle of love known only to God. At the same time she really showered everybody with roses. The great love and spirituality is found in the many little things she does. She touches people having been so hidden. She is a paradox.

After having seen the movie, Francis Cardinal George called her "a sign of contradiction" -- like the cross, a stumbling block. Some people are going to recognize it and embrace it while others will reject it. Some don't see the hidden level, they do not want to feel the love that is pulsing in her heart toward us.

Q: Is your film primarily a tool of evangelization? Do you think non-Catholics and non-Christians will be receptive to the film?

Defilippis: As the Holy Father has said, evangelization is a simple word. It is making Christ seen and heard. The whole purpose of the film is to do what Thèrése did best and that is to evangelize. She is the patron saint of missions. Mission and evangelization are really the same word, and the goal is to preach the Gospel. That seems rudimentary and this is a new method for the new evangelization.

At the same time, St. Thèrése is a person in which, in her own words, there is something for everyone in her life story. Of course that goes along with the legacy since her death. And I think she will have a powerful impact in the non-Catholic world.

She has a powerful influence among other religions, especially Islam. Protestants who have never been exposed to religious life and the life of a monastery will be fascinated by the window into that particular vocation.

At the same time, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta to use a modern example, people won t be able to deny that she loves Christ. I think Protestants will really respect that.

I think for the secular world, especially working with people in Hollywood, they become fascinated with her because there is something disarming about her. In terms of "Thèrése," people will find her very accessible and not judgmental. So many agnostics and atheists have been launched into a relationship with her because of her confidence in the Lord.

Q: Will "Thèrése" be a turning point as far as a renaissance in the production of high-quality Catholic films?

Defilippis: I think it can, I really do. Name one film done during the Christmas season that has had explicitly religious content in the last ten years? There have been none. I think a religious film, at this particular time, when the world is having its own problem and people are so afraid of so many different elements, could be a big change because of the popularity of St. Thèrése.

If the Church could get behind a film like "Thèrése," to honor their own daughter, I think it could create a renaissance of all different kinds of film, not just of saints. There is a hunger for something spiritual and that is why I there is an opportunity.

I think people want to do something to support these type of films and will get behind "Thèrése."