The phenomenal success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is opening doors for all kinds of religious projects. For me, personally, as the director of a feature film <A href="http://www.theresemovie.com/"Thérèse, based on the life of the most popular saint of modern times, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, scheduled for release in October of this year, the timing couldn’t be better. The blockbuster status of Gibson’s film has jarred secular Hollywood into sitting up and taking notice of this little movie made by our independent production company, Luke Films.
The making of the movie has a story behind it just as interesting as The Passion’s. In the four years since we started production, we’ve raised a multimillion-dollar budget from the donations of individuals. From substantial grants to flower sales organized by school children, from one family’s donation of $25,000 in retirement savings to a widow’s gift of $10,000 from her late husband’s estate, there are hundreds of stories of ordinary people sacrificing to see this story told. Pope John Paul II himself saw Thérèse last summer, and has given his blessing not just to the film, but also to all who view it. The popularity of the film’s website, www.theresemovie.com reflects the huge anticipation by followers of the saint for the release of Thérèse.
Why is Thérèse so popular, and why the flood of support for a film on her life? Thérèse Martin’s short life as a 19th-century French nun might have been buried in obscurity if she hadn’t written down her story and her spiritual philosophy before her premature death from tuberculosis at age 24. Her sister, who was also the mother superior of the monastery, asked her to write down her childhood reminiscences, and out of obedience Therese complied. What followed was not just a charming story of her early life, but also a clear explanation of her “little way” to get to Heaven. This little book spread like wildfire throughout the world, because of the simple ideas that Saint Thérèse presented: how ordinary people can grow close to God through the day-to-day tasks in their lives. After her death in 1897, miracles attributed to the young nun’s intercession began to be documented almost immediately, and the Carmelite nun was put on the fast track to sainthood and canonized in 1925.
This unassuming country girl, who entered the convent at the unheard-of young age of 15, has since been honored as a Doctor of the Catholic Church–one of only 33 people so recognized in history for their epochal contributions to the body of theological wisdom (heady acclaim from a church whose critics portray it as sexist).
Her popularity continues to this day, and everywhere I promote this film and ask people for help I hear remarkable stories of Saint Thérèse’s continuing influence–and not just among Catholics. Her autobiography has been translated into 66 languages, and even some Muslims revere her as “Allah’s little saint.”
The Passion of the Christ is a profound epic that reflects on the deep sufferings of Jesus Christ. Yet it may be perceived as a violent film, and Mel Gibson himself has said that not everyone is able to handle it. The movie has also engendered controversy, arguably to its box-office benefit, a tempest unlikely to swirl around Thérèse.
Thérèse is a very gentle film, but it is also filled with dramatic passion for Christ. Set in the late 19th century, with a majestic score, this lavish period piece has the look of an Impressionist painting. The first half of the film chronicles Therese’s life in her close-knit family, and the colors, sets, and costumes are rich and in keeping with the Victorian period, and with the insular world of a protected child. When she enters the monastery, although the world there is one of asceticism and simplicity, the colors lighten up, and reflect the joy that enters this young girl’s life in a happy period. But then, as her death approaches, everything becomes dark. I am very pleased with the overall look of the film, because it reflects the depth and beauty of Thérèse herself.
The meteoric success of The Passion of the Christ is, by all accounts, based on its ecumenical appeal to evangelical Protestants as well as Catholics. Thérèse, though based on a “Catholic” story, has the same potential for broad audience appeal, even outside Christian circles: the engaging, touching human elements of her story don’t depend on the viewer’s faith. On one level, it’s a tale of a fearful, neurotic girl dealing with the early death of her mother, the loss of an adoptive mother who is also her sister, her early entry into the convent, and a premature confrontation with her own death. Powerful soul-stirring ensues, and therein lies the second level of the film, an interior story of a young girl who lived her life in purity, with a vision of God’s mercy, and unveiled a way to heaven that was “very short, very straight, and totally new.”
That’s her charm–and why so many people are drawn to her: Her story and her message are simple and accessible. That’s what I believe audiences will come away with–an image of a God who is loving and merciful. Thérèse has already listed in the “Sneaks” feature of the Los Angeles Times, which records all the movies that are scheduled for theatrical release this year. We are gearing up for an independent release, similar to Mel Gibson’s Passion, this October 2004. With the blessing and encouragement of a motivated grassroots movement, movie audiences will see something different in theaters this fall: Thérèse, the perfect response to The Passion of the Christ.
–Leonardo Defilippis is the director of Luke Films, which is producing Thérèse.