Celebrating Hope, Heroism and Holiness on the Silver Screen

Future of Christian Cinema Looking Brighter at Catholic Film Festival

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 12, 2012 (Zenit.org).- European summer is bracketed by film festivals. From Cannes in May to Venice in September, Italy becomes a catwalk for a parade of actors, directors and producers eager to generate buzz about their films, often through scandal or controversy.

Now, however, standing at the center of these two events, there is a new film festival: one that extolls virtue over vice and moral over dollar value. Mirabile Dictu, the International Catholic Film festival, held its third edition last week from July 2-5 in the Eternal City.

The concept of a Catholic film festival was the brainchild of producer, director and screenwriter Liana Marabini. The event opened with a conference on the role of film in Christian society and film as Christian art. Speakers included Professor Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, Marabini, French film director Roberto Hossein, who also received  a lifetime achievement award, and Giovanni Cardinal Ravasi the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Cardinal Ravasi spoke about what makes a Christian film, and in particular the contributions made by film artists whether Catholic or agnostic. He also pointed out to his listeners that Christian film, like all Christian art, grows from the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, the invisible rendered visible.

The conference closed with the world premiere of Roberto Hossein’s new film, “A Woman Named Mary,” fruit of his deep love for Lourdes and the apparition of the Blessed Virgin to St. Bernadette.

Hossein, born in 1927 of Jewish extraction, became a very successful film director in the 1960s and 70s, working with the giants of the Dolce Vita age of cinema, such as Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni and Alberto Sordi. His best-known work to international audiences may be his 1982 adaption of Les Misérables, although he has directed everything from Westerns to thrillers. He left the world of cinema in the 1970s and turned to theater where he has been much acclaimed and was given the French award of the Legion of Honor in 2005.

Hossein’s latest effort is a mixture of the loves of his lifetime: film, theater and Mary, Mother of God. He experienced a conversion in the 70s at a Marian shrine in Italy and became a Catholic; “A Woman Named Mary” pays homage to the woman who changed his life. Set against the grand backdrop of the Basilica of Lourdes, the film captures his theatrical spectacle arranged for one night only before 30,000 spectators, of which 6,000 were the sick seeking solace at the great shrine.

It opens with Bernadette, a simple country girl, who finds herself before the vision of the Blessed Mother. The little saint asks one thing, to hear the story of Christ from the lips of His own Mother. They settle in the grotto and so the story begins. It is an epic spectacle, choreographed to underscore the dignity of Christ, the fellowship of the apostles, the gathering of a Christian people, and the destructiveness of the mob.

Soaring music, dance and what in the painting of Caravaggio would be called “grand gesture” punctuate the story, not recited by the actors, but narrated over the loudspeakers and acted out on stage. Minimal props and subdued costumes keep the focus on the power of the story of salvation.

Hossein is no stranger to epic cinematic events, he has brought Ben Hur and the Life of Napoleon to the great sports stadium of Paris, but his decision to orchestrate this event at Lourdes was fruit of a very personal experience. While visiting Lourdes for the first time three years ago, the director was overtaken with illness at the steps of the basilica. He fell to the ground for several minutes and when he arose he was crying. In that moment he knew he had to stage something there.

Inspired by the great mosaic cycle on the façade of the basilica of the Life of Christ, but also by the Medieval tradition of the sacred spectacles put on in front og the cathedrals, Hossein overcame objections and obstacles to put on his show on Aug. 13, 2011.

His hope for the event was to launch an appeal for universal brotherhood saying, “if we do not have the power to heal, we do have that to love, assist and share … before it is too late.”

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The festival ended with a splendid awards ceremony, given through the generosity of the Patrons of the Vatican museums, particularly the Monte Carlo chapter.

In the Octagonal Courtyard of the museum, surrounded by the most celebrated works of antique art, the  Apollo Belevedere and the Laocoon, the jury, journalists and art lovers gathered to hear the result of the week’s deliberations. The Master of Ceremonies for the evening was renowned Italian journalist and writer Armando Torno.

The prize for best film went to a French work, “Churchmen,” by Rodolphe Tissot. This young director, born in 1974, already has a body of television work to show for his short career. Together with a special prize given by a jury of youths to an up and coming director, which was won by Jim Morlino for the “War of the Vendè,” the festival seemed to be trying to encourage young people to take their energetic faith to the silver screen.

Beloved American actor Andy Garcia won the best actor award, although he was not present to receive it, much to the disappointment of all the women present. His role in “For Greater Glory, The True Story of Cristiada,” as the retired general Enrique Gorostieta, whose struggle with faith is as violent as the civil war in the film, well merited the award.

Youth again prevails in this great epic, recounted with the grand style that made audiences once love the Hollywood Colossals of Ben Hur and the Ten Commandments. The success of the film seems to indicate that audiences are not tired of heroic stories of virtue yet. The true star of the film is the 13-year-old boy José Luis Sanchez (played by Mauricio Kuri), who while mentored by General Gorostieta, is indeed leading that lost soul back toward the light.

The director of Cristiada, Dean Wright, is also fairly young. In his 40s, he has already won academy awards for visual effects in the Lord of the Rings films and also worked on the Chronicles of Narnia. His eye and his skill at unfolding a narrative send a glimmer of hope for a return of grand style Christian cinema.

Best director went to a Spanish filmmaker, Immacolata Hoces for “A Song.” This movie recounts the story of life lived not in history-making events, but amid the challenges of the everyday world, where honesty and virtuous living encounter as many obstacles as crusaders in hostile lands. The protagonist is Mary, a lawyer, who believes in God’s justice and is thus unable to find work or even a comfortable place in society.

Her encounter with a musician and a music producer bring to light the structure of faith and divine law and the beauty and artistry of music.

Hope, heroism and holiness dominated the third annual film festival, and with a bit of Divine Providence will filter through the silver screen into our daily lives.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her new book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall.  She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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