I am Patrick (2020)

Nearly everyone knows the name Saint Patrick but only a tiny minority know even one or two historical accuracies about the man and the saint

The narrative drama inherent in the life story of Saint Patrick is difficult to top. It’s an incredibly compelling story. Like the stories of Noah, Christ, Paul, and Moses, it’s an inherently Christian (or Judeo-Christian, in the case of Noah and Moses) narrative.

Thus, for the filmmaker tasked with putting into celluloid the second or third-greatest story ever told, the first question is whether to make the project true to its Christian roots or to reconfigure it for the Hollywood crowd. Noah (2014) is a good example of the latter. Thankfully, the production company for I am Patrick opted for the former.

But even the Irish Times complained that I Am Patrick lacked “CGI serpents and lots of tattooed warriors screaming down the Hill of Tara in the manner of shoppers who’ve spotted a virgin aisle of loo-roll.” And it does lack those elements. This is no Braveheart (1995) or The Ten Commandments (1956), either.

I am Patrick lacks the Hollywood appeal primarily because it is presented as a fictionalized drama intercut with experts who explain the historical record and the film itself. We go back and forth between experts musing and Patrick converting. There are advantages and disadvantages to such an approach.

The advantages include, first and foremost, a much more manageable budget. It’s less expensive to film and edit an academic’s ramblings in a faculty office than an overhead shot of multiple actors and stunt people butting heads on a bright-green landscape. (The crew utilized locations in Wroxeter (England) and in Ireland.) We get both, but the running time of the more expensive shots is trimmed down. That leaves more funds for the production quality of the dramatic shots, and it shows. The cinematic segments of the film are breathtaking.

Another advantage with the docu-drama approach is accuracy. The historical record for Saint Patrick is thin. We do not know his date of birth or his date of death. Some historians even argue that there were, in fact, two Patricks, and not just one (a debate not explored in the film). But there are writings—purportedly by a single Patrick—which survive. The title “I Am Patrick” is taken from the first words of his Confessio. The precise limits of what we know and do not know about Patrick are carefully mapped in the film, leaving the viewer with an informed understanding of the historical Patrick.

The disadvantage of the PBS-style of the film is a serious degrading of emotional engagement for the viewer. Each time I felt my pulse quicken, an academic cut in with his or her two cents. But even the unfortunate pacing cannot diminish the narrative heft of Saint Patrick’s biography.

Still, there is a certain narrative depth to acknowledging where the historical record begins and where it ends. Patrick once faced some troubles on account of a sin he had confessed to his friend, Felix. After Felix disclosed the sin and it was held against Patrick by those in the church trying to undermine his missionary zeal. A traditional film would have difficulty with this kind of unknown sin. Why is it unknown? The I am Patrick film can undertake to explain why—because the record is silent. All we can do is speculate.

The Steven Spielberg production of Saint Patrick starring Daniel Day-Lewis will have to wait. But the performances, script, editing, and cinematography of I Am Patrick are outstanding. And given that the great majority of individuals marching in any given Saint Patrick’s Day parade do not even know that Patrick was not Irish (he was Roman/British), this film is a welcome and instructive addition.

Three tiaras

 

Review by Thomas E. Simmons at thomasesimmons.com.