Saint movies are tricky matters. On the one hand, nobody wants to be accused of hagiography, even if hagiography is a desirable thing or historically genuine. On the other hand, it’s a poor effort if a biopic of this sort puts an over-emphasis on the warts and blemishes of a person’s life. Finding the middle ground is tough, so I have a lot of respect for anyone who is willing to tread down this path.
As a preliminary matter, I’m going to follow a bit of a different format for this review given that the subject matter is not to be viewed through the lens of entertainment, with its Catholicity as an underlying or secondary aspect. Quite the opposite, actually, as the film’s purpose must be viewed in its portrayal of the Faith and the faithful first, with a consideration of its artistic or entertainment value afterwards.
As the subtitle indicates, Restless Heart:The Confessions of Augustine is basically a film adaptation of Augustine’s autobiography, The Confessions. It was originally made as a mini-series for Italian television and the edited and recut for distribution in the United States. This yields itself to some good points and some bad points as we’ll see
The film follows the narrative of The Confessions quite closely, albeit through flashbacks. The narrative begins in 431 as the Vandals are about to destroy Hippo. Augustine sees all this and reminisces on his life and how he came to God. A lot of people might recognize Franco Nero as the older Augustine. He brings the requisite gravitas to the role and, despite his short screen time, gave the best performance of the movie. Anyways, as he looks back, there is the inventory of all his great and dismal moments.
We see Augustine as a young thief, stealing fruit from the neighbors, his early family life with Patricius and St. Monica, his professional career, and, of course, his relationship with his concubine and the son she bore him. Throughout all this, his views of Truth and God, both the Manichean version and the True One, are explored in much the same fashion as in his memoirs.
I have to admit to being impressed. Despite the film too often lapsing into the European style of over-wrought melodramatic displays (with an unfortunate number falling upon Allesandro Preziosi as adult Augustine), the sincerity of the story actually worked regardless. There are genuinely powerful moments in things like Patricius’s death, Augustine’s disregard for his son, and the conflict with St. Ambrose. All of these things are shown in light of the Faith and why Augustine could be so brilliant and yet so wrong. They aren’t sideshows to add emotional content or shock value. They are critical parts of the story and no amount of delinquent acting was able to derail their effect.
To that end, the main thrust of the film focuses on the primacy of Truth. As with the book, Augustine is consistently placed in between two opposing worldviews and has to discern their legitimacy. He learns quickly that words have power. However, the supreme lesson is that they only have value to the extent that they serve the Truth.
This has special relevance for our modern times. Restless Heart burns a lot of celluloid on Augustine’s career from lawyering to working as the voice of the emperor. Tracing this route means a lot of discussion on rhetoric, specifically what it is and what it is used for. In a day and age where rhetoric is really just the practice of being a windbag, there is a valuable lesson for the Catholic and secular world alike.
It isn’t perfect. I thought the controversy with the Donatists was slip-shod and handled badly from a historical perspective. In addition to the over-acting problems (save for the aforementioned Nero and Monica Guerritore as St. Monica), I know some have complained about the lack of Augustinian theology. I have no idea why this is a big deal. The story is of Augustine’s conversion. It’s how he got from the infidelity of A to the Truth of B. We don’t need a lecture on the Trinity to tell that story.
The production values were excellent considering this was (a) European and (b) made for television. As with most European efforts, the cinematography was wonderful. Ditto for the remarkable attention to the actual content of what Augustine wrote about himself. It would have been very easy to overplay certain things. Most people think of Augustine as a lecherous whoremonger who was with any woman he could find. An American adaptation would probably have opted for such a perspective. While the subject of Augustine’s worldly desires is dealt with, I was comfortable with my kids watching it. The more sensual moments are brief and without anything overly bothersome.
Restless Heart is an admirable effort at walking the “middle path” I mentioned at the opening of this review. There is definitely not a problem with things being too sanitized. The wonder of conversion and grace is expressed throughout, and we are constantly bombarded with Truth as an objective reality and not something to be crafted from the whims and words of skilled speakers/writers. There are a lot of flaws. They are all minor ones, though, and subordinate to the film’s depiction of the Church and one of its greatest figures. Get this movie and show it to your parish.
Review by Throwback