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Ignatius Press has been for some time promoting this new film based on the life of St. Augustine. I saw it the other night at one of the public showings that Christian groups are encouraged to sponsor, and while the rest of the largely church-going and Catholic-student-group audience seemed appreciative, including a teenager I know with fairly picky taste, I must confess that I thought it was pretty bad.

The film was originally done in Italian, along the lines of a mini-series, and while the dubbing is occasionally distracting, probably a bigger problem for its American screen version is the editing, which becomes a bit jarring as the film very rapidly features excerpts from post- Confessions episodes—ones dealing with the Donatist controversy and the Vandal siege of Hippo—that were obviously much more carefully developed as full episodes. The casting and acting seem decent enough, but they cannot overcome the problems with the script, which is just corny and insubstantial at times.

This is related to a problem that will drive anyone who has read the Confessions to distraction: the script changes Augustine’s story quite a bit. What the screenwriters have done is to put an element of St. Ambrose’s story, his conflict with the Arian-favoring imperial family over the church’s ownership of a basilica, into the heart of Augustine’s. Why does Augustine, formerly a Manichaean and then a Neo-Platonist, convert? In the Confessions , Augustine becomes convinced by the arguments of Bishop Ambrose and others, as well as by his own reading of the Scriptures, that the Catholic position is correct, that the Christian faith is true, but for reasons not entirely clear to him he does not convert, does not get baptized. He dallies, hesitates. It is only after several acquaintances convert and become monks and nuns, and especially after he reads the Athanasisus’ (somewhat terrifying) Life of St. Antony, that he has his famous struggle in the garden and hears a voice saying take up and read .

In Restless Heart the garden struggle takes place after something else altogether, namely, Augustine’s having witnessed an attack upon Ambrose’s crowd of non-violent resisters, who are defending the Catholic ownership of the basilica, an attack ordered by the Imperial family. You see, in this film “based” on the life of Augustine, he goes to Milan to be made “court orator” for the emperor, specifically charged with the task of attacking Ambrose, of being a sort of scourge-to-the-Christians in the sphere of intellectual debate. Whereas in actual life, he and his other rhetoric-specialist friends were merely hoping to be noticed by and given certain unspecified favors by the emperor or someone else high up.  And I’m not sure that Augustine, even as a Manichaean, ever publicly argued against Christianity. Anyhow, in the film, he’s supposed to provide the speech that will justify the attack on the basilica crowd, and appalled by the way some of the hymn-singing pacifist protestors were cut down by the troops, he can’t do it and is thrust into the turmoil of a (trippy, drawn-out, and wordless) spiritual experience that culminates in the “take up and read” incident.

We thus lose almost all the arguments that led up to this, indeed we are given the false impression that he was utterly unfamiliar with the Scriptures. The doctrinal content of his conversion struggle, including all his later meditation upon the non-intellectual reasons of his heart, is reduced to something visual. To something sentimental. The cinematic logic is:  a) you can see that Ambrose is a good guy, b) you can see, and so can Augustine, that soldiers killing non-resisting protestors is really bad, and c) Ambrose says something somewhere about “love being all”—therefore, Augustine decides to follow Jesus.

I wouldn’t complain so much if we had gained something from this loose adaptation, say, a presentation of a Saul-like intellectual enemy of the Christians albeit one made to half-fit the name and life of Augustine.  Say, some equivalent of what the writers of Troy did with Achilles, and Briseis too. But no, the script is too poorly written pull off anything along those lines.  We don’t gain anything in dramatic and character exposition for the loss of basic biographical accuracy.

The script also brings Augustine’s African mistress, Khalida, into the story, which is a perfectly fine thing to do, and as far as I know completely accurate. It is weird when you read the Confessions and finally figure out that this aspect of his life is being shoved into the background. It is likely the screen-writers have taken the best guesses about the full story as learned from biographers like Peter Brown.  But, in truth, we gain little. Monica’s character gets developed more, and the actress who plays Khalida pleases us with her serene beauty, but that’s it. The screenwriters don’t do much with the Khalida-Augustine story other than to both humanize him (Look, he has a “wife” and kid!)and simplify his waywardness for contemporary audiences.

So skip the film and take up and read. The F.J. Sheed translation of the Confessions is the best one. And believe it or not, Garry Wills has some good little studies on some of the books. All agree that the Brown biography is great, but you want to read Augustine on his life first.

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