Novak (novak) wrote,

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Theological Notebook: A Film on Augustine of Hippo

Some four or five years ago, I had a long conversation with filmmaker magdalene1 that played for a while with the idea about how it would be fascinating to do a film adaptation of Augustine's Confessions. After all, a book that's still selling well and influential after 1600 years? That's a good book! And I've taught it a number of times, and been more and more amazed every time I read it. And so magdalene1 and I chatted about how you could adapt such a text, whether straight narrative, whether with the voice-over of Augustine's commentary looking back at his life across the years, or whether with some more artsy attempt with both the in-narrative Augustine and the invisible-to-the-narrative later Augustine together in the frame. We did agree on having Don Cheadle star in it, or a now somewhat younger Don Cheadle, which I still think would be amazingly bad-ass.

But then there's the other thought: filmmakers' (especially Hollywood's) constant desire to "improve" an historical story by spicing it up with extra action or skin, or worst of all, with their own contemporary worldviews transplanted back into the mouths of historical figures. Thus we have had Mel Gibson's William Wallace in Braveheart spouting about individual freedom as though he were Thomas Jefferson fresh from the 18th century. Similarly we have Orlando Bloom's Balian of Ibelin in Kingdom of Heaven righteously telling the [evil and ignorant] Bishop of Jerusalem that "you've taught me much about religion" at the end of the spiritual quest he had begun when he righteously murdered his [evil and ignorant] parish priest, as though being "spiritual but not religious" would have been anything but laughable before the Modern world. And of course, who could forget the self-described and much-trumpeted "historical" version of King Arthur in 2004? So, the thought of a film on Augustine? Maybe there's something to be feared in such a thing. In fact, as I just discovered through an accidental Google find, blogger Kevin Jones described in wry, blow-by-blow detail just how such a "Hollywood Augustine" might play out, making fun and making use of every painful stereotype of contemporary cinematic politics along the way. Funny stuff. And then there's the opposite worry of 1950s-style pious schmaltz....

But then here's the real news and point of this all: someone's gone and done it. I saw that an Augustine film had just been screened for our current-day theological giant (and Augustine scholar) Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI. Director Chrstian Duguay, whose action film The Art of War I remember enjoying, has helmed a mini-series titled Augustine: The Decline of the Roman Empire, produced by three production companies from Poland, Italy and Germany. So... what to think? The trailer has a certain amount of pure hype that I fear, but it's a trailer, of course. The few glimpses of the theology articulated by the characters are ambiguous: does my man Ambrose mean "we don't find Truth" or God in the sense that initiative is ultimately on God's side? I'll stand by that. Does he mean that theology and faith has no recourse or basis in reason and logic? Then that's entirely the opposite of what Ambrose would have said, and just more Modern anti-Christian propaganda straight from the 18th century Enlightenment that produced the United States shoved into the mouth of an historical character. The glimpse of the mystical experience Augustine and Monica share by the shore in Ostia sounds like it might be on target, so that gives me some hope: in the Confessions, that scene is hugely important, not least for showing that access to God is no elite matter, like for the Gnostics, but entirely open in grace, whether to the great genius of Augustine, or to the less-educated faith of his mother. So, basically, it looks like I'll just have to wait and see, as with any film. I do have to admit that I'm curious, in a simple way, just to see what's been done.

Tags: augustine, historical, media, movies/film/tv, mysticism/spirituality, theological notebook

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