Speaking of which, the film on Augustine, which I mentioned some months back, was finally aired on Italian television. I downloaded that, but I've yet to officially study Italian, so I can't follow it too well, although it's interesting to see the look of it. There's still no information I can find about when it will be available in an English broadcast or release, although that's the language it was filmed in. It's interesting to see how the format of The Confessions was handled in the film. As I wrote in the earlier entry, I had once had a fascinating conversation with magdalene1, who is the only filmmaker I know, about how one might turn a book like this into a film, particularly on the subject of how to handle the device of Augustine looking back at his own life. The question was whether, in order not to lose much of the reflection that makes The Confessions the masterpiece that it is, you would have to use the technique of the dreaded voice-over, or whether you might do something more artsy and daring, like having an "invisible" (to the other characters) older Augustine walking amid the action of the younger Augustine's life and commenting upon it.
These writers of Augustine: Decline of the Roman Empire went with the option of having the "now" of the film being Augustine shortly before his death at the age of 76 in the year 430, with the Vandal tribes about to conquer his town of Hippo in the then-collapsing Roman North Africa, looking back at his life and the material of The Confessions being presented in extended flashbacks. Conventional and effective, and perhaps most useful for adding into the film the tension of the "present" drama of the end of Augustine's life, and the danger in 430 that the whole of Augustine's library would be burnt by the Vandals. That would have changed the course of human history, as so much of the medieval patrimony came from Augustine. Without Augustine's work, everything would have been different: anthropology, economics, literature, psychology and spirituality, political philosophy, much less theology and philosophy in general. So that's a cool way to heighten the sense of the impact that this one man has had on all of us. Indeed, one of the most electrifying discoveries for me as a student studying the history of ideas as an undergraduate (and after) was just to start to come to perceive how much we all have Augustine inside of our heads, whether we have ever read a word of him or not: his influence is just that pervasive, so much so that he remains part of our culture's mental "operating system" in the way we have all learned to think.
Culture, Religion & Science
TV DRAMA / St. Augustine, a contemporary man
Interview: Christian Duguay
martedì 2 febbraio 2010
Last Saturday and on Monday the Italian state TV station showed a dramatization of the life of St. Augustine, a crucial figure in the history of not only Christianity but of universal culture as well, a complex and somewhat difficult task, if one wants to stay close to the historical facts and the spiritual adventure of this great man.
Ilsussidiario.net has interviewed the film director, the Canadian Christian Duguay, who pointed out the amazing modernity of St. Augustine and of his life that “[A]lthough set around the 4th and 5th century, is a very contemporary story that audiences will easily be able to relate to.” The Italian audience has shown itself to be in agreement, making the dramatization a complete success.
St. Augustine is very well known, but he is not a saint “of the people”, as St. Francis is for example. How have you made his story interesting for a large audience?
With St. Augustine, we are trying to reach a large Christian and non-Christian audience. What we’re presenting is the story of a man who is at once a victim of his own narcissism, oratory talents and whose charisma is such that sins and vices of life swirl all around him. It’s a journey filled with guilt, regret, insight and a miraculous turn of events that will lead to his spiritual conversion. It’s a personal story with an epic scope that is told in such an immediate and accessible way that people from all walks of life will hopefully appreciate it.
St. Augustine’s Confessions is the book most read in the world – even by non-Christians – after the Bible. What is the reason in your opinion?
The insights and concerns that Augustine expressed at the time have a resonance and immediacy that is as interesting to readers today as back then.
Did you already know the figure of St. Augustine? What was your view on him before shooting this film? After this film did you change your mind?
Having been brought up a Catholic, I was aware of him from a religious and spiritual side but also my father was a lawyer and that side of St. Augustine has also always intrigued me. I knew the philosopher and court orator who turned away from the narcissism and selfishness of his obvious talent and put it towards Christian faith. Researching and then presenting a man who has such a profound conversion had a definite spiritual impact on me and in a way, I felt a sort of divine guidance to present the audience a glimpse of that personal experience.
Is the film faithful to the real life of Augustine or some part of it has been fictionalized?
We’ve researched St. Augustine very carefully. Most of the characters are based on historical figures. For narrative purposes, what we’ve done is build a frame that helped us juggle an older St. Augustine on the verge of losing everything that he’s built by being attacked by the Vandals and in doing so looks back at his past through his writings. We used this as a narrative device and had to streamline some elements because of time. For example, we didn’t want to go into the fact that there were two Emperors at the time, one in the West and one in the East and therefore just alluded to the one in Milan, where St. Augustine became the court orator. But it’s all largely true to fact.
What is the strong point of the film, the factor of a TV success?
His conversion is really the key. A broad audience of Christians and non-Christians will be able to relate not to a saint, but to a man that will experience the very modern idea of having to deal with his inner turmoil while at the same time his outer life, a man who will put aside his narcissism, greed, and worldly successes for something deeper and more profound.
What greatest difficulties did you meet in the shift from the script to production?
Like any historical piece, it is essential to try to accurately recreate the authenticity of the scenes. Fortunately, we were able to shoot St. Augustine in Empire Studios in Tunisia that is partly owned by Lux Vide. The authenticity of the sets and locations went a long way in allowing us to present an epic scope on a more humble budget. With my previous mini-series, I’m used to working with much bigger budgets and it takes all our skills and contributions as filmmakers to be able to pull off a production of this scope.
It would be impossible to do an epic production of the magnitude of St. Augustine without everything working in sync – from the smallest prop on set to the largest set piece being built to the performances of our stars to the background action of our extras.
I was blessed to be able to use the same Italian crew that I had on our previous production of Coco Chanel. This being my second experience with an Italian crew throughout my whole career, I have never felt so instantaneously at home, and they quickly became like a second family to me. Everyone played an essential role.
Also we were truly blessed with fine weather when we needed it. Our producer Luca Bernabei brought to my attention that with every production based on a spiritual subject that he’s been involved with, there is a small miracle that happens, but I can truly say that we experienced small miracles on St. Augustine on a daily basis.
Coming back to St. Augustine, what aspect of his personality can most impress the contemporary man? What is your judgment on the human figure of Augustine, a man who took seriously all the aspects of life, pain, love, etc.? And what is the meaning of this for you personally?
As I mentioned previously, the main thing is to draw a character whose ambitious goals will at one point take precedence over his spiritual and emotional journey. As a result, the people he touches suffer in the same way that he’s suffering and it is through that suffering that he realizes that he can’t in all good conscience continue to live in such a way. Therefore he turns to God, knowing that although he seeks forgiveness that he cannot repair what has come from his past, his conversion will allow him to do good in the future.
I used the metaphor of mosaics, a very common form of art mainly in churches, as little pieces that we see being put together to form the whole picture of a spiritual and profound life. It’s as if each small piece is dealing with his sins and narcissism until the point that we see the picture of the mosaic in Ambrose’s Church and St. Augustine sees for the first time that the image is of the baptism of Christ.
I managed to blend artistically all these elements to help the audience experience a highly spiritual moment. The music of Andrea Guerra to support the whole materialization of this very difficult task was essential and he managed to inject this not only through his amazing skills and nuances, but to really inject it through the voices of young children singing, a pure aura to the musical landscape.
What message will be left by this film for the audience and for the society we all live in?
We have a film that, although set around the 4th and 5th century, is a very contemporary story that audiences will easily be able to relate to. It shows a man whose desires and ambition will lead him to a spiritual conversion that will give his life a profound depth and purpose. It’s a story that looks at the notion of actions having consequences, forgiveness, the depth of relationships and importance of family values – and in our turbulent times it would be hard to discover a more timely tale. I believe if I’ve succeeded at all with St. Augustine it’s to give our audience a human story in a profound and spiritual context.