Felix Culpa: The Movie

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As Ryan Topping pointed out yesterday, in Augustine’s Confessions we learn a lot more about God than we do about Augustine. Magnus es domine, et laudabilis valde—“You are great Lord and worthy to be praised,” Augustine begins. As we read through the Confessions, we find that there is very little worthy of praise in Augustine’s early life, and perhaps that is why he spent so much time recounting it. Felix Culpa, mea culpa. In the Confessions, Augustine seems to be looking over the shoulder of his Guardian Angel at the Personal Judgment, seeing in his every act the Grace of God and expressing his sorrow at the defiance of the young Augustine as he blithely kicks salvation’s can down the road: “Save me Lord, but not now.”

Augustine’s life must be one of the richest and most variegated sagas in history. An adequate rendition of such a life would have to be as long as the life itself. Mr. Topping addresses the Confessions, but the impact of the City Of God was also profound. In its first ten books, Augustine gives the Romans a sense of their own history which their own historians, especially Varro, had denied them. He then offers to Christians a sense of history that radically broke from the mythical sense of Eliade’s “Eternal Return” and imparts to history a Christian purpose and direction. Augustine lays to rest all of the pagan allegations against the Christians, and then raises up for Christians an understanding of their truly unprecedented role in history. In Books XI through XIV, he charts the foundations of Christian metaphysics, the order of creation and the universe, and the beautiful simplicity of hierarchy. He then investigates the order of the soul—the Platonist bursting through, perhaps, but aiming at the soul’s perfection in this life and at its Creator in the next. The rest of the book is dedicated to a view of history as God had it in mind, not Herodotus, Thucydides, or Varro. Augustine sees “progress” in terms of the human soul, not the human race. The individuals struggle for perfection in salvation is the true “progress”; nations may rise and fall, peoples may come and go, and philosophers may stumble and err. In sum, because the human soul is created to rest with God in eternity, history is nothing more than the field on which the race is run. Who wins the war or loses it, who gains the gold or loses it, who wears the crown or gives it away—all is, as Goethe puts it, Quecksilber gleich, dir in der Hand zerrinnt—mere sand running through the fingers.

This, then, is Augustine’s bequest to the ages. Nonetheless, Augustine’s pivotal role in the twin histories of Christianity and Christendom often overshadows all but a few particulars of his very human life. To bring that life to the screen, Ignatius Press is bringing to the United States a movie which has already experienced significant success in Europe. Restless Heart: The Confessions of Augustine will be offered in a “hosted-screening program that gives parishes, organizations—even individuals” the opportunity to schedule screenings in their communities, or for individual parishes, schools, and other venues. It will premier today in Colorado Springs to benefit Catholic Charities of Central Colorado.

This movie wasn’t made for Holy Rollers. It presents a vivid depiction of a real, rich, and sinful life, in a surrounding that appears surprisingly modern—or, perhaps better said, surprisingly timeless. Augustine grows up in a home dominated by an ambitious, frustrated, and adulterous father. The confusion infused by his home life propels him into a self-indulgent foray into popularity, politics, and prurience, all the while haunted by the prayers, companionship, and constant encouragement—often unwelcome—of his mother Monica. His intellectual gifts attract the usual coterie of hangers-on and third-raters, but also the child-emperor Valentinian II and his manipulative regent mother Justina, the Arian who ran the imperial court in Milan.

Director Christian DuGuay brings the viewer back and forth between Augustine’s young life (where he is played by Alessandro Preziosi) and his tumultuous last years as the Bishop of Hippo (here played by Franco Nero), negotiating with Genseric the Vandals, whose barbarian troops are storming the city’s walls. In between we see lengthy treatments of the liaison that produced his son Deodatus and his relationship with, and ultimate conversion by, Bishop Ambrose.  Convincing scenes portray his father’s deathbed conversion, his skill as a court attorney, and his confrontations with Donatists, Manichees, and Arians; but Monica provides the golden thread that runs through it all.

“From my tenderest infancy,” he writes, “I had in a manner sucked with my mother’s milk that name of my Savior, Thy Son; I kept it in the recesses of my heart; and all that presented itself to me without that Divine Name, though it might be elegant, well written, and even replete with truth, did not altogether carry me away” (Confessions I.4).

The Monica we meet in the movie (marvelously played by Monica Guerritore) is canonizable; Augustine decidedly is not. Hers is the hand that rocks the cradle, and eventually the West: with the City of God Augustine provided the foundations for Christian civilization as we knew it. While Monica is steadfast throughout the movie, the restless Augustine is all over the place, which prompts a viewer advisory: the movie assumes that you know something about Augustine, especially his spiritual and intellectual impact. You don’t have to know the difference between a Donatist and an Arian—you won’t learn that from any movie. But the film concentrates on the life of the pre-Christian Augustine—the hedonist, the Manichee, the Courtier, the barrister—and dwells on the bishop and his monumental accomplishments with a relatively lighter touch. It is not an introduction to Augustine, but a powerful invitation to get to know him better. And even though there are no offensive visual scenes, the movie probes the sins of Augustine’s father, the sins of Augustine, and the sins of the age—skillfully but bluntly. These themes are definitely mature, and may be deemed inappropriate for those youngsters who have not yet reached an understanding of the issues addressed by the Sixth Commandment

Movie Information: Restless Heart: The Confessions of Augustine. Directed by Christian DuGuay, produced in the U.S by Ignatius Press. Run-time 130 minutes. Available for hosted-screening for groups, institutions, and individuals. Details at www.RestlessHeartFilm.com, or call 1-877-263-1263.

Christopher Manion

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Christopher Manion served as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. He has taught in the departments of politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, the Catholic University of America, and Christendom College, and is the director of the Campaign for Humanae Vitae™, a project of the Bellarmine Forum Foundation. He is a Knight of Malta.

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