Certainly within Catholic circles, a film about the latest, most significant spiritual devotion—the Divine Mercy image and Chaplet—has been much anticipated, and if the nearly-full theatre where I viewed the film is any indication, its premier showing was well attended in a limited theatrical release. Due to popular demand, the film is scheduled for an additional viewing on December 2.
If you expect to see a fully mounted feature film, you may wind up somewhat disappointed. Faustina: Love and Mercy is not that kind of movie. What the movie does deliver is a good primary introduction into the origins of this devotion, with special attention paid to how enormous obstacles were overcome, finally climaxing in the establishment of Divine Mercy Sunday as part of the Catholic liturgical calendar right up there with the Feast of Corpus Christi.
The movie is guaranteed a following, if for no other reason than the enormous popularity of the Divine Mercy chaplet among Catholics. Moreover, the origin and development of the devotion is very modern (having taken place within the lifetime of the movie-goers) and thus there is a certain sense of ownership and personal historical investment in the Church’s spiritual evolution connected to the emphasis on God’s Divine Mercy.
Faustina: Love and Mercy is directed by Michal Kondrat, known for How to Beat Satan, a film on Catholic exorcists that garnered the Grand Prix of Europe’s largest International Film and Catholic Media Festival. His current work is a docudrama on the life of Sister Faustina and the difficult road by which the Divine Mercy devotion was finally accepted by the Church. The story’s effective dramatization is periodically interrupted by experts, mostly Catholic clerics, who provide on-screen commentary. Thus, the visual engagement is, in a sense, “disrupted” by the static, seated speakers. More about that later.
The movie presents a well-acted and well-written dramatic narrative that begins with a young Helena Kowalska, who upon entering the convent of the Congregation of Our Lady of Mercy takes the name Faustina of the Blessed Sacrament. Her parents object to her entering religious life, and Helena herself attempts to suppress the call until at a dance she sees a vision of Christ, beaten, bloody, and crowned with thorns. The movie is dominated by Polish actors and crew members. Kamila Kaminska gives a competent performance as Sister Faustina, whose spiritual life (unbeknownst to her religious community) is marked by extraordinary mystical experiences. Jesus appears to her—most notably as the Christ of the Divine Mercy image, dressed in a white garment, from whose heart red and pale rays emerge, an image he commands her to paint, though she is not an artist.
During a mystical experience, Faustina was told that she would be given a special confessor who would aid her in making known Christ, the King of Divine Mercy. Maciej Malysa plays that confessor, Fr. Sopocko, who became the principal and longsuffering advocate of the Divine Mercy devotion. Malysa turns in the film’s strongest performance, being at first very skeptical and even requiring that Faustina be examined by a psychiatrist—scenes sadly not dramatized. We are only told that Fr. Sopocko was satisfied that Faustina was mentally healthy.
The Divine Mercy image is at last put to canvas three years after Jesus appears to Faustina when Sopocko hires a most unlikely candidate to do the rendering—the Polish artist, cynic, and member of the Free Masons, Eugene Kazimirowski. In a humorous and entertaining episode, the artist’s attempts are constantly dismissed by Faustina, who sits in judgment of his work, until finally Jesus himself tells her to be satisfied with the composition. The movie achieves a level of gravitas when, years later, Kazimirowski hangs himself. His impotent despair is a stark juxtaposition against the power of God’s mercy.
Sister Faustina dies of tuberculosis in 1938 at the age of 33, leaving the task of establishing the Divine Mercy devotion to Fr. Sopocko. His mission is to bring about the three commands Jesus revealed to Faustina—namely, to spread devotion to the image and chaplet of Divine Mercy, found a congregation of Divine Mercy nuns, and establish Divine Mercy Sunday. Sopocko is aided by Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski of the Congregation of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. Both priests endure Nazi harassment, and, unbelievably, their work is seriously hindered when in 1959 the Vatican imposes a ban on the spreading of the Divine Mercy message. The movie shows how the message of Divine Mercy was supported by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, who in the 1960s initiated an investigation into the authenticity of Faustina’s mysticism. Upon becoming pope in 1978, he completely lifted the ban on the message of Christ’s Divine Mercy and established Divine Mercy Sunday. One may say that the Church has never looked back.
The strength of this docudrama is also its weakness. Faustina is made for the devout Catholic believer, is narrowly tailored for consumption by that audience, and is intended to inspire devotion to the Divine Mercy and Saint Faustina. In this, the movie makes a definite, unprecedented contribution as the first important cinematic instructional tool in the promotion of God’s Divine Mercy based on the private revelations of a once-obscure Polish nun.
And when I say its strength is also its weakness, I mean that it is virtually guaranteed that this movie will not reach a wider audience. One wonders why—with the filmmakers’ abilities, the talented actors, Kondrat’s strong script, and the quality production values—Faustina’s producers made the decision not to create a full-length feature film. Even the docudrama makes it obvious that the development of the Divine Mercy devotion is a truly engaging story, and one that could easily have been cinematically crafted in such a way that the universal themes of faith, doubt, and the triumph of perseverance would resonate not only with committed Catholics but be attractive as a movie experience to those who may have no faith at all, like The Song of Bernadette. One might legitimately wonder whether Faustina is a lost opportunity, especially when so few Catholic faith-based movies ever make it to even a limited theatrical distribution.
God’s message of Divine Mercy given through this Polish mystic is much needed in a world marked by hate, violence, and confusion. I find it rather interesting that the premiere of Faustina came immediately on the heels of the suicide of the notoriously cruel ISIS terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose Islamic ideology had led to beheadings, the enslavement of women, rape, torture, and pure brutality. He killed himself and three of his sons after being hunted down and cornered by the U.S. Army.
On October 28th, the day thousands of Catholics flocked to see Faustina, al-Baghdadi’s death dominated the news. Perhaps, like me, many of those watching the film carried impressions of those news stories into the theater with them. How apt then to watch such a movie at a time when one of the world’s darkest souls was undoubtedly trembling before the judgment throne of God, much in need of the mercy he had refused to give in life.
Photo credit: KONDRAT-MEDIA/YouTube