Page 13, 9th November 2007

9th November 2007
Page 13
Page 13, 9th November 2007 — A study of Jesuit life as torture

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Organisations: Second Vatican Council
Locations: Venice


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A study of Jesuit life as torture

FILM REVIEW In Memory of Me


On an autumn day set in the present time a young man, Andrea (Christo Jivkov), arrives at a Jesuit noviciate to begin training for the priesthood. He does not seek the will of God or a life of service but an existential quest for self-discovery and the reason for being. lie has led a successful life, fallen in love, tired of the world, and, not quite knowing why, has resumed attending Mass and rediscovered the Gospel. He moves into a world of asceticism, isolation, discipline and meditation. Loosely based on Furio Monicelli's novel The Perfect Jesuit, published in 1960, In Memory of Me traverses two worlds that will baffle many.

Staged in the Palladian magnificence of the island and monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice a location so beautiful that it is worth seeing the film for that alone the life he enters is far removed from presentday reality and only those familiar with Jesuit formation before the Second Vatican Council will recognise it. Yet nevertheless we find superiors, novices and brothers dressed in casual clothes using laptops only the retired fathers wear cassocks. There is a state-of-the-art DVD player in the refectory and a smart unanswered telephone in the superior's office. Square-leaded windows give tantalising glimpses of the contemporary life of the Venetian lagoon. No impression is given of the transformation in religious formation during the last 40 years and what is presented is a caricature of what existed before.

This is a joyless place of silence, study, suspicion, spying. intrigue, eavesdropping, self-obsession and tortured speculation. Acidulated spiritual conferences, icily given by the father superior (Andre Hennicke) and novice master (Marco Baliani) mostly taken from the first week of Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises extol immolation. In two hours there is only one smile (at the end) and no laughter. Instead, there are sidelong glances, long gazes, pensive expressions and immobile features. Insomniac nights are broken by stealthy, sometimes prying walks along sterile marble corridors and across box-bedded cloisters. There are whispered assignations contrived for painful revelations of doubt, resulting in dilation.

The scepticism of two novices, Fausto (Fausto Russo Alesi) and Zanna (Filippo Timi), inspire reservations in Andrea about his own vocation. They contrast the suppression of intellectual liberty and the absolute obedience to authority with Gospel imperatives. Andrea and Zanna become convinced that they have been shaped to believe in nothing other than a mound of formalities that echo the world in reverse in which the figure of Christ is equally deformed. Zanna seeks freedom outside the order and is told by the superior that the heart's desire does not matter. Andrea is riven by further doubt, this time over whether to follow Zanna or to remain in search of "the terrifying mystery of serving a weak God".

Saverio Costanzo, the director, has not made a documentary about Jesuit life, then or now, but loosely uses Monicelli's novel to examine existential themes and the contrast between religious faith, embodied in repression, and humanist emancipation.

The homosexual subtext of Andrea's love for the angelic novice Lodovici, contrasted with his friendship with Zanna, is the theme of the novel, but in the film this is replaced by an abstract inquiry drained of human reality from which all affective emotions are eliminated. The inner life is represented by facial expression and silence in which meaning is conveyed by osmosis. Religious vocation, meanwhile, is depicted as pointless masochism.

The fundamental motivation of the Spiritual Exercises is ultimately to put the Christian life into concrete, particular terms that lead to the discovery of God in all things. In this claustrophobic atmosphere there is no evidence of community, no pastoral activity outside the noviciate walls, and no obvious preparation for a life of mission in the world. Instead of reading at meals, Strauss waltzes are incongruously played, and the light and shade of interior conflict is accompanied by Tchaikovsky and Mahler. Zanna walks smilingly away from St Peter's dome to the Kyrie from the Missa Luba. All that is conveyed is introspective, heartless purposelessness in a setting of architectural magnificence. No Jesuit noviciate in the world has ever been housed in such elegance. Artistically. Mario Baliani's photography makes a beautiful film and his subtle camera work conveys the unspoken word as strongly as the acting. Andrea Palladio evolved an architecture of light but the abbey church is invariably filmed at night and is given a brooding presence that embodies Constanzo's theme.

This study in cold and bloodless mental torture will probably be meaningless to a cosmopolitan British audience and will only appeal to a minority, but. if seminarians or novices are your preference, you will not be disappointed. Somehow, I suspect that In Memory of Me will not result in the same number of inquiries about Jesuit life that followed The Mission.

Anthony Symondson SJ

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