A joyfully Franciscan view of Catholic life, inspired by St. Clare (Santa Chiara) of Assisi!

My Photo
Location: Virginia, United States

Chiara Offreduccio (St. Clare) was born in 1194. It is said that when her mother had Chiara in her womb, an angel appeared to her and said, "your child will be a light that will illuminate the world!" Hence, her mother named the child Chiara, which means "light. As G.K. Chesterton put it, St. Clare was a romantic figure just like Juliet was. However, instead of running away from her family in order to be with an earthly man, Clare gave up everything and ran away from her family for the love of her Savior!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Benedictine Blessings: "In This House of Brede" Movie Review

Whenever you read a book that you absolutely love, do you ever imagine yourself as the director of a movie based on the book? As you read the book, do you imagine to yourself what each of the characters look like, how you would interpret a particular scene on celluloid, and what kind of soundtrack you would use for the screen adaptation? Then….you finally see the movie version of the book that you just read- and you’re sorely disappointed!

That scenario just happened to me last week upon watching In This House of Brede, a screen adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel (see my review of the book here). Needless to say, I was seriously underwhelmed. However, given that the movie was made for an hour-and-a-half TV spot in 1975, I think that my expectations were a bit too high.

The one thing that I will say in favor of the movie is that considering that it was 1975- a time in which Holy Mother Church was severely under attack by men and women who considered themselves to be “consecrated religious” yet destroyed their own communities by slaughtering Tradition- the movie is extremely respectful of cloistered religious life. Thus, it doesn’t bring in the book’s sub-plot about the newer, “progressive” postulants trying to destroy Brede Abbey by getting rid of the Habit and Lectio Divina. At least the movie grasps onto the theme that Brede Abbey was like a great ship, never steering from its course towards God.

Just like the book, the movie focuses upon Philippa Talbot, a wealthy London businesswomen who suddenly decides to enter a cloistered Benedictine abbey. Now herein lies a problem that I have. The book doesn’t provide too many reasons as to why Philippa enters Brede, but having gone through a period of discernment myself, such a choice usually doesn’t involve anything much more besides the desire to give yourself completely to Christ. While the book might not fully develop that desire in Philippa, it successfully utilizes other characters such as Abbess Catherine and Cecily to explain why a woman would want to give up everything to become a nun. However, the movie doesn’t focus much at all upon other characters except Philippa, and it is never explained WHY she wants to become a nun. The movie doesn’t even intimate that she wants to become a nun because of her desire to be with Christ. She simply packs up her things and leaves with no explanation.

Once Philippa enters Brede Abbey, the movie gives a very haphazard portrayal of her progression from a postulant to a fully professed Dame. The movie doesn’t explain to the audience what the nuns do all day- it just shows tiny clips of the sisters in the choir, the sisters at work in the garden, and the sisters in the novitiate. Nor does the movie delve into Philippa’s struggle with all of the sacrifices she must make. Without any explanation, Philippa is shown alone and melancholy in the belltower questioning her vocation, much to the confusion of the viewer.

Probably the biggest strength of the book is its realism- it portrays the everyday interpersonal conflicts that the nuns must endure, their financial worries, and delves into the personal issues that individual nuns must overcome. For instance, the book focuses upon Abbess Catherine’s struggle to find patience in interacting with her spiritual daughters, Sister Cecily’s battle with her overbearing mother and the temptations to marry a wealthy young man who is still in love with her, Dame Veronica’s attempt to cover up a less-than-illustrious past, Dame Maura’s struggling to hide her personal favoritism towards Sister Cecily, and Dame Ursula’s fight to continue her duties as prioress in spite of breast cancer. In short, the book takes the time to develop each nun’s personal struggles within the cloister and paints them as very human and sinful women.

Following from that, the book has many different plots that all amount to one theme- the theme that a nun must sacrifice her own desires for the love of God and others. In contrast, the movie only tangentially touches upon that theme…but it rather seems to solely focus on the theme that a nun must love all of her spiritual sisters equally. Moreover, the movie only picks two storylines in order to develop that theme.

The first storyline involves that of “Joanna,” who is a character that is absent from the book but seems to be a pastiche of Sister Cecily and Sister Kate. Now, readers of “Canticle of Chiara” will be interested by the fact that Sister Joanna is played by none other than Judy Bowker. Who is Judy Bowker? Well, for anyone who has seen “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” Bowker plays none other than our very own CHIARA (SAINT CLARE.)

Now in “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” unfortunately we don’t get to see CHIARA in her lovely Poor Ladies Habit. However, in In This House of Brede, we are able to see the same actress in a Benedictine habit….so we can get some sense of what Clare would have looked like had she worn her habit in BS,SM. However, the character of Sister Joanna isn’t very admirable. She plays sort of a “psycho nun” honestly. Joanna is obsessed with possessively gaining the undivided affection of Dame Philippa. Joanna seems to have a “mother complex” and wants to call Philippa “her mother.” Such particular affections are against the mission of the Abbey- the mission of each nun to show no personal preference for another one of her sisters. Thus, about half of the movie is taken up by an elongated depiction of Philippa’s struggle to hide her affection for Joanna. Ultimately, Joanna seems to have come to grips with this rule and ends her possessive feelings towards Philippa. The movie never really explains how she comes to grips with that hardship.

The second plotline focuses on the relationship between Philippa and Dame Agnes, a stereotypically “mean nun.” Dame Agnes is supposedly jealous of Philippa’s experience in the outside world and is resentful of her level of learning. In a very nice scene, the two sisters reconcile their differences when Philippa, as infirmarian, must care for the dying Dame Agnes, despite the fact that the latter has been rather petty towards the former. That particular scene illustrates a very important point about the difference between liking a person and truly loving them.

All in all, this is an okay film. There is certainly nothing sketchy in it. The acting is passable, I suppose. Also, there is a very nice scene in which Joanna makes her first vows- complete in a wedding gown! My final assessment is that it should have focused much more on the spirituality of cloistered life and concentrated on Philippa’s relationship with Christ. However, if I was a teacher, I would definitely consider showing this movie to a group of girls in the 11-15 age range. I guess I’ll hang onto the DVD in case I show it to Chiara and Scholastica (the desired names of my daughters, if God graciously grants me children years and years from now).

All in all, I think that this book would have made a wonderful mini-series, much in the manner of Brideshead Revisited. That way, there would be time to develop all of the sub-plots and one could really feel like they are entering the monastery with Philippa. Hey, if there are any film-students out there, you might want to think about doing just that!


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I've not read the book, so here are some of my comments on your evaluation of the movie from my perspective; knowing the story only from the movie.

Regarding your third paragraph:

I think if you watch the movie again you will see Phillipa explain to Joanna that she (Phillipa) had a desire to get closer to God, give everything to God, in order that she might find happiness in a world that has badly disappointed her--particularly due to the death of her daughter in a traffic accident.

Re your paragraph 4: I did get a sense from the movie that Phillipa was in the bell tower because she was struggling with her decision. It was clearly shown that she was having difficulty adjusting to a life where she had to be obedient to some with whom she had disagreements.

I generally found the movie quite good on its own and I'm interested to read the book, partially because of your exposition of the other plot elements.



5:55 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

<< # St. Blog's Parish ? >>