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RESTLESS HEART: THE CONFESSIONS OF ST. AUGUSTINE

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Alessandro Preziosi, Monica Guerritore, Johannes Bandrup, Franco Nero
Director:  Christian Duguay
Audio:  Dolby 2.0 and 5.1
Studio:  Ignatius press
Video:   Color widescreen 
Features:  See Review
Length:  133 minutes
Release date:  November 15, 2013

 “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you…You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”

Film ***1/2

Every so many centuries, there emerges a talented writer who captures and crystallizes the thoughts of his or her age, preserving for all time how people viewed themselves and their world and at the same time advancing the collective thought of mankind.  Sometimes it is a religious leader on whom God has bestowed amazing insight, passion, and power of language that echoes through the centuries, their influence extending far beyond just one religion or era.  Augustine of Hippo (modern Algeria, in Africa) was such a man. 

After spending several decades of his life restlessly exploring the various philosophies of his time and indulging his passions for his own pleasure, he focused his brilliant mind and profound emotional longing on Jesus of Nazareth, becoming a priest and eventually a bishop.  The entire film is permeated with the Greek philosophical search for truth even as the Roman world was collapsing.  He expanded the vocabulary of Christianity and renewed the church in a way unmatched for centuries.   To this day his City of God is widely read as a masterpiece of theology and his Confessions remains an inspiring autobiography of his conversion.  The latter is largely the inspiration for this film.  In all, St. Augustine wrote more than five million words about the Christian faith.  It is also the story of his prayerful and long-suffering mother St. Monica, who lived to see her pagan son become a Christian priest. 

We are already living in eternal life, my son.”

This film has an old-world primitive atmosphere and overall the production values and acting are excellent. Northern Africa was then part of the Roman Empire, but in the fifth century after the birth of Christ the empire was being overrun by hordes of humanity. As the film opens with Augustine packing his valuable manuscripts and preparing to flee, we can sense the terror of his fellow Africans while he remained calm, knowing that his life was nearing its end and he would finally meet the God to whom he had dedicated his life.  Augustine even attempted to broker peace between the Vandals and the Romans.     It moves back and forth between his final days and his early life’s narrative but it is easy to follow.

I hate the term “Dark Ages” because plenty of amazing things happened between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.  The mind of Augustine ushered in what is more correctly called the “Age of Faith”  His story is an inspiring and completely true one, a notoriously worldly man who converted in his thirties to Christianity and became the greatest Christian writer since St. Paul himself.  Not until the thirteenth century saw St. Thomas Aquinas would anyone come close to his intellectual gifts, and Aquinas quoted Augustine extensively and expanded on his work.  In many ways, St. Augustine was the Plato of Christianity, and following the translation of Aristotle into Latin, St. Thomas Aquinas was the Aristotle of Christianity.  Augustine was less methodical but more emotional and accessible, freely discussing his sinful youth as a lesson to other converts, even in public.  Instead of trying to cover up his sinful, arrogant young life, he admitted his sins freely, and called all people to repentance and salvation. 

This is also a story of the devotion of his mother St. Monica, who ceaselessly prayed for Augustine to believe in the gospel.  In his time, technology and art were largely controlled by the Empire, but attorneys and orators could win fame and fortune as individuals.  We are plunged into Northern Africa before the fall of Rome.  We see Augustine fail to convince a teacher to accept his as a student; then he is robbed and beaten viciously.   Toughened up by this ordeal, he succeeds on his next try to be accepted as a student, and in the Roman tradition he became physically fit and strengthened his body and voice oratory to become one of the finest orators of his time.  But he wasted his talents defending the guilty for the sake of fame.  One of his clients was cleared of attempted murder, only to finish the job after Augustine helped him.  He had no shortage of lovers and friends, but explained in his Confessions that he was abysmally unhappy all those years.  He felt then that truth was whatever a man said it was and that prayers were only magical spells.  His attacks on Christians are reminiscent of St. Paul’s.  In one of the turning points of the film, and history for that matter, when Ambrose and Augustine meet, Ambrose admonishes Augustine, “Man doesn’t find the truth.  Man must let the truth find him.”

God is close to us.  God is more brother than any brother.  He is more friend than any friend. More lover than any lover.”

Eventually his skills bring him to Milan, Italy, to be the new orator for the emperor himself.  He was chosen to challenge St. Ambrose, a popular bishop.  It is strange to see an allegedly Christian emperor challenge a Christian bishop, but this could have been because even pagans listened to Ambrose, who had been given tremendous power by the last emperor.  Just because Constantine allowed Christianity in the empire did not mean that everyone was a Christian or that emperors were virtuous or less ruthless than their predecessors. 

From the beginning, Augustine’s brilliance and ambition cannot fill his emptiness, as though he was too smart for his own good.  Like Thomas Becket, he somehow knew that God was calling him, but did not want to admit the truth to himself.  When the emperor orders his soldier’s to take Ambrose’s basilica by force, trampling innocent people, Augustine has a revelation.  He had encouraged the emperor to do as he willed, but did not realize that this would lead to bloodshed.  Now he saw that the emperor could not be the source of any truth.  Much like Becket, he also had to choose between worldly glory and power, or the honor of God.  Inspired by the writings of St. Paul, Augustine was baptized, and as Ambrose predicted, he would be a great leader and writer in the church. No writer so eloquently expressed how God lives within each of us; we only need to accept him. For this reason, Augustine is considered by some to be the father of psychology, because he understood human nature’s passions and longings and so eloquently expressed the restlessness of the human spirit:  “Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”      

It should be noted of course that some viewers who are not Christian, or Christian viewers who are not Catholic, may not care for the obviously Catholic viewpoint of the film, but Augustine was indeed a Catholic Christian, so it is appropriate that a Catholic company like Ignatius Press would present the film.  There is a very lengthy ad for other products at the beginning of the DVD which cannot be skipped, but again we can hardly blame them for putting this here as other studios often do.  It should also be noted that Augustine founded an order of priests and monks that still exist today, and that protestant leader Martin Luther was an Augustinian. 

The two-disc set has the theatrical and extended versions of the film.  The extended version is just that, it flows better than the theatrical version and fills in transitional details, and I am sure viewers who enjoy the shorter one will find much to like in the longer version.  It does not have very many superfluous moments as do some extended versions.   

Video ***

For the most part the directing is inspired and could almost serve as an ad for traveling the Mediterranean.  But now and then it is obvious that a green screen stands in for the wonderful scenery, and I have no idea why they did this but then went through the time and expense of so many beautiful landscape shots.  Light and darkness are captured well, no artifacts or lighting problems.

Audio **

With an evocative soundtrack that combines the primitive music of those centuries with more modern instruments, the stereo mix is very good.  But the 5.1 mix is another story.  The dialogue is strangely boomy, as though the voices are in a huge echo chamber.  Augustine’s elder self narrating his early life approaches James Earl Jones as Darth Vader levels but much louder in the mix.  It is completely unrealistic and unnecessary and mars the film tremendously in an amateurish way.  And while it has been advertised to have English subtitles, it only has Spanish ones that are called “English” when you select them.   There do not seem to be any English subtitles.

Features ****

The two DVD set includes the 133 min. theatrical version, and the 203 minute full-length original version, with a 24 page Collector's Booklet and study guide by Father David Meconi S.J., professor of Patristic Theology, St. Louis University. This allows the viewer to learn more about this remarkable man and shows that entertainment can be combined with education.  In fact in my own experience as a teacher, entertainment can inspire more learning among all age groups than from reading and lectures along.     

There is also an excellent 27-minute documentary with Father Benedict Groeschel, a well-known personality from EWTN.  
 

Summary:

I told you that courage makes the difference between a great orator and an ordinary one. The courage to live without the truth.  Do you have this courage?”

In the end, Augustine did not have this courage, but was brave and still humble enough to realize that all truth comes from God, and that he could not live without it. 

The Vandal king, moved by Augustine’s pleas for him to be a true leader, decided not to burn Augustine’s library while his troops plundered and destroyed the rest of the town.  Hippo fell, as did the Roman Empire, yet the name and words of its most famous citizen and his saintly, prayerful mother live on.  I highly recommend this film for audiences of any age, to see a sinful man of the world become a great man of God. 

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