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Decent 'Therese' falls short of transcendence

The account of a saint's life settles into an exercise in piety.

October 01, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Although Therese Martin's "Story of a Soul" has been translated into 60 languages and has sold a reported 100 million copies since its 1898 publication and led to Martin's canonization in 1925, Leonardo Defilippis' film of her brief life will be best appreciated by devout Roman Catholics. (The film in fact opens on the day of the Feast of St. Therese.) Although decently acted and well-crafted, "Therese" is essentially an illustrated Sunday school lecture for true believers. It comes across as more an exercise in determined piety than an evocation of the transcendent spirituality that suffuses the films of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer, which have an overwhelming impact even for audiences that are not conventionally religious.

The first part of the film depicts the childhood of Therese (1873-1897), as one of five daughters of the widowed Louis Martin (Defilippis). Since they live in a handsome manor house outside Lisieux, France, the Martins appear to be landed gentry, but Martin in fact was a watchmaker and apparently very successful. The Martins, however, seem to do very little of anything except to be kind and solicitous of each other, with Louis puttering in his garden, with Therese (Lindsay Younce) helping out from time to time. In this intensely devout family, Therese, who at 4 was deeply affected by her mother's untimely death, increasingly became drawn to living her life as a cloistered nun in a nearby Carmelite convent, a desire intensified by an older sister joining the order. (Ultimately, all five sisters would become nuns.)

Therese audaciously but successfully petitions the pope in Rome to allow her to join the Carmelite order at the tender age of 15. The film becomes a trifle livelier at this point as the pampered Therese struggles to adjust to hard work and the foibles of the other nuns. Along the way she begins to think about "the little ways to get to heaven," the daily acts of thoughtfulness, kindness, forgiveness and self-sacrifice she puts into practice in her daily life at the convent, that will become the basis of her autobiography, completed shortly before she died of tuberculosis. (Therese coughs up a storm, making Camille seem a piker in comparison, but nobody seems to take much notice, until she collapses.)

Therese Martin clearly led an exemplary life, but this film is unfortunately pretty lifeless. Younce's Therese seems self-absorbed, so focused on the afterlife that she shows little interest in what life has to offer beyond opportunities for gestures of self-sacrifice. Although production notes suggest that the sisters actually had differing personalities and temperaments, on screen they are bland to the extent that they are virtually interchangeable. There's no question that Defilippis means to celebrate the life of St. Therese of Lisieux, but instead he embalms it.



MPAA rating: PG for mild thematic elements.

Times guidelines: The heroine's agonized death scenes may be too intense for children.

Lindsay Younce...Therese Martin

Leonardo Defilippis...Louis Martin

Jen Nikolaisen...Celine Martin

Linda Hayden...Pauline Martin

A Luke Films presentation. Director Leonardo Defilippis. Producers Brian Shields and Lourdes Ambrose. Executive producers A faithful patron of St. Therese of Lisieux and the Carmelite Sisters of San Diego. Screenplay Patti Defilippis. Cinematographer Lourdes Ambrose. Editor Bob Brooks. Music Sr. Marie Therese Sokol, O.C.D. Costumes Judy Newland. Production designer Andrew Baklinski. Art director Timothy Baklinski. Key set decorator Hilary Brink. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

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