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Thérèse: Sacred Art on the Silver Screen
By Maria Johnson
St. Thérèse of Lisieux has long been one of the most popular Catholic saints. Her life and message are now on the big screen.

Q U I C K S C A N

Saintly Dramas on the Stage
Story of a Soul
Days of Grace and Challenge
Making a Difference

Father Sebastian Vazhakala and Mother Teresa

Photo from Luke Films

In the cultural battlefield of Hollywood, there are Davids and Goliaths. Leonardo Defilippis, director of the film Thérèse, has brought forth the Little Flower as the newest “David,” poised to let this film fly against the typical fare Hollywood puts out.

This month, movie history will be made, albeit in a “little way.” Hollywood’s first nonprofit, fully donation-funded film will hit theaters in a limited release of Thérèse, the story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Her life—and this film—shine with a “transcendent desire for heaven,” Defilippis says in a phone interview with St. Anthony Messenger. “Therefore, very much like an icon, this movie, Thérèse, is a window to heaven.”

Though usually viewed only as a saint with a wimple, a dimple and a smile, Thérèse can resonate with young people as a woman their age, with firm purpose and spirit, a woman of fire and courage and great, grand dreams.

It is not only the youth who can identify and be touched by the saint’s life. “Thérèse is for everybody,” Defilippis says. “She needs to be for the prisoners, for the sinners, for the total atheists, because that’s the way she was. Her history proves it.”

Defilippis hopes Catholics will support his film, which gives an image of holiness that even the smallest child can try to follow.

Thérèse may be a heavyweight among Catholic saints, but in Hollywood’s industry of power and fame, her virtues are mocked. Choosing this countercultural saint, however, as the subject of Luke Films’s first major motion picture is not taking a leap of faith for Defilippis. He has bucked the culture for 25 years, and gives no sign of stopping.

Saintly Dramas on the Stage

St. Luke Productions, the parent company of Luke Films, is one of only two Catholic theater companies in the nation. Based in Beaverton, Oregon, Defilippis and his co-workers tour the country putting on one-person dramatizations of the lives of saints, spanning the centuries from St. Matthew to St. Maximilian Kolbe.

Defilippis describes a poetry reading of the saints which inspired St. Luke Productions: “I memorized a whole piece on St. Francis, which eventually became the show I did the most. And the last piece I ever read in that poetry reading was Thérèse.”

He started to dramatize the story of St. Francis, but then decided to begin at the source of Francis’ spirituality, the Gospels. From this first production, The Gospel of Luke, the company takes its name. From there, his work flourished, with dramas on the Confessions of St. Augustine, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, performed on stage by Maggie Mahrt.

Defilippis’s skill and Shakespearean training are evident. In a performance of Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz in 1998, with only a flip of a two-sided cape and a contortion in his thin, expressive face, Defilippis transformed from a humble friar with facial tics to the harsh, sneering German commandant.

But Hollywood is a far cry from life on the humble parish stage. Defilippis has seen the track record of other recent Catholic films: Gospa, Entertaining Angels and Romero. But it was the financial and spiritual success of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ that led Defilippis to release Thérèse now. Comparisons will be made between these two Catholic movies of 2004. Both were independently funded and produced. The Passion was bankrolled by Gibson himself, no mean feat in a multimillion-dollar industry. Thérèse was supported by individual contributions, raised a dollar or two at a time. Both relied on word of mouth to generate publicity. Gibson was helped by the media controversy over anti-Semitism, but Thérèse has had no such conflict. Her cause is supported by the hundreds of thousands of faithful who venerate this saint.

He hopes Thérèse’s story will be similarly popular, although he knows Gibson’s success in making it out of “our little bubble of Catholic world” was unusual. “I think [people] see in her...that real, feminine love that pierces....She somehow disarms you and you cannot help but like her. Even though many people say she is sentimental, when you surrender to her...she will wound you with her love,” Defilippis says.

Thérèse is popular even among non-Christians. “Why do Muslims like her? I think it’s because...this is a person who practices what she preaches,” he affirms.

“I think so many people in the world have given up on holiness or goodness,” Defilippis states solemnly. “Thérèse says, ‘I’m weak, and God took this weak person and used me.’ She always gives hope to people.”

Despite Thérèse’s popularity, some might scoff at this movie’s budget of a shoestring and a prayer—and call it an impossible dream. But people also said that about Thérèse entering the Carmelite convent at age 15.

Story of a Soul

The story of Thérèse’s life is well-known by most Catholics. She grew up as the youngest in a devout family. Her mother died when Thérèse was four and she was cared for by her sister Pauline. Less well-known is the fact that Thérèse was spoiled by her father and sisters as she grew up, until the night of her “Christmas conversion” in 1886.

In a phone interview with St. Anthony Messenger, Lindsay Younce, who plays Thérèse in the film, tells the backstory of the saint’s change of heart. Thérèse’s father, played by Defilippis, didn’t put presents in her shoe one year at Christmas, thinking she was too old for such things. “Her automatic response...was, like a child, to cry,” Younce says. “But then when she was in her room, she looked up at the cross and saw Jesus there, spreading his arms out, being crucified, and all of a sudden realized how selfish she had been.” From that time, she tried to live her “little way” of ordinary works done with great love.

The youthful Thérèse entered the Carmelites after petitioning even the pope for admittance. Once there, she lived in obscurity. If her sister  Pauline had not asked Thérèse to write her Story of a Soul, she might still be hidden in the Carmelite registry as a nun who lived and died young, doing nothing remarkable.

In life, Thérèse desired to be a missionary, to “preach the gospel on all five continents at the same time.” After her death, her relics, which circulated recently around the world in a very popular tour, could visit only one country at a time. Now, through the medium of film, Thérèse’s original missionary dream of going out to all the continents simultaneously can be fulfilled.

Days of Grace and Challenge

The concept for the movie sprang from a deep love for the saint by Patti Defilippis, who “has an incredible devotion to Thérèse,” according to her husband. In the midst of life as a homeschooling mom of seven children, Patti wrote a piece that led to the stage dramatization of Thérèse and the screenplay for the film.

Leonardo and Patti have had extensive communication with the Carmelites in the United States. This relationship, which inspired the production on John of the Cross, led to Thérèse. “When we did the film,” Defilippis says, “they were our backbone. They were all praying for us, and they donated all the authentic habits and props and everything Thérèse would have had at that time. They were our historians, in a way.”

They opened their Eugene, Oregon, monastery to Younce, who stayed with them during the filming. She says, “They are beautiful, beautiful women.”

The preparation for this film was intense and painstakingly accurate to the Carmel of Lisieux in the 1880s. But the driving force of the movie is not how accurate its depiction of the laundry room is, but rather how vital and true the characters seem. Much research was done on Younce’s part to assume her role.

Younce is a recent Catholic convert from the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. She knew almost nothing about the saint before seeing Thérèse’s relics in her parish in January 2000. That sparked some research on her part, but whatever she learned was forgotten until preparing for auditions.

Thérèse is Younce’s first film. A graduate student at George Fox University with a degree in drama, she says her previous experience was limited to “mainly theater for four or five years.”  In the auditions for the film, she tried out for Celine, Thérèse’s sister, but was called back to read the leading part. “I thought they were crazy,” Younce says frankly.

But Leonardo Defilippis knew what he wanted. In the cast notes on the film’s Web site, he mentions what piqued his interest in Younce’s audition: “It was her vulnerability. She was listening with an understanding that was very, very deep.”

After receiving the leading role, Younce prepared by reading everything she could get her hands on about Thérèse: “I read Story of a Soul, and then read it over and over during the filming. I read biographies of her. I think the most helpful work besides Story of a Soul was her Last Conversations, the record of what Thérèse said at her death.

“She said some of the most profound things as she was dying,” says the 22-year-old actress. “She was in the most suffering and was experiencing such a time of spiritual darkness, that she clung to the hope of Jesus Christ.”

Filming this death scene was particularly moving for many of the cast and crew members. As Younce remembers, “I was nervous about it because, of course, I had never died before, so I didn’t know how.” She particularly noted the reverence on that day of shooting. “A lot of times...it’s not quiet for the actors to focus. But that day we did the death scene, everyone was extremely respectful and quiet, and there was a feeling of reverence throughout the set. I really felt God’s presence then.”

The emotion of that scene was experienced not only by the technical crew. “[At the screening] in Rome, there were archbishops, cardinals from all over the world....The amazing thing is to see them all crying at the end,” Defilippis says.

“It’s one of the most moving death scenes of any character. I think it’s because we have grown with her.... You’re with this young person who is trying to die so courageously, and yet is so weak. And then she has an ecstasy of God....We have the privilege of watching this person die.”

Intermingled with the glory, there were days of endless struggle. “On the shoots you might lose locations or days, or all those normal things that make movies so dangerous. That’s why most movies don’t make it. They fall apart, especially independent films, because of mismanagement or bad calculations or bad weather. You lose all your money,” Defilippis adds, pointedly.

And Luke Films didn’t have much money to begin with. Funds were raised $5 or $10 at a time, built on the tithes of a 14-year-old and the Starbucks sacrificed by a 30-year-old. Defilippis says, “To the movie industry, and to the world, it might look like weakness, and in fact, we are weak....But that weakness is also our strength, because that’s how Thérèse worked.”

In an industry where a couple thousand dollars is treated like pocket change, the technical quality of this film is nearly miraculous. Defilippis adds, “We got Hollywood involved in this to bring it to the professional level that it is, and an artistic piece.”

The same simplicity of trust that Thérèse had is guiding Defilippis into the phase of promotion and distribution. He is not blind to the difficulties, but calmly trusts that God will provide.

He states, “The thing that’s kept me going is Thérèse’s words, ‘You have to have confidence in God and no other.’ And I think that confidence, and that we did the movie in a spirit of prayer, is our saving grace....We make this effort not so much for ourselves, but for her [Thérèse]. Those challenges are always going to be there.”

Now that filming and production difficulties are surmounted, the last hurdle is distribution. “It’s as big a struggle to get the movie distributed as it is to make it,” Defilippis says. Theaters are unwilling to pick up a film that they fear will be a box-office flop. In fact, since completing the film’s editing, Defilippis has spent a year acquiring sufficient funds to distribute the film properly.

Making a Difference

That’s where Defilippis calls on young people to make a difference. Young adults fuel Hollywood by going to the movies. From Hollywood’s point of view, teens are shallow people. Judging from monetary support, they are interested only in action and amoral films.

But Defilippis believes young people want a deeper, more spiritual film. He may be right: Consider the popularity of the “See You at the Pole” movement among schoolkids to pray and the millions celebrating their Catholic faith at World Youth Days.

Defilippis says, “This is a unique opportunity for the World Youth Day movement of the pope to rise up and say, ‘Yes! We have depth, we have spiritual integrity and we want to see something different! We will support this young woman who is our age.’”

Thérèse, the saint and the woman who plays her, are examples for youth. Younce is a woman young girls can look up to and emulate. Her spirituality and the intensity that Thérèse showed in her life are based on her hope for the future.

Younce says, “I identify with how Thérèse longed to be a saint, but felt so helpless. She wanted to do great things. I feel that in my own life there are so many things I want to do and so many passions I have. I feel Jesus is calling me in all these different directions and I don’t know which one to choose. But Thérèse realized that her true vocation is love, and whatever Jesus wants her to do, that love was how she was supposed to carry out those things.”

Speaking about the impact Thérèse will have for Catholics, she remarks, “I hope this film will help Catholics light the fire within themselves....I hope that they are inspired to have faith in their own faith...and reach out in service and love to other people.”

But Thérèse does not limit the message to her own creed. “No matter what faith background you’re from...you can understand the power of love. You can understand that, if you start to love others more than you love yourself, you’ll be a better person, and communities of people will become stronger and better places,” says Younce.

It is in that hope of making a difference that Defilippis urges the Catholic Church to rally behind this film. The message of Thérèse deserves wide reception: “All of us can realize the existence of God in our pilgrimage here on earth and, despite our weaknesses and faults, we truly can have a loving relationship with Christ,” Defilippis says.

After watching the screening, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago said, “It’s not what you’re going to learn about Thérèse, but what you’re going to learn about yourself.”

As Defilippis puts it, “This is like sacred art. It is not a painting of Cézanne or van Gogh; this is like a Fra Angelico or Michelangelo. There is something spiritual in there. It’s like...a window to heaven. That’s what this movie is about and what Thérèse’s life is about, really; making us think of heaven, which is thinking of others.”                                       

Thérèse opens on October 1, her feast day. It is being publicized primarily by its Web site, www.theresemovie.com. The number of hits on the Web site will determine Thérèse’s potential and how many theaters will carry it.


Maria Johnson graduated in May 2004 from Franciscan University of Steubenville, with majors in theology and literature. She was a summer intern with St. Anthony Messenger in 2002 and 2003. On October 2, Maria Kemper and Wayne Johnson will marry. She is using her new byline.


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