Slow moving, clumsy, but well meaning--these same adjectives could be applied to both the film The Reluctant Saint and its main character. Directed by Edward Dmytryk and released in 1962, The Reluctant Saint is the story of Saint Joseph of Cupertino, the legendary Catholic figure who was also referred to as "the flying friar." His nickname comes from the supposed divine miracle that caused him to float in the air while in the throes of prayer. Some believed this to be the hand of God, others were not so sure. The movie ends up with the believers, though not without putting Joseph through a few trials.
Maximilian Schell stars in a role that requires him to go from being the village idiot Giuseppe Desa to the revered religious icon. In this version of events, co-written by acclaimed author John Fante (Ask the Dust), Giuseppe is the imbecilic only son of a mismatched pair. His father is a drunk, and his haggard mother (Lea Padovani) has enough on her hands without having to worry about where Giuseppe has gotten off to. At her wit's end, she convinces her brother (Harold Goldblatt) to accept the manchild into the Franciscan order where he is a priest. This takes some doing, and there is some resistance from Don Raspi (Ricardo Montalban), who takes his calling to the priesthood very seriously. Eventually, however, Giuseppe is seen by a visiting Bishop (Akim Tamiroff), who sees his innocence and his way with animals as a true callback to Saint Francis of Assisi. He shepherds Giuseppe forward, leading to the miraculous levitation.
As I said, The Reluctant Saint means well. Capturing this kind of faith for non-believers can be a difficult proposition. Ricardo Montalban may be speaking Latin, but it's all Greek to me. To accept this story of belief requires a suspension of my own disbelief...and Dmytryk is at least partially successful. His smartest move is portraying the other monks as human, with all the imperfections that term implies. They react to Giuseppe as most of us would, and so as Giuseppe earns their confidence, the movie labors to earn ours, as well. Dmytryk is a confident director with an assured hand, and he stages his early scenes with a crafty humor that slowly paves the way for the piety that comes later.
The main credit for pulling this off belongs to Maximilian Schell. The veteran actor delivers a remarkably complete performance. Giuseppe says little, but he does plenty, and Schell portrays him as a sort of slapstick comedian, borrowing gestures and pantomime from silent-era superstars. Actually, Schell's Giuseppe is a bit like Harpo Marx, just without all the skirt chasing.
Most of The Reluctant Saint is sweet, displaying a good heart, only bereft of any internal spark. It works fine as is, but the technique is rather lacking in inspiration for a film that is supposed to be inspiring. Things get interesting near the end, when Montalban challenges Giuseppe's miracle and subjects him to an exorcism, but the outcome never really seems in question. You'd think Dmytryk, who had his own problems with the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, might have had a little more gravitas to bring to this portion of the movie. Don Raspi's rejection of not just Giuseppe's flight, but his acting on the very principles of the Franciscan order, represents a particularly unctuous hypocrisy that Americans have known all too well. Unfortunately, the director decides to play it down a safe middle. Giuseppe's vindication is meant to be a miraculous moment, but it passes so quickly, it doesn't take hold before the final shot of the film, which nearly fifty years later is now humorous not just for the intended joke, but for its bad special effects, as well.
The Reluctant Saint is part of the Columbia/Sony Pictures movie-on-demand program, released in conjunction with the Warner Archives. In short, this means it's a DVD that isn't being mass produced, but is instead being made to order for cinema fans who want to pay a premium to have a copy in their collection. Made as a blue-backed DVD-R, it comes with no frills, with little by way of restoration.
The widescreen transfer is fairly good, with only minor scratches or print damage. Blacks aren't very deep, but the balance in the photography is good and the image is clear. The only real complaint I can see is some blocking during more complicated scenes.
The mono mix sounds very good, with no hiss, stray sounds, or off tones. Dialogue is clear, and the music comes through nicely.
Just a theatrical trailer.
Rent It. Edward Dmytryk's 1963 film, The Reluctant Saint, does a good job of tackling some difficult-to-portray religious material, but perhaps is too reverent where it counts. Maximilian Schell turns in a fantastic, physical performance as Saint Joseph of Cupertino, the village idiot who eventually rose to sainthood--quite literally, if you believe the stories of his levitating during religious ecstasy. The Reluctant Saint has some humor and some heart, and Dmytryk treats the material seriously, but it's kind of bloodless, particularly when the story itself turns dark.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.