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Julien Duvivier’s Films of Religiosity
Uploaded 4 March 2022
Over the course of the years from 1927 to 1929, Julien Duvivier directed and wrote three films with overt religious subject matter, all of them very much personal projects, products of his Jesuit education: L’Agonie de Jerusalem/Revelation (1927), Le divine croisière/The Divine Voyage (1929), and La vie miraculeuse de Thérèse Martin/The Miraculous Life of Teresa of Lisieux (1929). All are included on Flicker Alley’s Blu-Ray Box Set, Cinema Discovery, which I wrote about in 290. Ben McCann in his Senses of Cinema piece on Duvivier also mentions in his trio of religious films, Credo ou la tragédie de Lourdes (1924), which seemingly concerned an atheist medical doctor who witnessed miracles at Lourdes but is seemingly lost, and the Blu-Ray pamphlet does not include the title in its selected filmography.
Interestingly, just like his American counterpart in the religious pictures business, Cecil B. DeMille, Duvivier sprinkled very secular marital melodramas and comedies in between. While Duvivier’s gentle comedy of Belgian manners, Le marriage de Beulemans (1927), is all about class difference, his later two women’s melodramas, Le tourbillion de Paris (1928) and Mamam Colibri (1929), feature upper-middle class wives who eventually return home, humbled and humiliated, after straying from their marital bed. DeMille’s marital comedies, e.g. Why Change Your Wife? (1920), and social melodramas, like The Golden Bed (1925), are, likewise, morality plays of strained or broken marriages that ultimately reaffirm the protestant ethic and marital fidelity. DeMille’s dramatizations of the Bible, whether The Ten Commandments (1923) or The King of Kings (1927), take the Bible at face value, God’s logos translated into Evangelical visions of Old and New Testament narratives, presented with spectacular special effects.
Duvivier proceeds differently. Each of his deeply Catholic films offers a different meditation on religiosity, faith, and the acceptance of miracles. While L’Agonie de Jerusalem visualizes a personal conversion to the Catholic faith at the very site of Calgary, Le Divine Croisière illustrates the simple faith of a parish priest and his poverty-stricken congregation, personified in the refurbished image of Stella Maris. La vie miraculeuse de Thérèse Martin faithfully portrays the life of a very young women, Thérèse of Lisieux, who joined the Carmelite order in Normandy and was canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.
While various „Passion Plays“ had been popular at the end of the 19th century and Pathé and Gaumont ‘s Life of Christ (1905-1906) remained in distribution for years, overtly religious films were few and far between, both in Europe and Hollywood. The first wave of religious films appeared shortly before World War I with Sidney Olcott’s Kalem Company production, From the Manger to the Cross (1913), which eschewed the painted sets of earlier passion plays and included many scenes shot on location in Palestine, followed by the Italian import, Quo Vadis(1913), produced in eight reels and running an incredible two hours and fifteen minutes. Based on the monumental novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, first published in 1908, Quo Vadis’s success encouraged the production of feature-length films worldwide. A second wave of religious films began appearing in the United States in 1924, after the incredible success of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which itself was cashing in on a wave that had begun in Europe a year or two earlier with the Italian-produced epic, The Bible (1922), and the Austrian-produced Sodom and Gomorrah (1922). Internationally, a host of other Christian films were produced, including Natan der Weise (1922), I.N.R.I. (1923), Quo Vadis (1924), Moon over Israel (1924), Ben-Hur (1925), and Noah’s Arc (1928), the failure of the last-named film indicating that the wave was spent.
L’Agonie de Jerusalem relates the conversion to Christianity of a French anarchist and atheist, who is blinded in a Parisian riot and returns home to his deeply religious parents, who literally live on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem. Although there is a strange subplot concerning an anarchist plot to blow up the damns on the Jordan River, – Duvivier again mixing genres – the film’s main action concerns the prodigal son’s halting acceptance of God, his sight restored on Good Friday after he dreams of seeing Christ’s passion at Golgotha. Much of the film was shot on location in Jerusalem, allowing Duvivier to present numerous biblical sites and stories, including Christ giving a blind man his sight at Jericho and Judas kissing Christ in the garden. All of which gives credence to the anarchist’s conversion in those “holy” places. Seeing the light, the hero joins a modern-day procession recreating the Passion ad locum. Today, we can feast our eyes on tourist views of late 1920s Jerusalem.
While Christ’s Passion is at the center of L’Agonie de Jerusalem, Le divine croisière centers on a firm belief in the Virgin Mary, also known as Stella Maris or „Our Lady Star of the Sea.“ A wealthy ship owner forces his crew to sea in an unseaworthy vessel and seemingly lost. The ship owner’s daughter, however, is devoted to Stella Maris – she is restoring a painting of her in the parish church – and convinces the townspeople to send out another ship, the Stella Maris, and thanks to the crew’s fervent prayer to the Virgin, they find the lost ship and return home. Unlike the previous film, there are no Biblical recreations – Stella Maris’s painted image does come to life at one point – but the film is suffused with religious faith while observing religious and other family rituals of a small fishing village with an almost neorealist eye and certainly an anthropologist’s.
Finally, La vie miraculeuse de Thérèse Martin is ostensibly a bio pic of the then newly sanctified St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The film begins with her parents, who both attempted unsuccessfully to join the Carmelite Order, but raised five girls, four of whom eventually join the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, as the Carmelites are officially known; their first monastery, the Stella Maris Monastery, was founded on Mount Carmel. The parents, Zélie and Louis Martin were canonized in 2008, the first set of spouses ever to be declared saints. But it is the passion of Thérèse, who suffers pain, isolation, boredom, guilt, cold, and deprivation. She enters the Order at the age of fifteen, receiving special permission from Pope Leo VIII, her anguish at losing her sister Pauline to the Order, then her own entrance into the Order. Duvivier visualizes the Church’s religious rituals around Thérèse’s Postulancy and Novitiate with ethnographic accuracy, while the film‘s most dramatic scenes involve Thérèse’s self-doubts, her wringing with the devil, and her death at the age of 27 of tuberculosis in 1897.
Similar to Duvivier’s use of dissolves and superimpositions in his silent melodramas to visualize subjective states of mind, Duvivier makes use of similar techniques here to stage religious epiphanies, e.g. Louis Martin with a cross, his suffering equal to that of his daughters. Even within realistic film narratives, then, Duvivier profitably employed expressionistic devices to give material form to faith. More than twenty years later, Duvivier would recreate the village priest from Le divine croisière in the guise of Fernandel as Don Camillo.