The Holy Fool on Screen


January 19, 2016

Saint or psycho?

The Holy Fool is a man or woman perceived as foolish in the eyes of the world but who is, nevertheless, an unnerving presence. Both in the Christian East and West, there is a long tradition of such individuals who witness to a spiritual reality beyond this world. Periodically, they appear on screen. Of these film representations, three examples are discussed below. Be forewarned. There are spoilers ahead.

Our first movie comes from Protestant northern Europe. The 1955 Danish film Ordet was an unexpected commercial and critical success. It is the work of the legendary filmmaker Carl Dryer, who, from the 1920s on, made one film every decade. This film, like his most famous work The Passion of Joan of Arc (1926), lets the audience share the interior suffering of the drama’s protagonist. The overt drama of the 1926 film is replaced in Ordet by something seemingly more mundane but in the end just as dramatic. As one would expect in a film about Calvinist rural folk, it is as simple in look as the piety professed. The world depicted is self-contained: the audience sees a prosaic lifestyle shot through with constant references to the Bible. All this is about to be split asunder.

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The Borgen family members are farmers. The widowed head of the family is staunch in his beliefs, if doubtful of the real power of God. His children reflect this position also if to varying degrees. His eldest son no longer believes; his youngest goes along unthinkingly with his father. The middle child is different, however: Johannes has lost his mind. We learn later that he was a student of theology and that too much Kierkegaard caused a breakdown. He has retreated from the world and now, intermittently, emerges from his room quoting Sacred Scripture in mournful lamentation. Like some prophet of old, he appears perturbed by the lack of faith he sees all around. Increasingly, he disturbs both believer and unbeliever alike.

At first, his repeated and unexpected appearances seem to disrupt the story. The experience is something akin to listening to music with another discordant theme continually breaking in. The film slowly builds, however, and, as it does, Johannes begins to move in the audience’s mind from irritation to curiosity. In a film where unattractive religious quibbles over the Saved and the Damned are on display, and where the new pastor appears to have little to say other than platitudes, we have in the background an increasingly compelling voice crying in the wilderness. Its sound starts to entrance. This is especially so in the pivotal scene about childbirth where, with the possibility of new life or death, Johannes talks to the daughter of the woman then in labor and his presence becomes more than reassuring—both it and his words start to transcend what is taking place. What happens next, worthy of a place in the same canon of the unexpected as Les Diaboliques or Psycho, is surely one of the most unforeseen occurrences in cinema.

All the compromises and half-hearted attempts to engage with faith and its promises are here but so, too, is a radical alternative to unbelief. The film’s ending changes everything, leaving the audience gasping as much as its characters. Wisely, Dryer lets the action and Johannes’s final intervention occur and then abruptly ends the film as new found words of faith still ring out. Life and death, faith and unbelief, the cross and the resurrection all are here. This is filmmaking that makes you think, and possibly pray. In the microcosm of an ordinary life, Dryer lets the extraordinary, the truly miraculous, break in through the words and actions, and above all the presence, of one despised by that world as a fool.

From a remote and distant part of Denmark we travel to England. It is the early 1960s and the Boulting brothers have been making a series of light-hearted films about the British way of life. These were all satirical, mocking various institutions and the class system that underpinned them, at a time when a seemingly new, and more egalitarian order was emerging. Having lampooned the military, labor relations and the Foreign Office, the brothers turned their attention to the Church of England. Peter Sellers, not yet the international star that he would become with his next film, The Pink Panther, starred in the brothers’ 1963 film. Heavens Above! was a small, very British comedy with most of the characters well-worn stereotypes: hypocritical churchgoers, grasping rich and feckless poor, all watched over by an indifferent clergy. Into this mix, steps the new vicar, Reverend John Smallwood, played by Sellers, who, by a clerical error, is mistakenly sent to the town of Orbiston Parva.

Smallwood’s accent is the first thing his new parishioners notice. It is decidedly “common.” Furthermore, his amiable manner, like the man, is soon dismissed as of little consequence. In John Smallwood, we have the Holy Fool. To this role, Sellers brought his particular genius. Much is made of his comedic talent, but he himself saw his gift more as a comic actor rather than a comedian. His performance in Heavens Above! is a perfect example of this. There are few “jokes” because the whole thing is one big joke.

Needless to say, the world of Orbiston Parva is turned upside down by the arrival of Smallwood, especially when he decides to live the Gospel radically. Housing the homeless in his own rectory, feeding for free anyone who comes along, the church is soon packed. But soon too the local business owners are up in arms as the local economy is upended; something must be done, and so his bishop asks to see this controversial cleric. Thereafter, the problem of Smallwood is solved, by appointing him the first Bishop of Outer Space. By then, in any case, the experiment he started in Christian living has failed. We see how those he helped were only ever interested in helping themselves. Later, we watch as the new bishop is dispatched to his diocese on a space rocket having offered himself as a substitute for a would-be astronaut unable to go through with his mission. Smallwood goes to the heavens, still smiling, singing the hymn, Praise My Soul the King of Heaven

The movie’s origin was with the then Anglican Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge had thought up the idea that later became the basis for the script. In addition, he makes a cameo appearance in the film. The whole venture was supposed to be a biting satire on the Church of England. It is a little bit too mired in stereotype to achieve that. It was also a critique of the then increasing reliance on prescription drugs—tranquilizers were in vogue—and attempts to equate religion with such drugs as just another means of escape. None of this quite works, mainly because of Sellers. His Rev. Smallwood is just too good a man. He is a Holy Fool let loose in England as the new culture of the 1960s took hold.

Actors inhabit roles. Sellers did so with Smallwood. As always, he took the preparation for the part seriously. In this case, however, he had something to draw upon. Although his mother was Jewish and his father nominally Anglican, the young Sellers was sent to a Catholic school. Whilst there, he was exposed to Catholicism, learning his catechism like all the rest, as well as falling under the kindly influence of a religious brother named Cornelius. Many years later, on the set when he had been made up to look like Smallwood, Sellers realized that staring back at him in the mirror was none other than that same Brother Cornelius. The movie star would keep in touch with Brother Cornelius throughout his life, and on a number of occasions even discussed becoming Catholic. In 1980, at Seller’s memorial service in London, sitting amongst the wealthy and the famous was Brother Cornelius, no doubt still praying for his former pupil.

Our last film is from 2006. Leaving the green and pleasant English Home Counties, we head for the snow covered landscape of northern Russia. Ostrov (The Island) was a sensation upon release. Much lauded and a success at the box office, some credited it with a revival of interest in the Russian Orthodox Church.

It tells the story of another Holy Fool, Anatoly, one very much in the Russian tradition. He is not only a man of deep faith but also one who “fools” with the pomposity and lack of faith that he encounters in others. This is a man who directly challenges the self-deception he sees in others, denouncing any sham faith. Take, for example, one of the opening scenes from the 1970s. A Russian woman comes to him for a blessing on the abortion she is about to have. He rebukes her strongly and tells her he “will not bless murder.” She cries, and tells him no one will marry her. He replies that that is precisely why she was given the gift of a child. She relents upon her earlier decision and he chases her away, but the point has been made: a life rescued and a soul saved.

From the start, the back-story of Anatoly is known. An act of cowardice three decades earlier during the Second World War haunts him. His living a semi-eremitical life at an island monastery has been one long act of penance. Often on screen we witness him alone, reciting Psalm 50 or some other penitential prayer. He prays for release from the guilt he suffers about his past. His prayers are strangely answered when a man arrives with his “sick” daughter. Immediately, Anatoly realizes that this is not a case of ‘sickness’ but one of possession. Stranger still, in this encounter and the exorcism that follows, not only is the demon that torments the woman exorcised but also the demons that have haunted the exorcist for over 30 years.

Ostrov is the cinematic equivalent of The Philokalia. At times both odd and challenging, it is, nevertheless, suffused with an uncompromising faith that leaves one feeling that faith is really all that matters in this life. In some ways, the movie is art imitating life. The lead actor, Pyotr Mamonov, whilst accepting awards for his portrayal of the Holy Fool, would condemn modern Russia’s various “idolatries” and urge an end to abortion. This was not as surprising as it may at first seem since Mamonov’s own life journey was more Holy Russia than Soviet Union. During the 1980s, he had been a rock star. He was not only famous in his native U.S.S.R. but, unusually for that time, abroad as well, working with such rock luminaries as Brian Eno. During the 1990s, however, Mamonov underwent a radical conversion to the Orthodox faith. Turning his back on his former lifestyle, he left Moscow to live in a remote village where he remains to this day.

Whether it is on screen or in real life, the Holy Fool remains a sign of contradiction to the world.


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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