Although this biopic of the founder of the Jesuit order premiered last summer, I only had a chance to see it this past week. Writer-director Paolo Dy’s film was shot – in the English language – in Spain and the Philippines under the auspices of the Filipino Jesuit Communications Foundation (JesCom Films). It’s unlikely to be on a screen at your local Cineplex, but – as I’ll explain towards the end of this review – you can take the initiative to arrange a screening for your church group or other Catholic organization.
And I urge you to do so because this is a Catholic film that stands head and shoulders above any I’ve seen in years. It’s both truly Catholic and first-rate cinema.
The film begins with fire and water – a leitmotiv throughout. One goes into the fire of conversion and emerges through the baptism of new life. Iñigo Lopez de Loyola (played the Spanish actor Andreas Muñoz) unfolds like a flower opening in scorched earth – he is a soldier proofed like a sword in flame then shoved into water to forge its strength. This is actually the way the scene culminates, and it’s powerful.
The story of Loyola, a Spanish nobleman, broken by war, who goes on to found the Society of Jesus, is like many true tales of conversion: from Augustine to Merton, but especially St. Francis of Assisi before him and Charles de Foucauld after, who were also soldiers for whom the deep wounds of war led to a deeper conviction to serve Christ. Like Augustine, Loyola lived a somewhat carnal life until he was severely wounded in the Battle of Pamplona in 1521.
Ignatius of Loyola was shot for about $1 million** (chump change in Hollywood), but whereas in some low-budget films war scenes are unremarkable, they’re not in this one. Well, some of the special-effects shots are stretched a bit thin (you don’t expect F/X on a par with, say, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, with its ten-times larger budget). But overall the battle imagery is powerful – not least in the depiction of the aftermath, when Loyola’s shattered leg, which gave him a limp for the remainder of his life, must be set and then broken again and reset. These scenes owe a great deal to prudential direction by Mr. Dy and the cinematography of Lee Briones Meily.
But it’s the performance of Mr. Muñoz that makes these scenes and, indeed, the whole of the movie work so well – makes it gel. His is a performance that could easily have won an Oscar nomination if Academy members had seen the film. And other actors in Ignatius of Loyola are nearly as good – good enough to deserve an Ensemble Cast nomination at the Screen Actors Guild Awards – if those folks had seen the film.
Agony is probably easier to “act” than tenderness, and one scene in the film – in my opinion, the best – is between the war-weary Iñigo and a prostitute, Ana. His brother and cousin have brought him to a brothel, hoping to raise his spirits after the war. They don’t know that he has heard Christ’s call. Sitting on Ana’s bed, he refuses her advances, instead wanting only to talk – something no man has ever asked her to do.
Ana (played by Marta Codena) and Iñigo talk about Jesus. As Loyola does with others throughout the film, he asks her to use her imagination – to see Jesus sitting in a chair in her room. Iñigo’s conversion is well underway; hers is just beginning. Ana’s face (well, Ms. Codena’s) is transformed first by fear and then by hope – so too is Mr. Muñoz’. It’s as emotionally powerful a moment as I’ve seen on screen in years; its stunning subtlety hits like a shockwave.
Shortly thereafter, Loyola sets out to follow in the bare footsteps of St. Francis. He serves the sick and dying in a hospital in Manresa, Spain, and he lives many months in a cave – torturing himself and being tempted by a devil (also played by Mr. Muñoz). Self-flagellation scenes always suggest a kind of madness, but the result of Iñigo’s anguish is almost total sanity. This leads him before the Inquisition.
And this is odd, not because it didn’t happen (it did), but because the inquisitor who tries Iñigo (for preaching without having a theology degree or being in Holy Orders) is Alonso de Salazar Frias. But Frias (played by Gonzalo Trujillo), known as the Witches’ Advocate, wasn’t born until eight years after Loyola’s death. (Perhaps there was an earlier inquisitor named Frias, but, if so, I’ve found no reference to him.) No matter.
As the story unfolds, we see Loyola writing – a journal of his life (that would form the basis of his autobiography) and his Spiritual Exercises. Conversion can be described as dying in and for Christ, and, in a sense, Loyola developed a formula for doing just that – a disciplined process by which everything is seen through and given to Jesus Christ.
The film ends without telling the story of the founding of the Society of Jesus and the remaining decades of Loyola’s life, so we may hope for a sequel – maybe with a flashback to his journey to the Holy Land. And that sequel will happen, I suspect, if enough people see this film. Ignatius Press is making the movie available for sponsored theatrical screenings by any Catholic organization. Information about that can be found at IgnatiusMovie.com.
Ignatius of Loyola is rated PG-13, largely for that flagellation. Among the cast not yet mentioned are the lovely Tacuara Casares as Princess Catalina, the able Javier Godino and Mario de la Rosa as Loyola kinsmen, the elegant Isabel Garcia Lorca as an early patron of Iñigo, Julio Perillán as the Dominican who defends Iñigo before the Inquisition, and Pepe Ocio as a comrade-in-arms, whose death haunts the future saint and propels him toward God.
** Director Paolo Dy tweeted to me a correction on the film’s budget, which I originally had at $13 million. It was just $1 million, making his achievement all the more remarkable.