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Review by Alison Sailer Bennett
I had eagerly anticipated seeing Restless Heart (2013) ever since I read about the film’s inauguration at select theaters and churches throughout the United States last year. Someone is making an entire movie dedicated to one of my favorite faith heroes? Holy cow! Like many other people of Christian persuasion, I cherish the story of Saint Augustine, and the filmmakers did, too, as evidenced by the painstaking love and attention they dedicated to this one man’s narrative. But high ambitions don't always bear fruit and so I was very disappointed in the film, which seemed auspicious, especially after overdosing multiple times on the same trailer. I was wooed and promptly dumped.
For anyone unfamiliar with his story, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) was a theologian, philosopher, and father of the Church venerated in both the east and west. He was born in Africa to a pagan father and Christian mother. At the beginning of his young adult life, he devoted himself entirely to intense rhetorical studies at Carthage and learned to argue persuasively against his conscience, indulging his inflated ego in the process. He lived an impassioned life of hedonism and exploitation of women before dabbling in Manichaean philosophy and eventually becoming a very successful orator for the imperial court at Milan. During this time, he encountered Saint Ambrose (340-397 A.D.) whose excellent rhetoric rivaled Augustine’s and eventually impacted his conversion to Christianity in addition to the fervent prayers of his mother, Saint Monica.
While Restless Heart is probably the most accurately condensed narrative of Augustine’s life (if it can be condensed), the problem is that the film is meticulousness at the expense of good cinematography. In addition to running long (two hundred and three minutes if you’re watching the extended version), the film crawls along like a one dimensional, digestible documentary, presenting slide after slide as if the viewers were being shown a PowerPoint presentation. At times, it’s a straight up history lesson about Manichaeans and Arians (early Christian heretics). There’s no guesswork or subtlety in the storytelling that is supposed to captivate the viewer. Although the quality of the actual camerawork, costumes, and sets is fairly good, the narrative of the film feels disconnected from the art of cinematography and consequently fails to utilize its own medium to its fullest potential.
Even when the film attempts to take artistic liberties for the sake of storytelling, they often feel cheesy and contrived and result in oversimplified storytelling. The film opens with a not quite Tolkien-esque scene as Augustine (now an old, sagacious bishop) gazes contemplatively from a tower overlooking the city of Hippo as he and his very attractive niece await invasion of the Vandals (the rest of the movie is a backtracked account of Augustine's life leading up to that point). The epic location returns at the end of the film when Augustine heroically remains in Hippo but commissions his niece and her equally attractive boyfriend to flee on ships moments before the invasion. The city falls and Augustine is presumably martyred, but his books are spared and end up creating “the new world of Christendom” as propositioned by captions at the end of the film. Hot nieces aside, what a romanticized memoir!
Augustine’s life comes across as a neatly packaged historical event when in fact his life and conversion were much more complicated. The real Augustine writes extensively about his deep struggles with succumbing to the lure of sophistry and women but also praying “Lord grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For many years, the real Augustine wrestled with his sins at an existential level leading up to his transcendent conversion. In the film, however, we don’t see much about Augustine’s inner turmoil. He is simply a guy who eventually starts to feel bad for the people affected by his public orations and one day finally decides to convert to Christianity. He wrestles with arguments for truth on an intellectual level and has occasional flashbacks about the events leading up to certain points in his life, but this is the most we see inside Augustine’s process. Thus, I had a difficult time believing any of the moments that were supposed to be transcendent moments because Augustine himself lacks poetic depth.
Additionally, most of the other characters also lack depth and tend to be either “good” or “bad.” Saint Monica is a sterilized specimen of saintly suffering on behalf of her son, at times even overly martyrish. Empress Justina’s craziness is a bit exaggerated. Ambrose is perhaps a believable mix of saintliness and spunk, but still succumbs into the same “good guy or bad guy” categorization like the rest of the characters in the film (the same “good guy or bad guy” dichotomy can more accurately be labeled “good women or bad men”).
One final criticism is really just that the slow pace of the movie at times reminds me of a prolonged Bible film from the 1970s with a Ben-Hur soundtrack. One can only take so much of the generic sounding Middle Eastern music with expressive violins during the dramatic scenes. Even though I had many frustrations with the film, I don't think it was entirely a waste of time. For a movie with decent cinematic quality, a didactic storyline, and some good quotes from Saint Augustine sprinkled here and there, it might be worth the two hours to some people who are not already familiar with his story. I certainly hope this is not the last attempt at portraying the life of Saint Augustine through film because I think that it can only get better. All in all, I was just disappointed by a movie that I hoped would meet my high expectations even though I should have known better.
- Release DateNovember 15, 2013