Blessed Mary: A Saint for all Australians

Blessed Mary: A Saint for All Australians. Television docudrama hosted by Alan Jones. Starring Octavia Barron-Martin, Gil Balfas and Penelope Rowe. Written by Michael Cove. Directed by Serge Ou.  58 minutes. Rated PG.

Mary Mackillop’s beatification in 1994 produced two excellent documentaries: The Business of Making Saints and MacKillop’s Melbourne; and a feature film: Mary: No Plaster Saint.

Mary’s canonisation in 2010 has seen a MacKillop rose cultivated, a play, Her Holiness, Mary MacKillop - The Musical and more than ten books written. So far there is one more straight documentary, Soul of the Sunburnt Country – the story of Mary MacKillop and the Josephites and this docudrama, Blessed Mary: A Saint for All Australians.

Docudrama is one of the most difficult genres to get right, easily becoming neither a satisfying drama nor a good documentary. But with the resources of The History Channel, Universal Films and Foxtel, the Canberra-based Bearcage Productions have got it just right.Blessed Mary is both satisfying and good.

The dramatic recreations are its strongest element. The acting is especially well done.Octavia Barron-Martin as Mary, with her light Scottish accent, and Gil Balfas, who bears an uncanny resemble to Julian Tenison Woods, give passionate and convincing performances.  Penelope Rowe as Flora MacKillop leads a large and equally enjoyable supporting cast too.

Writer Michael Cove chose to rely heavily on quotes from actual letters from the historical characters, or their descriptions of the events. On the whole, this adds enormously to the authenticity of the drama. Director Serge Ou employs the risky technique of having the characters regularly turn and deliver to-camera statements to the audience. Here it works brilliantly, adding to the power of the story.

Alan Jones as host and interviewer is the glue that holds the narrative together, with commentary from three Sisters of St Joseph, Ambassador Tim Fisher and the Archbishop of Sydney. Indeed some of Cardinal Pell’s public critics will enjoy, nearly as much as the Cardinal seems to, his comments on the leadership styles of Bishops Shiel and Matthew and James Quinn.

The films magnificently outlines how much St Mary of the Cross cared for the rural poor, how she conceived of an Australian Federation long before most others, the injustices she faced and fought especially as a Scot in an Irish colonial Church, and her humility, in the richest sense of that word. I learnt, again, that she stayed in Europe for over two years waiting for the Vatican to rule on her case. They have never been quick.

There are, however, a couple of problems with Blessed Mary: A Saint for All Australiansthat take away from its many strengths. Alan Jones is one of them. Although he is a household name in Australia, he is also a divisive figure. Not being a Catholic may be an asset in selling Mary MacKillop as a saint “for all Australians”, a phrase that is used so often that it ends up sounding defensive, but I think some of Alan Jones’ public stands on a range of social and political issues are irreconcilable with the values St Mary of the Cross espoused, and those which her sisters embody today. This is not being unkind, because the film itself starts by setting up who Alan Jones is, I imagine for an international sale to an audience who do not know him.

Unlike the subject in this film, he is pictured as a friend of celebrities, “Some would say that my life has been blest in meeting plenty of saints and sinners, though, no real saints of course...” Jarringly, Jones goes on, “ When I think of my own life, and when most of us look back on our lives, we think of the real battles we’ve fought, the scraps we got in to, or out of, usually sticking up for ourselves or defending what we thought was right. When I looked into the story of Australia’s first saint, there was plenty to relate to, plenty of battles and they started very early.” The linking of Mary’s battles to that of the host’s is poorly judged. Maybe a less polarising figure would have made a better host.

Furthermore, the film opens with Padre Pio’s canonisation at St Peter’s in June 2002. As venerable as St Pio of Pietrelcina might be, why focus on him? Mary was not a Franciscan. She did not know him. She was not a stigmatic. Maybe it was because he carried the wounds of the mystery she made her own, the Cross, but this link is never made. I would have thought for most Australians he is a very obscure saint with no discernible link to Mother Mary’s story. It may have been that the producers were able to get the footage cheaply.

As much as I liked Michael Cove including words from the letters and diary entries, at least twice characters speak of “Propaganda” as an institution, the meaning of which will be lost on many Catholics and almost all those who are not. Sometimes history needs a little help.

Cardinal Pell is incorrectly described as the “leader of the Catholic Church in Australia”. With all due respect to His Eminence, he’s not. Archbishop Wilson is.

Personally I would have thought that in a film reaching out to an audience beyond the Church, it would have included references to Mother Mary’s great patrons and friends like the Presbyterian Mrs Joanna Barr-Smith and the Jewish Mr Emmanuel Solomon. Rich pickings there.

And though the film gets miracles almost right, it might have been good to tell “all Australians” that Mary Mac does not perform them. God does. Mary is our friend and supporter, praying with us and for us that God’s life may be manifest in all our lives.

But none of these criticisms take away from the soul of the film, which is the woman herself: who was loyal but refused to be mastered by her religious masters; who was a proud daughter of Scotland but loved Australia; who saw beyond sectarianism and religious bigotry to just being friends; and who saw that to be have faith in Jesus leads to working for justice for all, especially the poor.

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Blessed Mary: A Saint for All Australians airs on The History Channelon Sunday, October 10 at 7.30pm (AEDT), with another screening on Sunday, October 17 at 8.30pm (AEDT).  The DVD will available for sale form the 13th October 2010.

 


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