Saturday, August 12, 2017

Léa Pool's fine nostalgic drama, THE PASSION OF AUGUSTINE, makes its U.S. VOD release

"We're going to fight -- for our convictions, for our girls, for our music, for everything we believe is right." So states the nun in charge of the Catholic Convent School that doubles as a music academy for talented girls in the hinterlands of Quebec. The time in the 1960s, when lots of change was afoot in the U.S., Canada, and pretty much all western democracies. And while the film -- THE PASSION OF AUGUSTINE -- might initially seem one of those us-against-them melodramas that pits the good guys (in this case, girls) against the bad, the subject matter here is actually much broader that merely that: the necessity for, along with the difficulties and growth that can come, via change.

Made in 2015 and winning seven Quebec Cinema Awards (formerly the Jutra Awards), the film is directed by the Swiss-born Léa Pool (shown at right, who has worked as filmmaker in French Canada for, I believe, most of her career) and written by Pool, together with Marie Vien. Ms Pool has given us a number of fine narrative and documentary films, including Lost and Delirious and Pink Ribbons, and I would count The Passion of Augustine among her best. Pool and Vien tells their story, which includes a rather large cast of characters to meet and get to know within a mere 103-minute time frame, succinctly and well, broadening the scope sufficiently so that we can understand in both the small and large picture, as well as what is really at stake here.

The lead character is the music-loving nun, Mère Augustine, in charge of the school and the girls who attend it. As played, and very well, by Céline Bonnier (shown above), this character, whom we get to view warts and all (humility, as Augustine's nemesis points out, is not her strong suit), makes a terrific heroine to take us through these changing times, as politics, religion, education, sexuality, and feminism were all jostling for position during this fraught decade.

How the filmmaker engages us with all this is quite nicely handled, never pushing too hard, while allowing us to view and understand both sides of each question that arises. We get a good sense of the school's student body (above), with special emphasis on one new student, a niece of Augustine (Lysandre Ménard, two photos below), who is also something of a piano prodigy, even as we enjoy meeting and appreciating the alternately funny and moving group of nuns, below, who work so hard to make certain this unusual school succeeds.

A higher-up member of the local archdiocese wants to close the school, so the die is soon cast in terms of antagonist/protagonist, even as that new student must face not only a major musical competition but the growing sickness and possible death of her mother. All sorts of change is on the horizon, including a "shocking" new dress code for the nuns, and Ms Pool handles all of this with humor, charm and the kind of quiet understanding that avoids melodrama.

As it reaches its most interesting, believable and in no way foregone conclusion, the movie is satisfying on a number of levels. Dialog is smart and true, the direction is appropriate but un-showy, and performances are fine, right down the line. (The musical score also includes some lovely renditions of Chopin, List and Bach.)

When, toward the film's end, someone suggests, "Have faith in the future," us older folk may quickly recall the 1960s and realize how easy it was to feel that way back then. Now? I'm not at all convinced (though I might be more so if I lived in Canada).

From Under the Milky Way and Solaris, The Passion of Augustine, in French with English subtitles, will make its VOD debut nationwide on all major platforms this coming Tuesday, August 15.

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