Saint Ralph — first impressions

I just skimmed through my friend and colleague Steve Greydanus’s review of Millions, the delightful new fable by Danny Boyle. (How can you tell it’s by Danny Boyle? Because, like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary and perhaps some of his other films as well, a fair chunk of the story involves a bag stuffed full of money.) In his final paragraph, he states:

Millions is a rare and special family film: a moral parable rather than a morality tale; a film that combines high ideals and hard realities; a story of hope and faith in something more than Santa Claus. Which is not to say that Santa Claus, or rather St. Nicholas, doesn’t show up. But when he pops on a bishop’s mitre rather than the familiar red Santa hat, it’s clear we’re not in Hollywood movieland here.

Amen to all of that. And now I wonder what he would make of Saint Ralph, a Canadian film about a 14-year-old boy who attends a Catholic school (the film has a title card for each month of the school year, and each title card names a patron saint who has a feast that month), and who thinks he can heal his mother by running the Boston Marathon, and in which “God” speaks to the boy wearing a Santa suit, but without the beard.

Why does Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher) believe he can wake his mother (Shauna MacDonald) from her coma? Because the nurse (Jennifer Tilly) tells him the doctors said “it would take a miracle” for her to wake up, and because Fr. Hibbert (Campbell Scott), the priest who oversees the running exercises at school, tells him it would be a “miracle” if any of the boys in his care were to win the Boston Marathon. If Ralph were to win the race and heal his mother, it might also earn him some sort of redemption at school, where he is constantly being reprimanded by the principal (Gordon Pinsent), an irrationally harsh and dogmatic authority figure who keeps looking for ways to expel the boy, supposedly for his own good.

Written and directed by Michael McGowan, who is otherwise unknown to me, Saint Ralph comes from what we might call the Catholics-need-to-lighten-up school of film-making. At various points, characters quibble over the differences between venal sins and mortal sins, etc.; there is much mirth at the expense of Catholic approaches to sexuality, including their rules against “self-abuse” and teenagers touching each other through their clothing; and the “good” priest is the one who tells his students about Nietzsche while the “bad” priest is the principal who opposes this.

To be fair, though, Fr. Hibbert does declare at the end of the film that he hadn’t really believed in much of anything before, but now he does, and perhaps we can read into this the idea that his earlier teaching methods reflected his lack of belief; I especially like the way Fr. Hibbert’s punchline makes a point of extolling Christ over Nietzsche. Scott plays the scene beautifully, and it’s a shame Pinsent has to play such a one-dimensional ogre opposite him; the fact that Pinsent’s character has a change of heart in the film’s very last moments is not a sign of dimension, but more a sign that nothing and nobody is invulnerable to the film’s feel-good vibe.

At any rate, whatever its merits may be, I still can’t help lumping this film in with others in which questions of childhood and faith are more gimmicky than inspired. I can’t think of anybody I knew back when I was 14 who would have thought winning the Boston Marathon was a “miracle” on par with healing the sick, much less anyone who would have actually become a contender there after only a few months of training. And the fact that the child actors are all somewhere between average and mediocre just makes the story that much harder to swallow.

Watching Saint Ralph, I kept thinking back to Millions, which succeeds where Saint Ralph fails precisely because it sees the world through the eyes of a child (and in a way that is absolutely, convincingly childlike), and also because it just flat-out goes for the magic and gives the saints their own objective reality, whereas Saint Ralph hedges its bets and tries to hint at magic while staying within the tidy boundaries of that which can be rationally explained. (After bumping his head, Ralph may think he sees God in a Santa suit, but that doesn’t mean he’s actually there, does it?)

Saint Ralph played at the Toronto film festival last September, but I am told it won’t open in regular theatres here until April 8 — by which time I will probably have forgotten all about it. Meanwhile, Millions, which is already open in the States, will be opening here next Wednesday — and I’m rather looking forward to seeing it again.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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