We get lots of stuff at America: press releases from Catholic colleges, books from Catholic publishers and, of course, letters from subscribers both pleased and angry at what we publish. Mostly the letters are friendly, charitable and pleasant. Only rarely are they vituperative. Still, even nasty letters can be fun. Once, after writing a television review, I received a note that read, in full, “Re: your article. Saint Ignatius would vomit you out of his mouth.” A little over the top but, I had to admit, a vivid and even biblical image. A few months after I wrote an article on Opus Dei, America’s editor at the time, George W. Hunt, S.J., penned a column saying that I was leaving the magazine staff to begin theology studies. This prompted one reader to write that while he was happy I was leaving America the magazine, he would be much happier if I left America the country.
Lately we have also been receiving invitations to movie screenings, that is, advance showings of upcoming films, usually held in a small theater somewhere in Manhattan. This is a good opportunity to see a movie that might well prove important for the Catholic community, like “The Passion of the Christ.”
But as I am not the film critic and could never do as fine a job as Richard Blake, S.J., does, I always tell the studio representatives not to expect any reviews. For some reason, however, the studio flacks never seem to hear this. “That’s okay,” they’ll say. “Come anyway.” Then, the day after the screening, I’ll invariably receive a phone call. “So,” they’ll say, “when’s your review coming out?”
All this has taught me to be careful about saying yes. But when I was invited to a screening of a new movie about the cult of the saints by Danny Boyle, the director of “Trainspotting,” I couldn’t say no. The prospect of the creator of a film about Britain’s scabrous drug culture taking on the story of a little boy’s relationship with the saints proved irresistible.
“Millions,” which will be released this month, is the tale of 7-year-old Damian, whose mother has recently died. His hardworking father, struggling to care for Damian and his older brother, has just moved his family to a brand-new house near Liverpool. Early on we learn that Damian, a bright lad at All Saints School, has a strong devotion to the saints. When his teacher asks the class to suggest current-day heroes, and the rest of the students offer soccer players, Damian pipes up with St. Lucy. He happily tells his listeners how she is pictured carrying her plucked-out eyes on a plate. “That’s enough, Damian!” says the horrified teacher. The rest of the class shouts, “Eeewww!”
One day Damian builds a cardboard fort near his home, by the train tracks. (The director is apparently still a train fan.) Miraculously, or so it seems, a huge suitcase of money, full of millions or at least thousands of British pounds, is tossed onto his fort. What will Damian do?
It is here that the movie becomes especially moving. Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say that several of Damian’s favorite saints appear and offer some homey advice about his newfound wealth, his family and his life. St. Francis of Assisi reminds him that there are plenty of poor people around to help. The Ugandan martyrs (singing as they work in the fields near his house) tell him how grateful they are for simple things, like rain. St. Joseph even offers Damian some stage directions for the school’s Nativity pageant. My favorite part of these apparitions is Damian’s absolutely joyful recognition of his friends. “Clare of Assisi!” he shouts, like any schoolboy happy with knowing the correct answer, “1194 to 1253!”
What a pleasure it was to see a movie that portrays saints as both intercessors and companions, to borrow the framework from Elizabeth Johnson’s recent book on the saints, Friends of God and Prophets. If I were a film reviewer, I would say this: “Millions” is a beautiful and touching film. Take the kids. Take yourself. At the very least you’ll get some good news about heaven. “Of course you can smoke up there,” says St. Clare as she puffs contentedly on a cigarette. “You can do anything you like!”