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Entertaining Angels [DVD]
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The life story of human rights activist Dororthy Day. A Marxist journalist in New York in the early part of the century, Day (Moira Kelly) works for female suffrage. After two abortive affairs, she becomes a single mother, eventually converting to the Catholic faith. Day becomes involved with helping the poor of New York, working in soup kitchens and highlighting the problem in her paper, 'The Catholic Worker'.
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** Produced by Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser (1929-2000)
** Directed by Michael Ray Rhodes
** Written by John Wells
** Run time: 111 minutes
The cast includes the following:
** Moira Kelly as Dorothy Day (1897-1980)
** Martin Sheen as Peter Maurin (1877-1949)
** Lenny von Dohlen as Forster Batterham
** Melinda Dillon as Sister Aloysius (a partly fictional character)
** Paul Lieber as Michael “Mike” Gold (1894-1967)
** Heather Graham as Maggie Bowen (a fictional character)
** James Lancaster as Eugene O’ Neill (1888-1953)
** Heather Camille as Tamar Teresa Batterham (1926-2008)
This movie is a biography of Dorothy Day, who was born in 1897. When she passed away in 1980, she was more than 80 years old. But the movie covers only a small part of her long life. The producers decided to focus on a few selected parts of her life. The movie begins and ends with a scene in a New York prison in 1963. A black woman is being dragged against her will down a corridor and pushed into a cell. Once inside, she realises that she is not alone. Another woman is already there.
This woman – a white woman - is Dorothy, who proceeds to comfort her cell mate. Why is Dorothy in prison? She protested against the hydrogen bomb. The brief scene in the New York prison in 1963 is used to frame the main part of the movie which covers only two decades, 1917-1937, in three sections:
# 1. We are in 1917 and Dorothy is 20. She is in the middle of a demonstration in New York City demanding voting rights for women. In the US, this right was not granted until 1920. Dorothy lives a hectic Bohemian life among poets and social activists in New York City. She is a Socialist, an Anarchist, a Marxist, who has no need for any religion.
# 2. We are in 1926 and Dorothy is almost 30. She lives a quiet life in a beach bungalow on Staten Island, not far from New York City. Here she begins a relationship with Forster Batterham, and she becomes pregnant, but Forster is not ready to commit to a marriage.
By chance, Dorothy meets a Catholic nun Aloysius and after a while she is inspired to convert to the Catholic faith. The baby is born. It is a girl. Dorothy names her Tamar Teresa. The baby is baptized in a Catholic church, but the father refuses to attend the ceremony. He says he is not Catholic. Dorothy becomes a single mother.
# 3. We are in the 1930s and Dorothy is almost 40. She meets a French philosopher Peter Maurin and starts a newspaper, the Catholic Worker. Dorothy is also part of a Catholic movement that establishes hospitality homes, i.e. a place where poor and homeless people are welcome to stay for a while.
What about the title of the movie? Why is it called “Entertaining Angels”? The title refers to the practice of treating all guests – be they kings or peasants – as if they were visiting angels from heaven. This is the challenge for all humble Christians. It is a reference to a passage in the Bible (Hebrews, 13:2).
This movie got mixed reviews. Some reviews are positive, while others are negative. There seems to be a pattern here. Catholic reviewers do not like the first section of the movie where we see Dorothy’s Bohemian lifestyle. They find the second and third sections more interesting. Non-Catholic reviewers take the opposite line: they do not like the second and the third sections of the movie where we see Dorothy’s devotion to the Catholic faith. They find the first section more interesting.
On IMDb it has a rating of 64 per cent, but this average rating covers a mixed pattern of positive and negative reviews.
I do not want to complain about the first, second or third section. This movie is based on a true story and all sections are a reflection of Dorothy’s life. It seems a silly idea to demand that the producers should cut out the first and focus only on the other two. Equally silly is the demand that the producers should do the opposite. It would make more sense to ask if these three sections are a true reflection of Dorothy’s life. In other words: does the movie give us a true portrait of the main character? The more I study this question, the more I am inclined to say that the answer is: no, not really.
In order to explain my answer I will begin by making a few critical observations:
# 1. There is a multitude of people around Dorothy in the first section that begins in 1917 as well as in the third section which is set in the 1930s. Who are these people? It is difficult to find out who is who, because the characters already know each other, so they almost never use any names when they are talking to each other.
But the viewer does not know them, and that is why I think the producers of the movie should help us understand who they are. Let the characters address each other by name, at least the first time we see them. Or use on-screen messages to let us know who is who.
# 2. Peter Maurin appears in the third section that is set in the 1930s. Who is this man? Where does he come from? And why is he suddenly sitting in Dorothy’s home? None of these questions are answered in the movie. We only see him a few times. The viewer may well ask: why is he included? What is he doing in this movie? He does not do anything remarkable – apart from the fact that he eats his dinner extremely fast!
It seems Maurin had read some of Dorothy’s articles; that is why he showed up at her home in 1932. When they met, Dorothy realised that they agreed on many points. Maurin encouraged Dorothy to start a newspaper. Together they co-founded the Catholic Worker in 1933. But the viewer would not know that from watching the movie.
Born in France, Maurin later moved to the US where he would speak English with a French accent. Martin Sheen, who plays Maurin, has a strong French accent in the movie, but this French accent sounds absolutely silly. Besides, we all know Martin Sheen speaks perfect English. So when he tries to sound like a Frenchman, he is not convincing at all.
Why did the producers of the movie pick an American actor and tell him to speak English with a French accent? Why did they not pick a real Frenchman and tell him to speak English with French accent. This would have been much more realistic, more authentic.
# 3. In the first section, Dorothy is a Marxist, but in the second section she turns into a Catholic. How and why does this happen? Why does she convert to Catholicism? We never see or hear any plausible explanation for this change. This part of the movie is not convincing at all.
In the second section Dorothy meets a Catholic nun whose name is Aloysius. This is an odd name to give a nun, because Aloysius is the name of a man. Aloysius is a partly fictional character, based on a real nun whose name is Aloysia, the name of a woman. Why did the producers invent a fictional character with a masculine name, when the character in the movie is a woman? This is very strange.
If we want to evaluate and understand the movie, it might be a good idea to ask: who are the people who made this movie and why did they do it?
First the people:
** Producer Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser was the founder of the Paulist Fathers, a religious order, and the founder of Paulist Productions, which produced a religious television show called “Insight” that ran on US television for more than twenty years, 1960-1983
** Director Michael Ray Rhodes worked with Father Ellwood for several years on his television show “Insight”
** Screenwriter John Wells is the son of Llewellyn Wallace Wells, Jr., who is an Episcopalian minister
** Moira Kelly and Martin Sheen, the leading actors, are members of the Catholic Church
Next the purpose:
Father Ellwood made this movie because he wanted the Catholic Church to declare Dorothy a saint. Becoming a saint is a long, complicated, and expensive process. It is helpful if the public knows the person you wish to nominate. The movie was an important step in this process. Since the movie was made, the process has been moving forward, with support from the top of the Catholic Church in the US. As of today, Dorothy may be called “venerable,” but she is not yet a saint.
Browsing the internet, I came across two interesting reviews of this movie; both of them were published on the same day, 11 October 1996:
** San Francisco Chronicle by Peter Stack
** San Francisco Examiner by David Armstrong
Both reviewers agree that Dorothy is an important person who played a significant role in the modern history of the US. It is not a bad idea to make a movie about her life and career. However, they both feel that there is too much emphasis on the religious aspect, especially in the second and third section of the movie.
Searching for more information, I came cross a book called Catholics in the Movies, edited by Colleen McDannell (2007, 2008). Chapter 11 of this book is written by Tracy Fessenden, who is Professor at the Religious Studies Department of Arizona State University. It is a detailed and very interesting analysis of the movie that is under review here.
Point by point, Fessenden shows that “Entertaining Angels” is a bad movie, that it is fatally flawed. While the movie seems to be fairly close to the true story, a closer inspection reveals that there are in fact many problems.
The short time frame (1917-1937) means a large part of Dorothy’s life and career is not covered at all. As for the two decades which are covered in the movie, it turns out that they are not as accurate as you might think.
Section # 1 about the Bohemian life is superficial. The viewer does not learn that Dorothy was a serious writer and a serious activist in this part of her life. It was not only alcohol, cigarettes, and love affairs.
Section # 2 about the conversion is also superficial. As stated above, the viewer never learns how or why it happened. Fessenden mentions the partly fictional character Aloysius that is based on the real character Aloysia.
Section # 3 that is placed in the 1930 is also superficial. The episode in which Catholic Worker staff wants to close the house of hospitality and focus on publishing the paper is fictional. Catholic Worker staff confirms that hospitality was one issue that was never debated. Fessenden mentions the fictional character Maggie Bowen who seems to be a combination of several real characters who were merged into one by the producers.
Summing up, Fessenden says Dorothy’s struggle against war and her campaign for social and economic justice before and after her conversion to the Catholic faith all but disappears in this movie.
At the end of her essay, on page 273, Fessenden writes: “Surely there would have been no more ruthless critic of 'Entertaining Angels' than Dorothy Day herself.”
As a young women, Dorothy lived a Bohemian life; and not only that: she even had an abortion, which is a major sin, according to the Catholic Church. How can the church recommend her for sainthood? Fessenden also discusses this question. The reason is not that the church ignores the early part of her life; what the church would describe as her sins. The reason is that Dorothy turned her back on this life and devoted herself to the church.
Dorothy has been compared to Augustine of Hippo, who is today known as Saint Augustine. As a young man, Augustine led a Bohemian life, but then he saw the errors of his way, and from that moment he devoted himself to the church.
According to the movie, Dorothy’s life can be described with three words: sin, remorse, and forgiveness. But as Fessenden explains, this view is far from accurate. Dorothy was an activist who campaigned against war and for human rights, throughout her adult life. She was a pacifist and stood by her principle even when the Catholic Church wanted war. She did not want the US to enter World War One, nor did she want the US to enter World War Two.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), when the Catholic Church supported Franco, Dorothy supported the Spanish republic. In her old age, she protested against US involvement in the Vietnam War and against the nuclear arms race. Sometimes she was arrested because of these activities.
But the viewer does not learn anything about these facts, because they have been eliminated from the movie. Perhaps because they do not fit with the message that Father Ellwood wanted to send.
While Dorothy was still alive, people would sometimes call her a saint. She did not like it. She responded: “Don’t call me a saint! I don’t want to be dismissed that easily!” But the Catholic Church does not care about this. The church wants her to become a saint, because the leaders think they can use her name in their future work.
While she was alive, she was a rebel; she would sometimes speak against the leaders of the church. In order to explain this, she would say they are our mentors and our inspiration, but they are not our rulers. Now when she is dead, it is easier for the church to control her. This movie "Entertaining Angels" is one example of their work: a sanitized and purified version of her life and career, which is far removed from reality.
It could have been a great movie. Unfortunately, it is not. I agree with Tracy Fessenden when she says this is a bad movie. It is fatally flawed and therefore I cannot give it more than two stars.
PS # 1. For more information, see the following books:
** The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day (her autobiography, first published 1952, reprinted 2009)
** Dorothy Day: A Biography by William Miller (1982, 1984)
** Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion by Robert Coles (1987, 1989)
** Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her by Rosalie G. Riegle (hardcover 2003, paperback 2006)
** All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest (2011)
PS # 2. “Don’t Call Me a Saint” is a documentary film that was released in 2006; written, produced and directed by Claudia Larson; run time: 55 minutes. Unfortunately, this film is not available from Amazon.
PS # 3. Dorothy lights a cigarette in the opening scene that takes place in a New York prison in 1963. When the black woman is pushed into the cell, Dorothy offers her the cigarette. It is a simple gesture. There is only one problem: it is not true; it never happened. By 1963, Dorothy had stopped smoking. In other words: the friendly gesture with the cigarette in the prison cell is a product of the director’s imagination.
When Dorothy was young, she smoked a lot, like many liberated women did during the 1920s and 1930s. Smoking had been a male prerogative. Liberated women would often smoke in order to demonstrate their independence. Smoking was a visual statement to the world. But by 1963, Dorothy had quit smoking and the director must have known this.
So why did he want Dorothy to light a cigarette? Perhaps he thought the cigarette would help him get a good image. And getting a good image was obviously more important than getting the story right. Historical truth is violated when Dorothy’s face appears on the screen for the very first time. Given this fact, it is hardly surprising that historical truth is violated on several occasions and in several ways throughout the movie.
PS # 4. In one scene, Dorothy says: "When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." While this quote is famous, it is not from Dorothy. It is from another controversial member of the Catholic Church: Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999), who was the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife from 1964 to 1985, while Brazil was ruled by a military government.
PS # 5. The 1917 demonstration for the female vote (shown in section # 1) did not take place in New York City, as claimed in the movie. It took place in Washington, DC, in a park opposite the White House, because this was a protest against President Wilson. This case is one more violation of historical truth.
It is the story of Dorothy Day,a little known woman in GB,but well loved in the USA.Only half her life is crammed into this film,but enough is shown for the viewer to understand that this was no ordinary woman.She was a journalist as a young woman,and she had lived through the San Francisco earthquake,when she lived with her family as a child.The newspaper her father printed was one of the tragedies of the natural disaster (although this was not shown in the film)
Day became a lifelong Catholic after working alongside a Nun in a Church near to where she lived on the beach of Staten island.She had a disastrous first love,that ended with an abortion.Her 2nd love,would not commit to marriage but she did have a child by him,and that went some way to fill the gap left by her abortion.
Her part was played by Moira Kelly,and the inspiration for her love of the poorest that were found in the filthy back streets of down town New York, was the result of her meeting an itinerant French Theologian,played by Martin Sheen..Between them,they fed the hungry,and cared for the sick,the alcoholics,the starving..........they lived their lives by adopting Christ's impassioned Sermon on the Mount.
A very moving film,that hopefully may inspire us as well.I always think when I see a beggar or a vagrant,that "There by the grace of God,go I!"
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