Earthly Saints

Review by Hannah Ruth Earl

There’s a stirring scene in St. Vincent, a modern model of pastoral care unlike anything I have seen on film. The humility of a pair of clergy during counseling proves aspirational to ordained and lay leaders alike. Filmic depictions of clergy activity are scarce; more infrequent still are these scenes helmed by such a remarkable talent as Theodore Melfi.

The narrative is uncomplicated. A recently separated mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves to Brooklyn with her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). She enrolls him in the local parochial school, where he is exposed, seemingly for the first time, to religious precepts. In need of after-school childcare, Maggie reluctantly turns to next-door neighbor Vincent (Bill Murray, positively sterling). Yet Maggie soon comes to question Vincent’s crotchety, unruly influence on Oliver, as well as Vincent’s relationship with the enigmatic Daka (Naomi Watts). As Oliver learns of Vincent’s life and past, he understands Vincent anew.

St. Vincent
Directed by Theodore Melfi
The Weinstein Company

Melfi’s skill lies in combining a bracing intelligence with a pathos that is sneaking. The film’s simple structure allows for an uncommon depth in this genre. Details are its gems, and benefit from more than a single viewing. St. Vincent has earned nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Beautifully shot and thoughtfully directed, St. Vincent marries offbeat originality to a widely appealing plot. This itself is a feat, but Melfi makes it all look seamless.

St. Vincent is the rare film — a comedy, no less — that bristles with theological robustness. Part of its setting reflects what early Christian education should strive to be: an environment of grace born from right conviction. It’s telling that this educational foundation executes the film’s climax and theme. The sincerity of religious authorities in the film is thoroughly admirable. St. Vincent quite simply understands these functions of the Church.

Much has been said about the dearth of commitment in North American culture, but few films have addressed the problem with real nuance. St. Vincent refreshingly rejects the Church as social club; mercifully, we do not choose our pewmates. In this way the film forces realistic reflection on the nature of our ties: our obligations, our chosen communities, our unchosen bonds. Even more astutely, the film questions our motivations for and methods of loving. Against contemporary sensibilities, St. Vincent frowns on autonomy as well as isolation. Truly, one is not saintly alone.

As the title suggests, the film offers its most direct theological contribution on the subject of sainthood. St. Vincent’s vision is more at home with the Church Fathers than the saccharine version of sainthood peddled in pop culture. The film teaches that the path to embodied holiness is arduous, and that saints are distinguished by their difference in devotion, not their perfection. Saints are earthly.

Cheers for St. Vincent’s quiet offering of neighborly redemption.

Hannah Ruth Earl, a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School, lives in Los Angeles and works in independent film.

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