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A LOVING, TOO LITERAL LIFE OF A SAINT

Movie Review

"Therese" ***

Therese Martin, born in Normandy in 1873, entered a cloistered Carmelite convent at age 15 and lived within its walls until she died of tuberculosis at age 24.

"Therese," a historically precise 90-minute movie biography of the saint, based on her book, "The Story of a Soul," opens with 4-year-old Therese's blissful but bizarre remark to her mother on a perfect summer day, "Oh mama, how I wish you would die!" This is greeted with gentle smiles after the child explains that she wishes total happiness in heaven for her beloved mother.

Next scene: Mama is dead, and Therese is devastated. She adopts oldest sister Pauline (Linda Hayden) as her new mama.

School is a challenge. Therese is a know-it-all in religion class, and the nun's announcement that all the pupils except Therese must write a one-page paper as punishment unleashes a tsunami of eye rolling and sighing, that, in my personal experience of Catholic school under the fierce Franciscans, would have resulted in liberal application of the yardstick.

So Pauline home-schools the pretty Therese (played by Lindsay Younce, who has obsidian Josh Hartnett eyes) in their countryside house. The furniture, frocks and food would make Merchant-Ivory jealous.

The Martin house is stuffed with statues, and their blank, painted faces are often framed in lingering shots. One almost expects them to speak, but they are immobile.

And therein lies my one real disappointment with this small, fervent film.

A movie made in 2004 might attempt to illuminate such moments as Therese's "miraculous and mysterious Christmas conversion."

Therese is weeping bitterly upon overhearing that her father was actually Father Christmas. Then Therese kneels before a crucifix, the light changes, and she pronounces herself in love with Jesus, whose work she must begin immediately.

A life-changing spiritual enlightenment should be demonstrated by more than a shift in the light, shouldn't it?

The plot continues apace. The youngster pleads with Pope Leo XIII until she is dragged from his feet by the striped Swiss Guards. After her wishes are granted and she goes to the cloister, she cleans badly, spills food and confronts the various stereotypical convent characters -- the proud, underhanded sister, the cranky old nun, and loving mother superior.

Therese tames her spoiled willfulness and embraces them all, and when she begins coughing, we know that her death from tuberculosis is not far off.

It would be miraculous indeed to even glimpse the inner spiritual life of the saint who wrote, "I have never wished for human glory, contempt it was that had attraction for my heart; but having recognized that this again was too glorious for me, I ardently desire to be forgotten."

So far, "The Little Flower" has not gotten her wish, and this loving, if a bit too literal, story of her life makes it less likely.

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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