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Joseph of Cupertino, a simple young man thought by many in his village to be an idiot, is pressured to enter a monastery. He does so, and surprises everyone by passing the entrance exam to study for the priesthood. But this is only the first of many surprises from the man who would become Saint Joseph Cupertino. Written by
Dan Navarro <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The Reluctant Saint is a film based on the life of St. Joseph Desa of Cuppertino, who reputedly did some involuntary feats of levitation while at prayer. In the next century he was canonized a saint by the Catholic church and today is the patron saint of both aviators and bad students.
Maybe today we would say Joseph suffered from attention deficit disorder or maybe he was a milder case of the idiot savant syndrome that Tom Hanks portrayed so well in Forrest Gump. At any event he's considered the village idiot. There are some funny moments at the beginning of the film, especially where Joseph loses control of a donkey and he's dragged through the vineyards, tearing up the fields. In watching that, I swear Maximilian Schell must have watched some Jerry Lewis movies to get it right.
But there's a lot more to Joseph than that. His parents finally prevail upon an uncle who's a priest to take him into a monastery. And he's just as bad there, except when he finally is transferred to the stables.
The key scene of the film for me is when a traveling bishop comes to inspect the monastery. The stables he finds are an unsightly mess and the other monks start to berate him. But the bishop played by Akim Tamiroff sees that Joseph has stayed up all night trying to help a ewe deliver her lambs. He says that Joseph is just the kind of person we need in the order, one who St. Francis of Assissi would understand.
Later on the Bishop at dinner that night gets very bored with a lengthy dissertation on the Trinity goes out to the stable where Joseph is still caring for his animals. Turns out the Bishop comes from just such a peasant background as Joseph and relates to him as no others have ever. He mentions to him that even he has problems understanding the concept of the Trinity. Joseph then takes his blanket and folds it twice and says this is the trinity, one blanket, three folds.
Right then and there the Bishop knows that this young man is not the idiot everyone takes him for. He becomes his friend and patron.
I saw this film in theaters back in 1962 when it first was released. Starring the man who had just been named the Best Actor of 1961 for Judgement at Nuremberg, you would have thought it would have been given more publicity. But it was playing on the bottom half of double bills which we had back then. I can't remember what was the feature attraction. But I never forget Maximillian Schell's simple explanation of the trinity.
And it's hard to believe that the erudite and articulate defense attorney of Judgement at Nuremberg is also the Forrest Gump of the Counter Reformation. But that's how good an actor Maximilian Schell is.
Up to the point of the trinity explanation, the audience is seeing Joseph through the eyes of all around him as a simpleton. After that we see and adopt Akim Tamiroff's point of view. The rest of the film concerns the incidents surrounding the reported levitations.
Schell and Tamiroff head the cast of mostly players from the Italian cinema. The only other name that Americans would recognize is Ricardo Montalban who plays a priest who remains unconvinced to almost the end of Joseph's worth. Schell, Tamiroff, and Montalban should all be proud of the work they did here.
This is a really fine, but sadly neglected film.
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