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The Inner Ignatius

New movie of Jesuit founder shows his depth and determination

By Brian Caulfield, FFG Editor

Lavish when you would expect it to be spare, understated when you would expect caricature, a new movie on Ignatius of Loyola is both surprising and inspiring. I would even call it a great example of its genre if for no other reason than that movies like this are rarely made these days. But its quality goes beyond its novelty.

“Ignatius of Loyola” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco) reclaims a great tradition of religious filmmaking by portraying the humanity of the main character as something sacred and transcendent, and treating the pomps and works of the devil as real in both the physical and psychological realms. This movie tells in stark, often earthy terms the story of a courageous yet sensitive soul, through a study of the intellect and will of one of Christianity’s great saints.

Played by Spanish actor Andreas Muñoz, Ignatius begins as a heroic soldier of great skill and rash tactics who dreams of knightly service. There are flashbacks to his childhood when his father schools him in swordsmanship and manly valor, telling his son with equal doses of severity and sweetness, that a Loyola “never looks down.” The athletic Muñoz portrays well the proud and impetuous soldier, yet also evokes an interior depth to bring the viewer through his character’s difficult religious conversion, which casts Ignatius as a ragged beggar, a meticulous diary keeper, and a master disciple and teacher of the spiritual life.

The cinematography, sets, dialogue and actors are all high quality, yet the production values do not call attention themselves but fit in nicely with the story. If you are like me, you will dream of a number of the movie’s more striking scenes by night, and debate in your mind the finer theological and psychological points of the plot by day.

And what of the plot? It engages the mind and the senses and expresses great respect for its subjects, both Ignatius and the Church he seeks to serve. The writings of his diary and what would become known as his Spiritual Exercises are presented in detail and quoted at length to reveal the inner man and advance the plotline of his life. The film takes his writings seriously, as intelligible aspects of his soul. In fact, throughout the story, words are key, as they should be in a Christian movie that draws its ultimate meaning from the Word made flesh. Words on the lives of the saints move Ignatius to abandon his warrior's armor and take on his Catholic faith anew as a knight of Christ. Words vowed to a princess bind him to secrecy even at peril to his life. The words of his Exercises land him before the Spanish Inquisition, which seeks to determine if his novel spiritual methods are orthodox or sinister. He is asked to abjure in words his writings before the court and his silence may condemn him. In the end, a respect for words and their sacred character inform the inquisitor’s judgment and lead to Ignatius’ release.

To the great relief of an informed viewer, the Inquisition scenes, which take up the final third of the film, do not descend to caricature. The inquisitor is a young, even-tempered Dominican who wants to get to the truth about this curious character before him, a layman who teaches his own ideas about discerning God’s voice. Ignatius’ stress on individual judgment, though based on biblical principles and stories of the saints, sounds very much like the Lutheran principle of private judgment, especially to clerics seeking to stem the tide of the growing Protestant revolt. Though threatening Ignatius with the stake, the inquisitor gives him a fair hearing, and explains that his greatest concern is for the souls of simple believers who may discern apart from the guidance of the Church. In the end, the sober Dominican reads Ignatius’ diary and is convinced of his sincerity and the orthodox sources of his insights.

Some Catholic reviewers have judged the compelling scene of Ignatius’ mountaintop struggle with the devil to be exaggerated or even embarrassing to the faith. I would say that if a Christian has not experienced the devil as a threatening presence that can insinuate its voice into the mind, perhaps that person has not taken strong enough action against the gates of hell in his private or public life. Nonetheless, if you want to join arms with a great saint in a perpetual spiritual battle, see this movie.

Produced by Jesuit Communications Philippines (JesCom), “Ignatius of Loyola” was shot on location in Spain. Parishes, schools, Catholic organizations and other groups can host a screening. For information visit the movie’s website.