By Elias Savada.
Before Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the ultimately enlightened Pope Francis in March 2013, there were a lot of misguided steps taken on behalf of the Catholic Church by his predecessors. While the mishandling of clerical sexual abuse scandals created too many embarrassing headlines, it was the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, through Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that resulted in a report condemning American nuns for endorsing “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
Radical Grace, the new documentary directed, photographed, and co-edited (with Kenji Yamamoto and Katerina Simic) by filmmaker Rebecca Parrish, tackles the fight for social justice within the Church head on. The film hits the ground running and introduces us to its three main subjects, Sisters Simon Campbell, Chris Schenk, and Jean Hughes (“I have been a Catholic Sister longer than most of those guys [the men running the patriarchal monolith] have been alive”). The quick, urgent spirit in each of these modern-day gals is painted with broad, dynamic strokes, as the film beats down on the conservative bishops who refuse to allow for religious equality.
Sister Simone, a social justice lobbyist for the progressive organization NETWORK (founded in 1971 by 47 American nuns), takes to the streets (on bicycle!) in Washington, DC — where the film has its U.S. premiere at AFI DOCS, following its world premiere at this year’s Hot Docs — as she speaks to Congressional reps about a moral tax policy and health care reform. Sister Chris, a Church reform activist, fan of Caesar Chavez, and executive director of FutureChurch — which advocates for women’s leadership as deacons within the religion’s hierarchy — takes her equality-for-all message from parish to parish. Sister Jean, a Midwestern nun for over 50 years, counsels ex-cons in need of spiritual guidance and dating advice. Many years ago, watching a Cowboys-and-Indians movie changed her Forever-with-God-in-His-Kingdom life.
Unlike many of Hollywood’s depictions of habit-bedecked Catholic sisters through the years (Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story , Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s , Jennifer Jones’ Oscar-winning Saint Bernadette Soubirous in 1943’s The Song of Bernadette, among others), the women in Radical Grace hone closer to the humility embraced by Sister Helen Prejean in 1995’s Dead Man Walking. Susan Sarandon, who won an Academy Award for that role, is the highlighted executive producer on the documentary. It’s a nice stamp of approval for the project, and hopefully will bring a few more people into its audience of viewers.
The film’s initial 15-minute spate of positives (hugs, smiles, common sense) moves into the negatives (the Vatican’s investigation and reprimand) with an array of television commentators observing the hard line attitude by Rome toward the leadership of the 59,000-strong American nuns. The U.S. Conference of (Angry) Catholic Bishops criticizes the nuns for their public statements and “radical feminist” leanings toward ObamaCare. This is politics in its worst disguise. And the ladies stagger under the weight of the disgust thrust upon them.
Parrish provides just a passing historical glimpse into the one-step-forward-two steps-back reforms within the church, focusing instead in the personal stories and commitments of the three nuns and their associates as they strategize their battle plans. The sadness in their eyes is heart-breaking, but the nationwide support for nun justice is quite substantial. Thus the uplifting, steamrolling “Nuns on the Bus” campaign, with its motto Nuns drive for faith, family & fairness, gets receptive stops at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and on Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert late show. No more Vatican-prodded road kill! Let’s make this a rousing road trip!
Whether dealing with health issues or spiritual questions — personally or globally — the nuns couldn’t be in more caring hands than those of Parrish, a self-proclaimed millennial without any religious affiliation. The film she started back in 2011 wasn’t about religion. It was about social justice, until she stumbled upon Sister Jean. After injecting the spiritual angle into her documentary, the Vatican edict came down. The Supreme Court ruled on the affordable health care act. And Pope Benedict steps down. The already interesting stories in Radical Grace took on new meaning and direction, much like the evolving Edward Snowden narrative did in Citizenfour (2014), the Oscar-winning documentary by Laura Poitras.
An unwavering optimism infuses Radical Grace. It’s an inspirational p.s.a promoting faith, hope, and equality, whether you believe in Christ or not. And finally, on the eve of the film’s initial showings, the new Vatican regime agrees that it’s time to right past wrongs.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.