Fisher Family Mandatory Lent Film Party has been kind of a bust this year. So far we have only watched the second half of I Prefer Heaven, which we started last year and watched on the Formed app, and The Reluctant Saint (1962). We watched that on Tubi; it’s also currently on Amazon Prime.
What I know about Joseph of Cupertino is basically: He was Italian, known as kind of a simpleton, and he levitated. I don’t know how biographically accurate the movie is; I’m just reviewing what I saw. Here’s the trailer:
Here’s the plot:
Giuseppe is a grown man living with his impoverished mother and no-good father in 17th century Italy. His mother has been keeping him in school because she can’t figure out what else to do with him, because he’s so slow-witted and accident prone. She manages to palm him off on some Franciscan friars, who reluctantly allow him to tend the animals; but even there, trouble finds him, partly because, while some of the men are patient and kind, others are resentful and suspicious of his foolish, forbearing ways. He happens to meet and impress the local bishop, who is also of peasant stock, and who sees value and worth in Giuseppe’s simplicity and devotion. He directs him to study for the priesthood, to the horror of everyone including Giuseppe himself.
His studies are a disaster, but when he reports for his preliminary examinations, the one scripture passage he is quizzed on is the only one he happens to know: about the lost lamb that the shepherd goes to find. So he’s doomed to study for another year, with even more esoteric books, and when he arrives in the city for his exam, the interlocutor turns out to be his old friend the bishop, who immediately lets him pass.
But in the mean time (I may be slightly scrambling the order of events, but it doesn’t matter much), Giuseppe has taken up the slightly disturbing habit of floating up into the air when he prays. The fellow who previously considered himself Giuseppe’s rival tells the whole town that this is because he’s a saint, and the people swarm the monastery, begging for healing. One of his superiors (played by Ricardo Montalban), who has always eyed Giuseppe with suspicion, now believes that his powers must come from the devil, and Giuseppe is forced to undergo an excruciating exorcism. When it is completed and he is declared free of possession, he immediately begins to levitate again, and his persecutor realizes his mistake and repents.
In the final scene, we see Giuseppe integrated happily into the community, accepted and valued at last, processing with them and chanting, and blissfully floating away, only to be tugged like a balloon gently back to earth by the very man who accused him of being possessed.
It’s a dated movie. The characters speak with accents to show they are Italian, and moments of divine intervention are indicated by blinding light and loud, heavenly choirs. Giuseppe’s intellectual state is portrayed in a way that may make modern viewers squirm.
That being said, I give the actor, Maximilian Schell, full credit for taking on a kind of role that wasn’t really a thing at that time, and generally lending the character a dignity that’s probably ahead of its time, despite the plot relying heavily on comedy.
Early on, it’s a little painful to watch Schell’s grinning, fumbling performance. It’s almost like the beginning of an Adam Sandler movie, where you think, “Oh my gosh, is he going to act like this the whole time?” But either the acting gets better or you just begin to accept it within the world of the movie, because it does get less uncomfortable.
It’s not entirely clear what Giuseppe’s intellectual capacity is, but he’s constantly mocked, abused, and bullied, and he tries his best to accept it with good humor. There’s some indication that he struggles with treating people well when they abuse him. It’s a comedy, overall, bbut you do feel how badly he wants to belong somewhere and be useful somewhere; and you feel how painful and awful it is for him to be dragged away from his happy world he’s found in the barn with the animals, and to have to be in a monk’s cell studying books he doesn’t understand; but you also see that he does it out of obedience and humility.
Giuseppe is the patron saint of aviators, which is cute, but at least as he is portrayed in this movie, I think he would be especially dear to people who never feel like they belong or fit in or are in the right place, and never feel like they’re good enough, and are trying very hard to humbly work with the hand they were dealt.
One thing I liked very much was the character of the bishop. Catholics and anti-Catholics alike generally take the shortcut of almost reflexively showing hierarchy as bad guys — but Bishop Durso (Akim Tamiroff) is so affable and lovely, it’s like balm for Giuseppe to have such a good friend. I love that he readily (correctly) identifies Giuseppe as a “true son of Francis,” and it’s pleasant to see another such man in the role of bishop. (I generally find it comforting to realize that, just like today, the church has always struggled with religious orders straying from their charisms, and has always had a problem with internal jealousy and competition and infighting cropping up in otherwise sound groups; but God, then and now, continues to raise up good, solid men and to place them where they need to be at the right time. The movie doesn’t necessarily draw this theme out; maybe it’s just something I especially needed to see right now! Nevertheless, it is there in the story. )
There was very little discussion of spiritual things in the movie, that I can recall, and that was a good choice. I mean there is, but Giuseppe doesn’t come out with any maxims, corny or profound, about God’s love or intentions; you can just tell from the expression on his face that he’s very devoted to Mary, that he tries very hard to be good, that he works hard to forgive people when they wrong him, and that it’s a constant sorrow to him that he’s always failing at what he tries, but he does love life all the same. All this makes it immensely gratifying when he eventually does find his place at the end. It’s not excellent acting, but it’s good enough. It works.
There is no explanation or theorizing, that I can recall, about exactly why he levitates. It makes life much harder for him! It’s not something he would chose for himself. The very first time it happens, the movie (not especially creative in its cinematography in general) depicts this by showing, not him, but the statue that has sent him into ecstasy. We see it from his point of view, first over his head, then only slightly overhead, and then at face level, and that’s how we realize he’s rising into the air. This is clever, because it avoids what could be a clumsy-looking special effect of him dangling in mid-air, and it also invites us to see the phenomenon from his point of view: Just something that is happening, utterly out of his control, and who knows why. I’m not trying to read too much into it. I just appreciate that this is a movie that keeps things simple and doesn’t try to go beyond its own means. Levitation is weird. It’s something that Giuseppe just has to accept, and, well, so do we.
When you see him levitating when he’s facing the altar, saying his first Mass, his face almost distorted with joy, it’s a short scene but quite powerful. It shows something you maybe don’t think about very often: What it feels like to be a priest. Or maybe what it ought to feel like?
The only thing I had a quibble with is when the bishop, in the middle of their lovely nighttime chat while roasting chestnuts, admits to Giuseppe that’s he’s never really understood the trinity. That’s fine, but then Giuseppe blithely explains it by saying that it’s like his robe: You fold it into three, and that’s it: Three folds, one robe; three persons, one God. The bishop says “Brilliant!” Well, actually that’s the heresy of partialism! So if you’re watching with your kids, you might want to follow up on that scene.
It’s not really a kid’s movie, but there’s nothing graphic or terrifying in it. More sensitive viewers might be upset by how often the mother hits Giuseppe, and how mean she is to him in general, although she clearly loves him. There is nothing graphic in this movie, and although its overall tone is lighthearted, there are some sad and intense scenes throughout, mostly because Giuseppe is constantly mocked and harassed and pushed around so much. It also has a scene where he feeds a starving mother and baby, and is beaten up. His father is a drunk, and then he dies. The scene of the exorcism lasts several minutes and shows him kneeling and sweating by candlelight while in chains, while the priest dramatically prays in Latin. Kids who watch it will probably need adults to put some things in context. But as I said, the movie keeps things straightforward and simple.
Overall, I liked it very much, and I’m glad my family saw it. It was entertaining and engaging and memorable. Recommended, as long as you understand the sensitivities of your viewers.