Friday, March 1, 2013

Movie Review: Blessed Duns Scotus

Blessed Duns Scotus: Defender of the Immaculate Conception (2011) directed by Fernando Muraca

Portraying a theological disputation in a dramatic way is a difficult challenge. One imagines medieval university debates as a bunch of robed monks sitting around and chatting in dimly lit chambers. The movie does have a good bit of this atmosphere. Most of the action takes place at the University of Paris in dark lecture halls, small cells, and a candle-lit chapel. The final dispute is held outdoors, with Franciscan John Duns Scotus and his Dominican interlocutors walking around a bit, providing some visual variety to an otherwise typical depiction of the middle ages.

The central debate is about the Immaculate Conception, the (now dogma) that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was preserved from original sin from the moment of her conception. Many medieval theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, did not see how this was possible. The debate came to a crescendo at the University of Paris in 1305, when Scotus agreed to dispute the point with another theologian. The scene is nicely realized, with enough theological and philosophical background presented earlier in the film to make the arguments understandable. The argument is repeated by Pope Pius IX in his declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

The movie does a great job building a believable and engaging personality for Scotus. He has a great deal of humility but also a great deal of conviction. He knows what he knows not just through studying theological and philosophical texts, but also through contemplation, especially of the Eucharist. He relies on grace from God just as much (perhaps even more than) to teach what he has learned, what he has discovered. The actor, Adriano Braidotti, does a good job though the character does not have a huge emotional range. Enough of Scotus's history is included to make it a satisfactory bio-pic, though the religious debate is clearly the central part of the movie.

There's a bit too much of his interactions with three novices, who seem to be added to the story to provide comic relief and a minor love interest. It felt a bit like the romance was included because that's what is in movies. Another challenge for this movie is the dependence on exposition over visual presentation of information. That's the way debates happened in the 1300s--there was no PowerPoint or props. But since Scotus often discusses the importance of the beauty of creation, it would have been better to have more visuals to support those ideas.

Otherwise, this movie is an interesting watch though I am not sure it would have general appeal apart from people interested in Scotus or the Immaculate Conception.

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