Séraphine

A portrait of the artist Séraphine de Senlis (born Séraphine Louis), Séraphine explores the relationship between her and influential art collector Wilhelm Uhde after their initial meeting in 1912. Aging Séraphine was then working as a maid, subsisting on whatever crumbs her employers left for her and spending any available centime on base white for her paintings. Uhde happens to see some of her early work and buys everything available, enchanted by what he calls her Naive style. (Her employer and community is skeptical, finding her art almost terrifying; it displays the horror vacui characteristic of the art of schizophrenics.) They also manage to find some common ground despite the differences in their ages and socioeconomic classes; Séraphine is perceptive enough to recognize the signs of depression in Uhde, and advises him to spend some time in the woods touching the plants. But her first benefactor must soon leave the country in a hurry, telling Séraphine she must continue to work on her art.

Seraphine Louis

The real Seraphine Louis, taken in the 1920s.

Séraphine already considered this her mandate from heaven, and becomes more and more destitute as the war goes on and the jobs available to her began to dwindle. Certain people are charitable to her over the years, and Uhde finally returns to set her up with an exhibition–“Painters of the Sacred Heart”–and for a time, a regular salary. Séraphine is ill-prepared to handle success and quickly starts living beyond her means, sending Uhde bills for a house and costly wedding dress (though she doesn’t seem to have a groom lined up).

With the Great Depression in full swing, Uhde breaks the news that he’s unable to get her a gallery show or continue buying her paintings. Before she is forced to sell off all her new possessions, though, Séraphine experiences what might be considered a cross between a religious experience, a piece of performance art, and a psychotic break. Clearly taking a page from Lives of the Saints, Séraphine trudges through the streets at dawn dressed in the bridal gown, knocking on each door and leaving silver candlesticks and utensils before the occupants answer. A crowd of women gathers to witness silently, and someone fetches the police. They gently escort her to a waiting van and drive her to a mental asylum typical of the period; inmates in rags and at each other’s throats. Her artistry found no outlet there, and she was cut off from the natural surroundings that helped with her depression.

The film depicts Uhde visiting to observe her from afar and paying for better accommodations (so that she can walk outside and sit under a tree in the final moments of the film), but there’s no evidence he did that in real life. Although Uhde reported that she had died in 1934, some say that Séraphine actually lived until 1942 in a hospital annex at Villers-sous-Erquery, where she died friendless and alone. She was buried in a common grave. Uhde continued to exhibit her work, and today Séraphine Louis’s paintings are exhibited in the Musée Maillol in Paris, the Musée d’art de Senlis, the Musée d’art naïf in Nice, and the Musée d’Art moderne Lille Métropole in Villeneuve-d’Ascq.

Sympathy for Delicious

In Sympathy For Delicious, we have a story which parallels the Satanic Verses in a modern, American, Christian context.
“Delicious”, a.k.a. “Delicious D” is a youngish paraplegic man of no steady employment and no fixed address living on the streets and sleeping in his car while affecting a scruffy rocker-grunge look that isn’t entirely genuine grunge.
He eats at a small soup kitchen a priest runs out of a food cart on Skid Row. Though he tells the priest he wants to get into an SRO (good luck on that, the few that still exist are probably not wheelchair-accessible), the priest, who offers social services on a similarly small scale, tries to sell him on an assisted living facility and provides paperwork for it, but Delicious’ youth and pride cause him to reject that option and continue sleeping in his car while seeking out the occasional DJ-ing gig. He has some talent and fame at that, but the band he is seen auditioning for initially blows him off, for reasons of ableism.
Eventually his talent speaks for itself, and they grudgingly come around and accept him. However, another situation has come up which affects both his standing with the band and his situation on Skid Row.
He suddenly and inexplicably develops the ability to heal people of physical ailments in the miraculous fashion of Jesus in the Scriptures by laying on his hands and engaging in what appears to be a transfer of energy from him to them. It doesn’t work in all cases, and it doesn’t work on himself. (If the transfer of quasi-electric energy theory is correct, that explains why he cannot heal himself; which is one of the first things he tries soon after the healing power is made manifest through him; his energy would simply be feeding into a closed loop.) Yet crowds of people flock to him, and the priest encourages this in spite of Delicious’ intermittant abilities, because he hopes for a large donation from a man with a daughter who has Cerebral Palsy he hopes Delicious will heal. Though the priest pays for Delicious to stay in a hotel room, he is cagey about how much, exactly, he is collecting in donations from Delicious as a healing sensation. Delicious is suspicious about how much the priest is profiting (with the money ostensibly going towards building a proper shelter and social services agency) from his newly-developed paranormal abilities.
He feels used, and given a choice by our modern, secular society, he throws in his lot with the rock band, who also end up exploiting his healing powers for their profit; he agreed to participate in “Healapalooza” using his powers publicly at concerts much the same way he had drawn crowds on Skid Row, he merely hopes to see more of the money from the latter venture.
However, it ends in disaster when his healing power fails to work on a girl who is suffering the effects of an overdose, and he and his bandmates end up in court being charged with negligent homicide. The priest, this time inexplicably dressed in a business suit, testifies as a character witness.

Letters to Father Jacob (Postia Pappi Jaakobille)

Short but intense, Letters to Father Jacob explores two souls in transformation; one a murderer who has just received an unexpected pardon, the other an elderly blind priest fearing the end of his usefulness. With nowhere to go after a 12 year stint in prison without any family visits or support, Leila accepts the written job offer from one Father Jacob, an elderly blind priest who lives in a ramshackle house in the countryside.

Their first meeting is fraught with tension; Leila doesn’t know what her duties are, how to deal with a blind man, or even how to hold a cursory conversation. Childishly wondering if he’s really blind, she waves a kitchen knife in front of his eyes to see if he’ll react.

Leila wonders if Father Jacob is really blind

Is that a dagger I see before me?

Blind priests are nothing new; there are blind priests currently practicing in various parts of the world today. The Catholic Church has an official accommodation for the disability of a blind or partially sighted priest which allows him to say slightly modified Masses, exempts him from saying certain Holy Week masses, (perhaps because of the extra rituals and deviation from the standard form they involve?) and requires that he have an assistant if his blindness is far advanced.

Father Jacob has apparently been blind for a while now, as he speaks of having people read verses from the Bible for him to memorize as a young priest. Having gained a reputation as something of a mystic, Father Jacob has been receiving requests for prayers and intercession through the mail from all over Finland. His blindness prevents him from reading them independently, though he manages most tasks around the house fairly well. Leila’s duties entail little more than taking care of his dwindling correspondence, but she does not want to be bothered; she tosses most of his letters into the well and lies about them having no return address. Father Jacob can see right through the lies, though, and gently informs her of this.

At times Leila seems on the verge of stealing Father Jacob’s money and bolting, but wavers whenever she realizes she has nowhere to go. She starts to believe in Father Jacob’s heartfelt devotion to his epistolary flock, until the flow of letters suddenly dries up, triggering a crisis of the faith for Father Jacob. He insists on visiting a nearby church for some imaginary service in his pajamas, with Leila trailing behind.

Leila realizes that Father Jacob arranged for her pardon simply because he wanted a soul to save, and defiantly strands him in the church. Returning to his home, she takes some of his money and calls for a cab, but freezes when the cabdriver asks her what address to go to.

Leila considers–and almost carries out–suicide when Father Jacob returns home on his own.

On the postman’s next visit, Leila decides to make a change in her life, and compassionately begins to invent letters for the old priest to pray over. When he isn’t fooled, she breaks down and asks forgiveness for the murder she committed. (Which, of course, turns out to be justifiable homicide… God may forgive all sins, but movie audiences do not.) Father Jacob produces a letter from one of his frequent correspondents that offers her redemption and a path to a new life. And then, like all good disabled characters who have inspired the able-bodied to lead good lives, he immediately dies in his long johns.