Saturday, May 7, 2011

Bakhita; From Slave to Saint

Not Rated

Catholic-ometer: 3 of 5

Enjoyability: 4 of 5

Recently, our current pope, Pope Benedict, saw this movie and said that it was "beautiful."  While you'll never find me disagreeing with his holiness on any matter of Catholic Doctrine, or on the beauty of this movie, I don't feel it would be right of me to reccomend it.

To start with, I feel I should point out the first and most glaring flaw of this movie; it's about as faithful in depicting the events of Bakhita's life as "the Neverending Story; Part 2" was in depicting the events of the second half of the book it was based on.  In fact, I'd say this movie bares much in common with your typical, Hollywood, book-to-movie transition, in that virtually nothing of the original story survives, except the name of the main character.

In this movie, Bakhita is kidnapped by slavers when she's young, raised as a slave by a rich, african slave-trader, and kept until rebels attack.  An italian named Federico Marin saves her from the rebels and takes her to Italy as his own slave, where she becomes the nanny of his daughter; Aurora.

In reality, the slavers who kidnapped Bakhita was arabs; not africans, and they forced her to convert to Islam when they enslaved her.  She had several "masters" in Africa; not one, and the rich italian was her fifth "master;" not her second.  Furthermore, his name was Callisto Legnani, not Marin, and she was given by him as a gift to the wife of another man; named Augusto Michieli.  It was Michieli's daughter Alice; not Aurora, who Bakhita became the nanny of, and they didn't spend all their time in Italy.  They went back to the Sudan together for a while.

In the movie, Marin lost his wife while she was giving birth to Aurora, and bore an old wound from his loss.  Bakhita eventually ran away from him and sought shelter in a church, where she first learned about Jesus, and was given sanctuary, eventually, by the Canossian sisters.

In reality, Michieli and his wife were both alive, and both together, when Bakhita entered their household.  They bought a hotel at Suakin; the largest port of the Sudan at the time, and left to manage it, leaving Bakhita and Alice in the care of the Canossian sisters.

In the movie, Bakhita spends a long time in Marin's village, caring for sick people during a smallpox epidemic, in a Mother Theresa-like way.  She's eventually offered a free ride to Venice by Marin, and eventually accepts, once the epidemic is over.  Once there, however, she decides to become a Canossian sister, instead of rejoining Marin and his family.  Marin raises a fuss about it in the courts, but they decide in her favor.

In reality, Bakhita spent no time caring for smallpox victims before deciding to become a nun, though there was a legal battle with Michieli, which was eventually decided in her favor.

At this point, the movie pretty much ends.  Marin turns over a new leaf, and makes peace with being forced to leave Bakhita behind, which could well have happened to Michieli as well, though we can't know for certain.  In reality, many more things happened to Bakhita while she was a sister, but that's a story for another time.

I just don't see the point of changing so much about the life story of such a great person.  I mean, she's already canonized.  This movie's lies can be found out by five minutes on wikipedia, and won't do much to prop up her entry in the anals of hagiography, simply because they are, of course, lies.

There's a strong sense that this film made such an effort to reconstruct Bakhita's life out of wholecloth, just so that it could promote the agendas of those who funded its production, though again, I can't prove anything.  I will say, however, that the total removal of the forced Islamic conversion from the movie seems suspiciously like a direct injustice to a very saintly woman, just to "keep muslims happy."  Furthermore, there's a scene at the beginning, dwelled on much too strongly throughout the film, in which a witchdoctor proclaims that she's "lucky," almost as though the film was attempting to encourage non-Catholic superstitions.  Lastly, the whole smallpox subplot seems to have been inserted, as if to remind everyone of the church's role in social wellfare.  The problem is, that's not the church's main role.  It's to lead souls to Heaven; not full stomachs.

Why did they change the names of so many of the other characters?  I'm not really sure.  Maybe they figured they'd already warped so much of the story that it wouldn't hurt.

Now, the question is just this; if it's so unfaithful and disrespectful to the life and history of this great woman, why didn't I hate it?

The truth is, the movie really isn't that bad.  I bemoan the changes made, seemingly out of a secular, accomodationist view, but as a fictional story (which, let's be honest here, is what this movie is,) it's actually very touching and inspiring.  It's moving, beautiful and well-paced.  The settings are well-rendered, the costumes are wonderful, and nearly every actor did their job incredibly.  It's a beautiful story about a woman who touches the hearts and souls of those around her, with her gentleness, compassion and faith.

At the start of this review, I said that it wouldn't be right to reccomend this movie, but thinking it over again, I don't think that's true.  If you can accept that this movie is just fiction, and take it as such, there's no real harm in watching it, and you might even enjoy it.  Just don't let anyone fool you into thinking it's a biography.


  1. I just saw the movie yesterday, as somewhat of a captive audience on a long busride with a Catholic organization. I had some trouble with parts of it, especially the cruel and evil Marin. I paid particular attention to the kidnapping scenes, and was relieved the slavers weren't portrayed as white! I assumed they were muslims as African has been overrun by them and they were big slave traders. Only later did I read that she was forced to convert to Islam, though I was not surprised. I was very confused by the portrayal of Marin, the sexual undertones, and the nasty and negative treatment of her by all the Italians, in the house, the village. I couldn't believe all these people were so mean even while they are praying the rosary!! They came off looking like ignorant, superstitious hypocrites. The character of the priest was not admirable either. Was the message that Bakhita inspired his courage and change of attitude? The whole smallpox thing was bogus, like you said. I thought that was perhaps meant to show her ability to heal. Bakhita was also credited with making the silkworms live. As you mentioned, the incident with the lion set Bakhita up as 'marked' by the African spirits. That wasn't clearly defined, but showed the witchdoctor and her village honoring her. The scenes with her telling Aurora, a 9 or 10 year old the horrible things that happened to her were disturbing. At the end I was seriously wondering what qualified her to be saint. She endured unspeakable sufferings for sure. Her identification with the crucified Christ was very moving. Her deep kindness and lack of bitterness was exceptional Of course I cried about 10 times during the movie!! Especially for the little boy who didn't speak. So today I looked her up and found out what I'm hoping is the real truth. It seems that much of her saintliness was seen and known during those 50 years she spent at the convent. She sounds like a Solanus Casey or a Brother Andre. I was very happy and relieved to read your comments. Yes the movie was fiction. I do want to learn more about Bakhita the saint. I saw her cited as a saint for those with a painful past.

    1. Yes. That's essentially how it was. In fact, the vast majority of the biographies I've read of her spend relatively little time dwelling on the era of her life "covered" by the movie. It was largely her time and actions in the convent which provided the motive for her canonization.

      I also think you're right about the movie indulging in biases and unfair portrayals of certain groups who don't merit it. This film was directed by the same man who directed "I Prefer Heaven," and "St. Giuseppe Moscati," and I can well believe that, since those movies shared much in common with this film.

      All three were cinematic and storytelling successes; providing entertaining and enjoyable stories and viewing. However, all three were also far-fetched historical fictions using a famous name to achieve recognition, but telling almost no truth about these figures.

      There are ups and downs to this approach. Me, I'd rather watch a dramatized truth, rather than a dramatized lie.

    2. I started watching this movie last night on EWTN and found it very compelling. This morning I tried to find out more information about St. Bakhita but couldn't find anything that correlated to the movie. I'm glad to have found this post so now I know that the movie is mostly fiction. I'm sure I'll watch the 2nd part of the movie next week, but will also have to read her biography.

    3. Yeah. I do recommend the rest of the film. As I said, it was really enjoyable. It's just that it's fiction. I think as long as people understand that, they'll be fine with it.

  2. Thanks for your truthful reflection on the movie about Bakhita. I, too, greatly enjoyed the film but in reality it is fiction - not even historical fiction. Which is too bad. Bakhita's actual life would make a deeply moving film about one of God's saints. This movie just reminds me of the deceptive nature of media and to always check the facts.