Friday, May 02, 2014


In Cupertino Italy in 1623, a young man named Joseph (Maximillian Schell) is growing up, well on the road to becoming the "village idiot"—at 20, he still attends school but the teachers finally tire of him and "graduate" him, leaving him at home with his industrious but impatient mother and his lazy drunken father. Mom convinces her brother, Father Giovanni, to take Joseph in at the local monastery, but he even has a rough time there—sent out on the streets to beg with other novices (to counteract "the poison of vanity"), he is set upon by rowdy youths who steal his robe. The monks make him a stable boy to keep him out of trouble but when a visiting bishop arrives, Joseph makes an impression by explaining the mystery of the Trinity better than a boringly serious monk does, so Father Raspi (Ricardo Montalban) is ordered to have Joseph study for the priesthood. You already know where this is going, don't you? Joseph is a "holy fool" figure, a bit like Saint Francis, and every time it seems like he's going to trip himself up, he is somehow saved; eventually, he does become a priest. But a supernatural aspect soon enters the picture: when Joseph accidently smashes a statue of the Virgin Mary, he takes the head of the statue and prays to it, and while he prays, he levitates. This isn't just in his head; he is seen by others who don't know what to make of it.

This is based on the legend of Joseph of Cupertino who is the patron saint of air travelers, pilots, and poor students, and in outline this is a gentle religious fantasy with the requisite amount of sweetness, humor, and moral lessons, but a mistake in casting makes this somewhat uncomfortable viewing: Maximillian Schell is far too intense (and, over 30 at the time, too mature) to play the holy fool. His brooding intensity doesn't strike the right note, and the intelligence behind Schell's eyes is too obvious for him to be effective even though he tries hard. The plot twists, especially those involved in his attaining of the priesthood, are fun, and Montalban (pictured at left, to the right of Schell) is very good as the skeptical priest who is torn between a genuine fondness for Joseph and worry that the boy's journey will scar him—and belittle the genuine students of the priesthood. The first episode of levitation is pulled off nicely, but by the end, one wishes they had spent some money on special effects or at least some more creative visual approaches. The last shot of Schell floating and Montalban grabbing his robe so he doesn’t take off like a Macy's Day balloon is cute but is badly staged. An odd little movie. [DVD]

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