The Common Good
September-October 1996

Between Dorothy and God

by Cynthia J. Martens | September-October 1996

The attempt to capture Dorothy Day on screen.

'There was never yet an uninteresting life," wrote Mark Twain. This statement could not be more true about Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker and lifelong advocate for the poor.

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Entertaining Angels, the soon-to-be-released cinematic portrayal of her life, focuses on the 20-year span between 1917 and 1937. Dorothy is introduced as an ardent socialist and suffragette. She's young and idealistic, while smoking cigarettes and talking tough.

Dorothy's life progresses from protesting for women's rights at a demonstration to arguing against social injustices at the newsroom of the The Call, the socialist newspaper where she works. She hangs out at Hell Hole, a smoky Bohemian saloon, bantering with bawdy friends and colleagues, including playwright Eugene O'Neill. And an ill-fated love affair with Lionel Moise ends in a heart-wrenching abortion and depression.

Then Dorothy turns to a simpler life, living in a small beach house on Staten Island. This healing period includes a common-law marriage to biologist Forster Batterham, and the birth of their daughter, Tamar. Interspersed throughout this time is a growing attraction to, and conflict with, the Catholic Church. While living on Staten Island, she meets Sister Aloysius, a dedicated disciple of Christ who ministers to the poor and needy. The relationship between these two develops as each recognizes the intelligent, compassionate, and street-smart woman in the other.

Dorothy becomes more involved in the church, while continuing to care about the plight of society's outcasts. She finally converts to Catholicism, has her daughter baptized, and is baptized herself. Dorothy's conversion ultimately leads to the disintegration of her relationship with Batterham and her return to New York City.

With all this happening in the first third of the film, the viewer is not offered many chances to explore the inner workings of this fascinating and driven woman. The film feels like a docudrama on the History Channel, recording the events with measured dramatic efforts at key points.

MOIRA KELLY, playing Day, obviously took her role to heart, and she does a good job showing us many facets of Day's complex personality, combining the right amount of grit and vulnerability. The best scenes, and by far the most intimate and revealing, are between Dorothy and God—whether she is in spontaneous prayer, casual conversation, or railing at the Almighty in utter frustration and pain. Here we get a glimpse into the psyche of someone who voluntarily chose to live in poverty among the downtrodden; to give up an affluent, comfortable lifestyle; to live out the Word of Christ.

Martin Sheen plays Peter Maurin, Dorothy's mentor and co-founder of the Catholic Worker. While his character is superficially charming and entertaining, the film does not give the audience enough of a grasp on how instrumental his teachings were, not only to Day's work, but to her faith. Their friendship, while platonic, was intense, emotional, conflicting, and fruitful. This is only intimated in the film and never brought out in any concrete way. His performance is also flawed by his distractingly poor French accent.

Under the direction of Michael Ray Rhodes, Entertaining Angels offers some superb cinematography. The film's somber tones evoke the time and feel of America during the Great Depression without being macabre.

The reunion of Forster with Dorothy and Tamar reveals an intimacy that is missing from much of the film. The tension between all three is keenly felt and well-acted. After Forster kisses Tamar goodbye, he reaches over her to kiss Dorothy; the camera remains on the little girl's face and their awkwardness and wariness are reflected in the eyes of their daughter.

By contrast, a scene involving Dorothy and Peter washing the feet of an itinerant old man, with Peter giving his shoes to the old man, seems contrived and forced. Similarly, the scene between Dorothy and the archbishop (played by Brian Keith) is "hollywoodized" to make it more dramatic. (This confrontation actually took place with a chancery official.) Dorothy Day led an extraordinary life as a writer, feminist, human rights activist, and battler for justice, living the majority of her life among the poor: Her life story requires no embellishment.

The climax comes when Dorothy is confronted by her co-workers after the suicide of one of the women staying at the hospitality house. Burned out and shaken up, they tell her "no more," accusing her of operating out of ego and pride.

But as an audience, we don't care. We are not invested in the people that Dorothy's invested in. Entertaining Angels fails to engage the audience on an emotional level, as it records the people and events with an almost detached eye. Dorothy Day was motivated by her faith, but that dimension is not developed enough in her relationships with other characters. So while the film conveys what a remarkable woman Dorothy Day was, it doesn't capture the essence of her powerful personality.

For those not familiar with Dorothy Day, Entertaining Angels is a good chronicle of this amazing woman's early life and the people and events that influenced and shaped one of the most radical social justice movements in America. For those looking for a profoundly moving or enlightening cinematic experience, Entertaining Angels falls too short of its own goals to be rewarding.

Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story. Directed by Michael Ray Rhodes. Produces by Ellwood E. Kieser, C.S.P. Released by Paulist Pictures, 1996.

 

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