'Angels' misses miracle of sinner-turned-saint Day

November 15, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

The problem with good is that it's not nearly as interesting as bad, and that's a conundrum the makers of "Entertaining Angels" never quite solve.

A biography of the saintly and self-effacing Catholic activist and journalist Dorothy Day (1897- 1980), who lived an exemplary life, the movie is rather commonplace for its uncommon subject. Far too often it falls back on the language of cliche and on wacky characterizations from actors -- Martin Sheen, for one -- who ought to know better. It glosses over some really interesting materials to focus on some less interesting materials. It takes its faith for granted and never really confronts the centrality of its own most astonishing miracle: Day's conversion from the sanctimonious atheism of Greenwich Village Marxist intellectual circles to a faith so abiding and pure it was literally stunning.

Day's own account is provocative but unrecorded by the film. She lived with and bore a child to an avowed atheist (Forster Battingham, played by uninteresting Lenny Von Dohlen) and said his "ardent love of creation brought me to the Creator of all things." That astonishment the movie never depicts and instead credits her conversion to exposure to a conventional cleric (Melinda Dillon, as the smiley, apple-cheeked kind of nun who could probably fly if she tried hard enough).

The story is conceived as a long flashback: In 1963, the aging Dorothy Day (Moira Kelly) is once again imprisoned on a protest and there comforts a prostitute going through heroin withdrawal. Holding the screaming woman, she remembers the long trail that brought her here. Again, an oddness: Why not end with her funeral in 1980, when her simple pine coffin, adorned with a single rose, brought mourners as diverse as Daniel Berrigan, Cesar Chavez, Abbie Hoffman -- and Terrence Cardinal Cooke? Now that was a life.

And it was. She grew up in the Midwest but moved to the Village in the teens, where she took exuberant part in the leftist intellectual life and tried to write. Her friends included Eugene O'Neill, Hart Crane, Allen Tate, Mike Gold and others. She had affairs and an abortion. She drank, she smoked. She published a novel and wrote radical journalism. She protested for suffrage. ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzz.

Her conversion, as surprising to her as to others, took place in 1927, and after that she pursued the pure tenants of Christian charity and love with an amazing grace. She ministered to the poor, founded the Catholic Worker and opened "Hospitality Houses" across Manhattan. The newspaper, which once had a circulation of 150,000, was put out in a city room crammed with the destitute and the dying. Hers was the journalism of intimate involvement, not sleek 55th-story estrangement from reality.

The movie is honest about difficulties. The poor, so lovable in spirit, prove to be dirty, violent and irrational in reality. Idealism is no real protection against brutality and mendacity. There's also the uncomfortable drama of vanity: She became famous, and as she became famous, she grew apart from her co-pilgrims. Was her goodness spiritual or secret vanity? Does it matter? Bravely, the movie probes these interesting ideas.

In other ways, it's not so brave. When Kelly and Von Dohlen frolic in the surf, the tradition of movie cliche tells us they will become lovers, but it tells us nothing else. When Martin Sheen shows up in a beret and a zany French accent, we know he will be important, but he's so movie-bogus it's hard to believe he's the itinerant laborer-philosopher Peter Maurin, who will spark Day to extraordinary works on behalf of the poor.

In the central role, Kelly strives mightily to play the unplayable. She cannot, nor can anyone, explain Dorothy Day. Perhaps the closest anyone ever came was the drifter who appeared at her funeral and said, "That fine lady gave me love."

'Entertaining Angels'

Starring Moira Kelly, Martin Sheen

Directed by Michael Ray Rhodes

Released by Paulist Pictures

Rated PG

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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