Christina Mirabilis, perhaps better known as Christina the Astonishing, is one of history's more captivating Catholic saints whose notoriety began at the age of 21 when she was lying in an open coffin about to be buried when, quite suddenly, she arose during the Agnus Dei to the astonishment of those around her.
It would not be the last time she would be attributed with the miraculous. Recognized as a saint since the 12th century, Christina the Astonishing is the patron saint of Millers, people with mental disorders, and mental health workers.
The Astonishing, an experimental cinematic endeavor from New England film collective Metro Film Produktion, is a weird but rather glorious beast of a film that immerses itself in Christina's world and tells her story in a way that is never less than compelling. The film stars Demitra Papadinis as Christina, portrayed here as a simple farm girl orphaned at a young age and growing up with sisters who seem to regard her as expendable. She's a rather unusual girl, naive to the ways of the world and obviously frail in a variety of ways.
It's difficult to describe The Astonishing, setting itself in a more recent time period while setting itself in the production realm of early 20th century cinema including many of those immensely watchable and captivating early explorations of religion and spirituality that may not seem like they hold up but are undeniably vital to the history of cinema's exploration of all things religious.
Directed by James Ristas, The Astonishing commands the screen as much for the boldness of vision as for the actual finished product. This is not necessarily a perfect film, but a "perfect" film, if that even exists, would not really be fitting for such a wondrously imperfect yet divinely inspired saint. My gut feeling is that The Astonishing is the film that it intended to be and one wishes the film fest circuit would get amped up so the experimental/indie cinema scene could get the opportunity to check out this film.
Much of the success of The Astonishing rests in the hands of Papadinis's occasionally histrionic yet intuitive performance that exudes its very own astonishment and elicits the kind of awe and feeling so often found in historical folk Catholicism and in the tales it told.
Describing itself as "dedicated to exploring the fringe elements of contemporary and historical Christianity," Metro Film Produktion has indeed crafted a unique and engaging exploration of the life of Christina Mirabilis that refuses to aim for mass consumption and instead leans toward those with an appreciation for experimental cinema and who will, in particular, embrace the story's theological tapestry. Co-penned by Ristas with Papadinis, The Astonishing has moments that are rather horrifying, moments that are lightly humorous, and moments that will both acknowledge and challenge the theological leanings of 12th century Catholicism.
Lensing by Zaccur Fettig and Jennifer Graham is evocative and jarring, while Jim Landry's editing work is seamless and precise.
Among the supporting players, Eamonn McGrail is particularly impressive as Father Thomas and Shea Whitehead shines as Lutgarde. Elle Matarazzo as Arabelle, Alex Dhima as Thomas, and Scott Nadeau as Rolf are also quite good and a late appearance by Shelley Hahn as Saint Christina is spot-on perfect.
There's no denying that The Astonishing won't be embraced by everyone and, in fact, I'd dare say that this occasionally uneven but glorious experiment is destined for a more narrow appeal though for those who embrace it there will likely be passionate championing of its artistic vision and integrity. A compelling endeavor both cinematically and theologically, The Astonishing will likely linger in your psyche for quite some time after the closing credits have rolled.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic