Release Date: August 15, 2017
Director: Léa Pool
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 103 minutes
The usage of the phrase The Passion of ____ as a title lead has a storied history in filmmaking, dating way back near to inception. From Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), the prefix statement of a title character’s passion has always signaled an emotionally complicated character piece with which the film aims to have you to ultimately empathize.
Joining this tradition is Swiss-Canadian Lea Pool, probably best known for 1999’s LGBT Goddard homage Set Me Free (1999), The Passion of Augustine feels horrendously mistitled by comparison. While as devout as other films with the title, this particular bland brand of religious school drama never rises to any emotional high that could be considered passionate.
No doubt realizing that musical nuns have been in vogue since The Sound of Music mainstreamed them, Passion concerns itself with the titular Augustine (Celine Bonnier), who leads a convent school in rural Québec that stresses the importance of classical music as paramount to education. In the midst of a changing climate that threatens to defund their niche school, another change brings into her tutelage a musical prodigy, Alice (Lysandre Menard), whose willingness to improvise on a Bach piece and smoke a cigarette marks her as what the film considers to be rebellious.
Even when presented under a habit and spoken with a francophone accent, the story is drawn from culturally internalized plot threads that would point to Alice, using what she learned from Augustine to solve the crisis through music, proving the teaching method is valuable. Its utter predictability is what stops The Passion of Augustine from being anything but a generic retread.
What this particular film was desperate for was an emotional anchor in the center of the story, would have ideally been occupied by the push-pull mentorship between Augustine and Alice. The wont of the film to be historically officiated by the vocational reforms instigated by the Second Vatican Council distract from this tried-and-true story structure.
If you’re unfamiliar with this piece of Catholic history, don’t feel bad; the film only applies a faint lip service to the perception of its importance. The Vatican II is more or less represented as the privileged landowner who plans on bulldozing the community center in your typical ’80s teen film. Even if Pool’s meticulous filming style and encompassing design are capable of creating an undeniable sense of Québec in the midst of the Quiet Revolution, it amounts to nothing more than a backdrop to its vacuumed narrative of teacher and student.
I applaud Bonnier for her performance, sketching Augustine with a quiet dignity, which has the unmistakable feel of a matriarch, come off her in waves. And for her shouldering of the film’s dramatic points — Menard, as the milquetoast rebel Alice — proves competent if bland in her starring role as Augustine’s overly emphasized surrogate daughter. What fails these two actresses is the script’s unwillingness to expand upon their relationship using the known template of mentor-student coming to an understanding and teaching one another (see Whiplash or The Emperor’s Club). The dynamic between the two is never given a chance to flourish, making much of the emotional baggage tacked on to their relationship feel insincere and rushed.
A truncated build of story threads leaves the conclusion to appear an hour into the film, and the remaining 45 minutes are spent tying up loose, but ultimately superfluous, threads. The anticipated “benefit concert,” which – from the onset – the script was hinting at as the climax to the film without a shred of subtlety, happens without a sense of urgency or stakes.
This leaves those dwindling 45 minutes to feel unnecessarily drawn out as it deals with storylines of little consequence. The film even has the audacity to shoehorn in an unearned footnote concerning reproductive rights, a plot point which unjustly piggybacks the maternal aspect of Augustine’s character and steers it into uncomfortable territories.
Lea Pool’s film is a pleasing affair of little risk and even less payoff that thinks being a part of a dramatic historical moment can give it a semblance of gravitas by proxy. While it practically prides itself on how harmless and inoffensive it is, its generic, unfocused plot makes sitting through it a slough. Never wanting to challenge, Passion of Augustine is fine playing in the background like a CD of “Classical Piano Music” during a flavorless meal.