La Neuvaine (The Novena)

This is not a statement about a controversial film that involves religious issues. Rather, it is a statement to draw attention to a film that is religious in the best sense of the word.

Many explicitly religious films fall short of expectations because they exhibit a too earnest proselytising zeal or depict aspects of piety that many audiences find puzzling, incongruous or simply alienating. La Neuvaine succeeds in portraying simple faith with great respect and without being patronising. It is also able to portray lack of faith in God in contemporary secular society with sympathy and understanding.

Writer-director, Bernard Emond, is an anthropologist by training. He has worked in Inuit television and has made short films, documentaries and some feature films. He declares that he is a non-believer but he affirms the long tradition of Catholic faith in his native Quebec. He is also concerned that today's Canadians in the province of Quebec are in danger of cutting themselves off from this religious tradition and losing this heritage.

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, the church of Quebec reacted quickly to change in the Catholic Church and many Catholics found themselves rejecting so much of their religious upbringing and practice, eager to throw off what they saw as ecclesiastical authoritarianism. Some of the clearest cinema expressions of this reaction are found in Denys Arcand's 1988 Jesus of Montreal. His Decline of the American Empire (1987) and its Oscar-winning sequel, The Barbarian Invasions (2003) should be seen in this perspective.

Emond clearly inhabits the world that Arcand suggests. However, he brings to La Neuvaine the simplicity of film language that marks the films of Robert Bresson, a plainness and an austerity of style that communicate directly but suggest deeper meanings, especially some opening to what we might call the transcendent'. To continue the cinema connections, it could be added that the central character of La Neuvaine, a non-believing doctor, would be at home in her search for meaning in her life in Kieslowski's Decalogue.

The title is something of a challenge. Novenas, even amongst Catholics, are not in vogue everywhere as they once were. They are a feature of popular religious culture. Nine days of continued prayer for a special intention, even some kind of miracle, has been a popular practice over the centuries. In La Neuvaine, Francois, a young man who personifies goodness in a kindly but down-to-earth way, helps on a farm, works in a small supermarket in a provincial town. When told that his grandmother is dying (she has brought him up since his parents were killed in a car crash when he was very young), he decides to make a novena for her recovery. He goes on a daily pilgrimage to the shrine of St Anne to invoke her assistance. The shrine has a priest, in his vestments, always available in a kind of shop-front to bless the pilgrims. (The credits indicate that the shrine is under the care of the Redemptorists who will be glad of the attention given to their ministry.)

The central character is Jeanne, a highly professional doctor who has experienced the long illness and death of her child. There is no place for faith in her life. She has also taken care of a battered wife and her daughter and experienced the anger of the violent husband. Her recuperation takes her to the vicinity of the shrine and a sympathetic encounter with Francois.

La Neuvaine does not push the religious experiences of its characters and does not push religion at its audience. Ultimately, there are no obvious miracles and no obvious conversions. Rather, the audience appreciates Francois' straightforward faith and piety - and sees that Jeanne's kindness towards his grandmother as she dies, is a real answer to prayer. The audience appreciates the change in Jeanne, that she can continue her healing work as a doctor - she has to respond to a sudden emergency outside the shrine as a man suffers a heart attack - and can minister to the grandmother. Deeper possibilities for hope emerge.

Throughout the film there are interludes of voiceover as Jeanne quietly discusses her non-faith with a probing questioner. It is only at the end, when she stands watching the priest in the blessing room, that we appreciate she has been exploring her life and its meaning with him.

La Neuvaine was entered in competition in the Locarno Film Festival, August 2005. It received serious attention, packed houses and favourable reviews. This surprised many festival-goers: that a secular audience would be so moved by religious themes, even explicitly Catholic themes. It won the ecumenical award for the quality of its film-making and the skill in its presenting its religious and values content. It also won the best actor award and a special award from a jury of young people.

It will prove a valuable resource for discussions about contemporary faith. The movie has an official website: - 5 September 2005 - 830 words


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