By Johanna D. Poblete

Ignacio de Loyola
Directed by Paolo Dy

SINNER, SOLDIER, MYSTIC SAINT… or underdog, soldier, recovering amnesiac turned avenger? It was a toss-up in the weekend box office brawl between Ignacio de Loyola and Jason Bourne. You had to ask: however romantic the story of the Basque saint, will it be enough to pique the imagination of the average viewer? And in an era where Marvel and DC are raking in the box office receipts, can a more contemplative hero compete against a band of superheroes, or as in the case of Suicide Squad, supervillains?

<b>To be God-like:</b> Does St. Ignatius have a place in the pantheon of movie heroes?

I threw in my support behind the Pinoy production. Partly because the creators made an appeal not to abandon the movie on opening weekend. I was frankly impressed that local production house Jesuit Communications (JesCom) was able to shoot a religious period drama with an all-Spanish cast in Basque country — even getting permission to shoot in the ancestral home, now a museum, of the titular character — on a budget. And, based on the trailer, it looked great (though admittedly, the CGI took a few blinks to get used to, particularly at the cold start). I would like to see the hard work paying off in a longer theater run, and looks like I’m not alone in this. But I went in mostly because I was curious as to how the story of St. Ignatius will be told to a mainstream audience. Will it be so reverent as to repel the non-believer? Or so secularized as to be unrecognizable or appear compromised to the believer?

Stories are the bedrock of faith, case in point the Bible is a collection of stories, letters, and poems. Outside of the Bible, Catholics have the lives of the saints as a marvelous conversion tool: if we cannot have real-time miracles, then we must have accounts of martyrs, stigmatics, mystics, healers — all men and women reputedly touched by a divine hand. As human as we are, and yet behaving extraordinarily (although one allows for a little embellishment or obscuring in the retelling). They are meant to serve as inspiration, even consolation. Every persecuted saint becomes an icon for a persecuted faithful. Therein lies the power (and to some, the threat) of a saint-figure.

St. Ignatius is prime material: a soldier who was crippled by a cannonball (he nearly died again when his badly-patched leg was re-broken and reset, then the protuberant bone and skin sawed off), and in his convalescence gained spirituality (how apt, by reading The Life of Christ, and Flowers of the Saints, the only available books at his bedside), became a pilgrim, devised a series of controversial spiritual exercises, and much later founded the Society of Jesus. (The same religious order that supposedly George Lucas tailored his Jedi Knights from, fanboys like to point out.) It makes a pretty picture: gallant knight on bended knee, offering his sword to Our Lady of Montserrat, the Christ child on her lap. Can’t make it any plainer how the nobleman has transferred his fealty from monarchial pursuits to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The movie Ignacio follows this trajectory faithfully, using journal-writing as a narrative device, and the journal itself becomes a major piece of incendiary evidence in the climax of an Inquisition trial. One can argue that the movie would’ve been better served if they had introduced this conflict earlier, as prior to the Inquisition, we are treated only to our protagonist’s inner turmoil.

Every saint movie needs an antagonist. In Padre Pio: Miracle Man, the Capuchin friar is pitted against a skeptical apostolic visitor, tasked to figure out whether the stigmatic is indeed blessed by God or a very good charlatan engendering almost cult-like devotion among locals who are convinced of his miracles. In The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, though a bit overwrought in its orgy of violence (hence the R rating), you’re supposed to be firmly on the side of a vulnerable Joan, halting in speech and overwhelmed by her visions, politically outmaneuvered and lashing out at every person attempting to control her. (Whether or not you actually like the woman as she is portrayed by Milla Jovovich is your call. Frankly I wanted to burn her at the stake much earlier.)

But to be invested in Ignacio, we needed to be invested in the character. We needed to see Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola as an unwanted motherless boy (his mother died at childbirth, so his father had lingering animosity towards him). We needed to explore his ambitions as a knight errant and courtier via a chance meeting with the Princess Catalina (a woman of royal blood is alluded to in his autobiography, and there are several theories as to who she is). And we needed to see him as a brash young man who was willing to sacrifice himself and his men in the pursuit of glory, dressing for every battle as he would for his funeral. We also needed to see him broken down and stripped bare, willing to endure any torment to find the peace he seeks.

Who is Ignacio to us? The movie presents us with the image of a man who had everything (barring the stern absentee father, he had loyal family and friends, wealth and position, looks, even a romantic interest no matter how inaccessible), lost everything, and found everything he needed in his faith. This is a familiar trope in Catholic teaching (and in fact, other saints were more licentious than Ignatius before their conversion). But we also see a man in search of meaning, who uses his imaginative mind to visualize his demons and defeat them one-on-one (up to you if you take “demon” as literally as he would have). He does not discard his past entirely — that part of him who is a soldier uses this very discipline to become a better man. And as the patron saint of second chances, he teaches us that is never too late to learn to be a person of worth.

It’s really not for everyone. Some will look askance at a depressed man scourging himself repeatedly and fencing with his doppelganger; they’ll prefer their demons to stay in the realm of myth and fantasy, with no hint of religiosity. That’s fine. Still others will look for a human face to punch rather than a dragon to slay. That’s also fine. Others will identify with Ignatius having to give up a long-held dream and finding a new dream, to empathize with his self-doubt and despair, not knowing your place or where you belong but needing to be of service, and maybe discovering faith as a lifeline (when you could so easily go insane?). We’ll take our redemptive stories where and how we can.

MTRCB Rating: PG