Restless Heart Syndrome: When Bad Movies Happen to Good People

Restless Heart is quite obviously a labor of love. Someone really, really loves Augustine. Writing critically about it, which I must do, feels a bit like complaining that someone’s terribly earnest, harp-accompanied wedding was tacky, and too long. Criticizing a wedding for lack of good taste is just churlish, because to evaluate aesthetically a service about love is a category error. Love is patient; love is kind; love doesn’t snicker when the caged doves inconveniently crap during the marital vows. 

But I knew I was in trouble from the first scene of this movie. The vandals are set to sack Hippo, a wizened Augustine looks out onto the smoke-filled horizon, his raven-haired niece by his side, and a flock of migrating storks fly over. Only the birds look like puppets, or badly digitized drawings—something not realistic, anyway. Groan. Also, although film dubbing has obviously progressed since Godzilla, not only do the lips not match the words, but the voices don’t match the actors. The movie is in no small part about WORDS (all caps), so this flaw is painfully ironic. I really wish someone had insisted on subtitles.

My youngest daughter has a rule: no movies you have to read. Subtitles would have lowered the appeal of the film, maybe. And Restless Heart seems produced for the Mass-going masses. The script has taken a subtle, complicated account of one man’s confusion and conversion and turned it into a one-dimensional series of events. It views like a comic book, and not a very good one, with disjointed scenes strung together. But a comic book would have spared me the execrable score. As the friend who graciously sat with me to watch the thing put it: the music plays like Sound of Music meets 300, with the same damn, sentimental flute music alternating with the same damn this is an important part cello music. 

It is probably obvious by now: I am pissed off. Why? Well, besides the fact that I want those two hours of my busy, single-mommy life back, I love Augustine’s Confessions. At one point in the movie, I shouted “See! Did you hear that part? That part about ‘late’ and ‘loving’ and ‘beauty’!? That is from Augustine! That is how gorgeous his prayers are!” I am not sure Restless Heart would have been a better movie if they had included more of Augustine’s own words, but it would have been less of a waste of time. 

In this attempt to introduce Saint Augustine to a screen-watching public, the delicate intricacy of his story in the Confessions is lost. 

Take Monica. Readers have wrangled both hagiography and demonology from the book, making Augustine’s mother into either the incarnate source of Augustine’s saving or of his sexual neurosis. The truth is stranger than either caricature, of course, and Augustine writes about his mother in a way that is truthful, albeit not exhaustive. Confessions does not offer a tidy account. Monica’s prayers for Augustine’s conversion are intertwined with her ambitions for his status in the Empire. She wants her son to be both saved and successful. Viewers are introduced to the Monica of Restless Heart as she insists the midwife cut her open and seal her fate rather than risk losing her baby. This turns out to be unnecessary, of course, and Mother Monica returns repeatedly to offer her son purified wisdom, patience, and a sense of domestic responsibility. 

In a cozy move, the script pairs Monica with Augustine’s concubine, depicting their relationship as a sort of reverse Naomi/Ruth story. Monica seems lovingly to adopt Augustine’s sexual servant as a daughter, and takes up her case with her irresponsibly ambitious son. This is not only a stretch, it also flattens out the layered gender and caste power-dynamics of the Roman Empire. The same mother who, even in the film, is intent to see her son prosper (asking the favor of a higher class friend to secure the young Augustine’s Carthage education) would not have countenanced his ongoing alliance with a former slave. The film instead presents an unsubtle gender dichotomy, with the women-folk ensconced in a sphere of love and the men-folk resolutely in a sphere of worldly ambition. The story depicts a wealthy, male benefactor planting the seed in Augustine’s head to ditch the mother of his son and marry up. And the over-the-top, power-hungry Empress Justina conveniently underscores Monica’s circumspect piety.

I am knee-deep in research for a book on masculinity and faith in the U.S., and I have often taught Augustine’s Confessions as a struggle over gender identity. (Will Augustine risk the stigma of hysteria that clung to the North African Christianity of his mother? Will he resist the allure of serving the Empire as a leading leader of leadership and choose the tedium of hearing daily confessions?) I therefore watched this movie with men in mind. Restless Heart draws the sphere of manly vice and virtue also with too neat a boundary. The German actor who plays Augustine’s friend, Valerius, is the personification of striving, his countenance stubbornly set in every scene. The film attempts to present the humility so key to Augustine’s story of conversion, but in doing so it presents a more gracious, and less human, Augustine than the one he himself wrote. 

Bishop Augustine’s serenity comes across as vaguely mystic and detached. Augustine’s role in the violent Donatist controversy is tidied up, and the Catholic Church’s schism over compliance under Roman rule is mended with a hug. During the conclusion, Valerius spits “We have the Imperial Fleet, what do we need your God for?” and Augustine implores the people to view the vandals as their own “next of kin,” for, after all, “love is everything.” The vandals sack the city, but the vandal king, having taken a liking to Augustine, saves all his books. And a Calvin Klein underwear model saves Augustine’s niece. I was supposed to be cheering for Augustine all this time, but, what with scene after scene embellished with little chimes and rays of sunshine, his closing words about peace in the midst of anxiety sounded trite. I need a week with Augustine’s own City of God to recover.

At the film’s close, words appear on the screen:

The Roman Empire collapsed a few years after. But the Church survived and grew, and Augustine’s books helped the Church preserve civilization, and to create a new world, the world of Christendom.

Huh. After sanitizing Augustine to the point of making him seem piously pacifist, the filmmaker credits him with Christendom. The history of “the Church’s” survival and growth is so much more bloody, and frightening, and real, as Augustine’s actual texts testify. If you want to know Augustine’s wisdom, read his books. I recommend in particular Maria Boulding’s beautiful translation of Confessions. And, if you are looking for a movie about faith, words, power, beauty, and violence, I have a suggestion. I highly recommend a little film that came out from what is arguably the toenail of Christendom, The Secret of Kells. The moral complexity of that movie may give your children nightmares, but it also might kindle true faith.