Love to the End: A Documentary Film on Mother Maria of Paris
Anberin Pasha, Director/Producer; Emanuel Sabau, Co-Producer/Production Head
Synaxis Studios, 2018
Love to the End contains a disturbing segment which makes this the most difficult review that I will ever have to write. I’ve let Ms. Pasha and Mr. Sabau know that they had walked unwittingly into a minefield when they went to Toronto’s St. John the Compassionate Mission to film last year, and that I would address this in my review. I will get to this by and by.
Mother Maria (Skobtsova) has been one of my most beloved and most revered modern Orthodox figures for my entire adult life, since long before her formal glorification as a saint by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in January 2004. If memory serves me right, my parish priest lent me his copy of Father Sergei Hackel’s Pearl of Great Price (1965) some 43 years ago—and instantly I fell in love with this 20th-century martyr and Desert Mother in the midst of the city. I was delighted when word started making the rounds of Facebook that Anberin Pasha and Emanuel Sabau had been working on a documentary on Mother Maria’s life that was soon to be released.
In a brief summary submitted to Orthodoxy in Dialogue on Christmas Day, Mary E. Danckaert describes the film as
… a remarkably in-depth recounting and analysis of Mother Maria’s life and works, including her writings, in its short 50 minutes. The film is neither overly sentimental nor moralizing, and quite the opposite of demoralizing. The cinematography is excellent, well-suited to the genre, and indicative of the filmmakers’ creativity.
Cinematographically—if we limit the meaning of that word to the strictly technical aspects of filmmaking, i.e., photography, special effects, editing and splicing, musical score, animation, original footage from the period in question, etc.—Love to the End impresses with its professionalism, indeed its beauty. Pasha and Sabau show real promise in the medium, which I hope to see them continue to develop in Synaxis Studios’ future productions.
Yet in terms of format and content—quite aside from my aforementioned concerns about the involvement, indeed the centrality, of St. John’s Mission in the film—my overall reaction turned out to be considerably less enthusiastic than the blurb by Ms. Danckaert had led me to expect. I found myself alternately confused and disappointed, and in some places squirming with distaste, as the film progressed. For the sake of conciseness I identify these areas with the following bullet points:
- The decision to eschew a single, invisible narrator for Mother Maria’s life, and to tell her story through successive monologues by multiple individuals, lends a certain charm to the film. Yet it also creates the false impression that these persons draw from personal reminiscences of the saint when their respective ages make that impossible. The eldest monologuist was a child of three and a half in the US when Mother Maria went to her voluntary martyrdom in Ravensbrück; the others, not born yet.
- A father-son duo also lends a certain charm to the film initially, but turns into a distraction with the child’s insistent repetition of the same question and the father’s awkward unpreparedness to answer it.
- By far the worst feature of the film—symptomatic of the tell-all/show-all social media era in which we live as perpetual exhibitionists and voyeurs in relation to each other—comes with the inclusion of two women whose sobbing accounts of their personal struggles add nothing at all to our knowledge of Mother Maria. While I do not question the women’s sincerity or the reality of the difficulties that they have survived, the sheer maudlinism of this part of the film made me want to look away and turn the sound off, or skip ahead to the next part. One of the women concludes by imagining that she herself might become a saint.
- The other woman performs something like an anointing on a very, very old, bedridden man who could hardly have given consent to being filmed in his condition. Given the producers’ abundantly cited affiliation with Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, I wondered if US schools are subject to the same exacting guidelines and associated permissions with regard to research on human subjects that we are required to follow here in Canadian academia.
- By the end of the film its underlying purpose had become entirely unclear to me. It provides no more information on Mother Maria’s life and death than we can easily find on Wikipedia. Although I have not timed the various sections of the film comparatively, I finished watching it with the lasting impression that it focuses much less on Mother Maria herself and much more on tangents—and especially on promoting St. John the Compassionate Mission.
As a former volunteer and employee of St. John’s, and friend and family member of a number of people who attend or have attended its “program” called St. Silouan the Athonite Church—a “program” which, despite its steady growth in the number of parishioners over more than a decade, the Mission’s board of directors apparently felt free to discontinue arbitrarily (until recently informed otherwise by the appropriate episcopal authority)—I have intimate knowledge of the place. I know many of the truly fine Christians who have served admirably at the Mission and in the parish, those who continue to do so, and those who have been terminated or otherwise chased away when the almost cult-like obedience expected of them was deemed lacking. I also know the massive spiritual and pastoral dysfunction, indeed betrayal, at the top.
Roberto Ubertino, founder of St. John’s Mission (and author of its quasi monastic “Rule”), St. Silouan’s Church, the “School” of Lived Theology, a quasi religious order, etc. etc., allows himself to be identified as “Father” in Love to the End. Yet one Sunday during Paschaltide 2017—a full year before filming in Toronto—he stunned the parish after the Divine Liturgy by announcing that he was leaving the priesthood to marry a woman very well known to the community. (He had been long divorced. Priests who become divorced or widowed must remain celibate in the Orthodox Church.) That very week, they married; yet Ubertino continues to run the Mission, and by extension, the parish itself through his handpicked successor, a marionette priest whose strings Ubertino controls. He continues to attend divine services there, but everyone avoids him because they feel betrayed, and they also don’t know what to call him.
Among those who feel most betrayed are the parish’s singles of various ages. Ubertino had allowed them to imagine that he shared in their particular vocation and its struggles while he enjoyed, over several years, a relationship with a friend of the parish which culminated in marriage.
The spiritual and pastoral aftermath has been and continues to be catastrophic. From about the time of Love to the End‘s filming in Toronto—when it was decided that long-term, loyal parishioners had to be “interviewed” to determine if they were a “good fit” for the parish—until now, most of the faithful have left in despair or disgust, or been chased away, or been excommunicated for the most absurd reasons (like asking questions about the financial report at the annual general meeting).
Despite a recent episcopal visit to try to set things straight, parishioners feel no greater sense of clarity than they did a few weeks ago. Some have even taken to wondering how much longer Ubertino will keep his Mission in the Orthodox Church, given his history of changing churches to pursue his personal goals. The sight of him screaming red-faced at the bishop in front of other people cannot bode well for the future of things.
Normally I would not have dreamed of airing a parish’s dirty laundry on the pages of Orthodoxy in Dialogue. Yet the fact that a film intended for widespread distribution perpetuates what should have remained a local instance of pastoral fraud leaves me with little choice.
Let me repeat: Ms. Pasha and Mr. Sabau had no idea what they were walking into at St. John’s. I applaud them for the creation of Synaxis Studios and its ambitious maiden project, encourage them to hone their craft in the coming years, and look forward to their future productions. I hope that they take my frank criticisms of the things over which they have control as constructive and as coming from one of their many supporters who believe that they can go far.
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Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and occasional writer for the Kyiv Post.