The film Noëlle arrives in American theaters on December 7. On the upside, its haunting music and beautiful cinematography set the mood for a Christmas mystery in New England. Noëlle also treats viewers to a few good laughs. Finally, David Wall – Noëlle's writer, producer, director and lead actor – is a captivating performer.
On the downside, I was disappointed by the lack of character development and the story. After all, Noëlle is painfully misleading about the Catholic faith. Yet when I spoke with David Wall, he disarmed me by saying, "Don't take this in a negative way – if I had to join a church, it would probably be the Catholic Church."
Of course, I had to reply, "We want you!" Then Wall and I discussed his film.
The Noëlle synopsis goes like this:
Father Jonathan Keene – a cold, impatient Catholic priest – arrives in a tiny fishing village the week before Christmas to do what he does best: shut down a dying parish. But things take an unexpected turn as he becomes entangled in the various lives of the village's eccentric characters, including their beautiful librarian, the childlike priest he is displacing and the magical experience of Mrs. Worthington's legendary Christmas party, where everyone is welcome and anything is possible.
The family of Wall's wife is Catholic and their witness gives him respect for the Church. Even so, crucial details about Catholic faith and traditions were overlooked. Consequently, not one Catholic acts like a Catholic. For the purpose of this review, we'll concentrate on the three main characters.
Father Simeon Joyce, the parish pastor and only priest in the village, is woodenly played by Sean Patrick Brennan. According to Wall, in real life Brennan is a devout Catholic. In the film, however, Fr. Joyce fails to command respect. Instead, he drinks and dances at the local pub. Therefore, everyone disregards his sacred office and calls him by his first name. Moreover, Fr. Joyce's celebration of Mass is no Mass at all. He introduces Fr. Keene to the small, dwindling and aged congregation as a "hit man" sent by the archdiocese to shut down the church. Then Fr. Joyce continues:
Maybe he's right. Maybe we are dead. Look around. Glass. Marble. A stone mother, her cold child. A dead man on a cross. We're nothing but a mausoleum.
So, the character that Wall intended to be childlike actually comes off as an apostate. In reality, the climax of Mass is the consecration and reception of the Holy Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be the Real Presence of Jesus Christ – body, soul and divinity – under the appearance of bread and wine. Regardless, the two priests decide that staging a living crèche outside the church on Christmas Eve could bring fallen-away Catholics back to the parish and this becomes the occasion for Fr. Keene to pursue a certain woman.
Indeed, Fr. Keene pursues the only female parishioner under 60 to play Mary, the Mother of God. She is Marjorie Worthington, the single librarian, played by Wall's wife Kerry. While most parishioners are ninnies, Marjorie is too smart to assent to the Gospel and the faith. She tells Fr. Keene of her disbelief in the virgin birth of Jesus, her opinion that priests have "a problem with women" and her affection for "Simeon," because he doesn't act like a priest. Nevertheless, Wall was careful to keep this unbelieving character, who attends Mass for the sake of her grandmother, away from Holy Communion. The best moment of the film is when Marjorie reveals that the sight of Fr. Keene, as a priest, was a saving grace for someone else.
Eventually, Fr. Keene learns that Marjorie is having a sexual affair with a despicable cad. When Marjorie agrees to play the Blessed Virgin, Fr. Keene breaks the seal of her grandmother's confession by blurting out why he thinks Marjorie's unfit for the part. Then, he further betrays his vows by telling Marjorie's secret to Fr. Joyce.
The theme of Noëlle is supposed to reach its climax at Grandma Worthington's annual Christmas Eve party, but I was confused. There, the two priests are erratic as they interpret various conflicts and signs, but neither discerns the truth about God, the sacraments, real love or fidelity. One priest says that the party is his idea of the Church and peace on earth. By then, we know that he wants a parishioner's healing to justify him. Both dance with Marjorie and prepare to renounce their vows for her. Then one explains to Marjorie that he never wanted to be a priest; he became one out of guilt for having his own preborn child aborted. Afterwards, the post-abortive father, forever a priest, is granted a plausible apparition of forgiveness. Sadly, Wall then has him stumble to the wrong conclusion.
In one scene, it appears that Fr. Keene spills the Eucharistic blood and leaves it unattended. However, Wall explained that the priest never consecrated the wine.
David Wall made Noëlle to open the eyes and break the hearts of those who are numb in apathy. Wall said that he didn't intend for this film to be about religion, but it is. If he learns about the sacraments, maybe he will make a masterpiece. For, as Karen Mahoney tells us in her story "How I recovered from abortion," God is absolutely faithful to us.
At least this movie reminds us that many post-abortive parents and their family members are in need of healing and reconciliation. Thus, the Catholic Church officially welcomes them to Project Rachel. In New York, the Sisters of Life conduct retreats called Entering Canaan – Healing After Abortion. Rachel's Vineyard Ministries, established by psychotherapist Theresa Burke, Ph.D., is flourishing nationwide.
If you choose to see Noëlle, view it cautiously in realizing that God doesn't inspire people to break sacramental vows. With that in mind, consider how the faith was beautifully captured in a Christmas outreach by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. As I recall, posters on the metro trains said, "He's not just away in a manger, He's at your local Catholic church." In other words, God Almighty reduced His majesty to the littleness of an embryo, then an infant and came here for the love of us. Likewise, today, the Lord Jesus Christ makes Himself vulnerable as He awaits us – fully present in the Blessed Sacrament – in Catholic churches throughout the world.