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A contemporary essay in the Catholic Worker tradition

"Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story"

Jim Forest

This is a film one would love to love. Many talented people have combined their energies to make a film inspired by the life of Dorothy Day, one of the great figures of the Christianity in this century, but the result is disappointing.

It may be that the young Dorothy Day was something like the woman played by Moira Kelly - - singing in speakeasies, hurling words (and occasionally fists) at protest demonstrations, and exulting to see her name in type when her first story was published by the New York City's socialist daily, The Call. As the character she plays ages, she becomes less and less convincing. We follow Dorothy from bohemian days just before World War I, through her conversion and baptism in 1927, to comforting a fellow prisoner in the city jail in 1963. Decades pass, but she hardly ages a single day, a problem that goes deeper than the absence of makeup.

Kelly is at her best in portraying the young Dorothy Day in love, and later submitting to an abortion in hopes of pleasing her commitment-avoiding lover, Lionel Moise (Boyd Kestner). She is not nearly as convincing in showing Dorothy's religious life, as when we hear her saying to God, "You really sneak up on a person, don't you?" But it isn't Kelly's fault that her script gives her such lines. Rarely do we hear a sentence that one can connect with the actual, often fierce and always articulate Dorothy Day.

Martin Sheen takes on the role of Peter Maurin, the French-born immigrant and 20th century St. Francis who met Dorothy in 1932 and encouraged her to use her journalistic talents to found The Catholic Worker. Sheen's French accent and manner give flavor and charm to the role, but whatever it was about the real Maurin that inspired people to give new direction to their lives doesn't come through. Sheen's Maurin seems quaint and slightly ridiculous, a man of half-baked slogans rather than ideas and insights.

Vast artistic license has been taken in rearranging and streamlining Dorothy's biography and character. It is a definite disadvantage to be familiar with her life story or to have known Dorothy personally. Perhaps because of a scrapbook style of storytelling, one experiences little sense of emotional connection with her or anyone else in the film. The sets in which the story moves are more convincing than the story itself.

In actual life, Sr. Aloysius, the nun who prepared Dorothy Day and her baby daughter Tamar for baptism, was not involved in hospitality work of any kind; tough old bird that she was, all she did was insist on Dorothy memorizing the Baltimore Catechism -- neither more nor less than was expected of any American Catholic in those days. In the film we have an upbeat, post-Vatican II nun (played by Melinda Dillon) dressed in a pre-Vatican II habit, running a soup kitchen in back of a chapel, speaking of Jesus as "God with a human face," and tossing a couple of books at Dorothy, telling her that she's a bright person and should read them.

In real life, Dorothy Day distributed the first issue of The Catholic Worker on May Day in 1933; only later did the first house of hospitality take shape as the editors felt obliged to practice what they were preaching. Here the story is told in reverse. Rather than ideas giving rise to deeds, we have deeds giving birth to a newspaper.

Cardinal Spellman presided over the Archdiocese of New York through most of the years Dorothy was publishing The Catholic Worker. Not once did he visit the community she had founded. One can accept as a narrative device a scene of the Cardinal (played by Brian Keith) visiting St. Joseph's House for a face-to-face meeting, but what happens is unreal. He demands that the Catholic Worker no longer identify itself as Catholic, but abandons the request when Dorothy threatens to move to the Brooklyn Diocese. Fully defeated, he congratulates her for being more courageous than he will ever be. The actual Cardinal who ruled the diocese occasionally made life difficult for the Catholic Worker, but his chief response was to ignore it.

At the end of the movie, an artificial crisis occurs when the entire Catholic Worker staff tell Dorothy they have decided, following the suicide of a longtime guest, to close down the house of hospitality and devote themselves instead to the "more important" work of publishing the newspaper. Dorothy Day leaves the house to shout out her prayers and complaints at a crucifix in a nearby church, then returns to struggle with an alcoholic who has just stolen some money. The staff witnesses the battle and in the end repents of their hard hearts, reembracing Dorothy's commitment to the works of mercy.

While all Catholic Worker communities have been through many exhausting crises over the decades, none had anything to do with the question of locking the doors to those who were hungry, in rags, in despair, and needing help. Hospitality has been the core value, possibly the one and only thing that hasn't been debated.

Jim Forest, a former managing editor of the Catholic Worker, is author of Love is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day, and co-editor (with Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg) of A Penny a Copy: Readings from The Catholic Worker. Both books are published by Orbis.

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