A few years ago, a made-for-TV film about the life of Augustine was broadcast in Italy. Now, a modified version of that film—in English, and trimmed down from 200 minutes to 130—has been released under the title Restless Heart: The Confessions of Augustine.
The film begins in 430 AD, at the end of Augustine's life with his city, Hippo, under siege, and shows the story of his life through a series of long flashbacks. We see Augustine's humble beginnings in the north Africa town of Thagaste, his plunge into debauchery in Carthage, his early vainglorious pursuit of a career in rhetoric, his life-changing encounter with Ambrose of Milan, and of course Monica, his devoted and prayerful mother.
The acting is solid—Alessandro Preziosi makes for a distinguished-enough Augustine—and the sets and costumes for this period piece, if simple, aren't bad either. The overall tone of the script and direction is, in contrast to many American made-for-TV productions, refreshingly understated. It appears as if the film's scenes were originally shot in multiple versions, with the actors speaking both Italian and English, because even though the actors' voices are dubbed in this English version, their mouths still match the words, which is a welcome non-distraction. Nevertheless, there is not much elegance here either, and the film's flatness and occasional hokiness won't make you forget that this is a lower-budget production.
The historical merit of Restless Heart is a mixed bag. It does cover a number of historical circumstances, including the ancient system of rhetoric and its abuses, as well as the Manichean cult that for a time attracted Augustine. You certainly get a firm sense of the arc of Augustine's life and some of the influences around him.
Still, it's a challenge within the limitations of a narrative film to deal adequately with the array of ideas Augustine fought, embraced, and abandoned—especially when we are centuries removed from his context. For example, in Restless Heart the substance of Augustine's debate with the Donatists is oversimplified to the point of being unrecognizable. Also, although the film introduces Manichaeism, it makes no clear mention that Augustine first preferred Manichaeism to Christianity for its apparent solution to the problem of evil, nor of how Augustine later reconciled Christianity with this problem.
One would expect a dramatic film to take historical liberties, but Restless Heart's biggest fabrication is an egregious one. Augustine's famous conversion in Milan comes, in the film, shortly after a massacre of Christians which Augustine at first publically defends for the sake of career ambitions. But this particular killing, let alone Augustine's public identification with it, never happened. With respect to Augustine's conversion and the impetuses behind it, this narrative invention overemphasizes Augustine's repentance away from deceitful rhetoric and underemphasizes both the intellectual persuasion of Ambrose's apologetic and Augustine's repentance away from idolizing sex.
But one of the strengths of Restless Heart is that, in keeping with its title, it intersperses beautiful lines from Augustine's Confessions as voice-over, letting Augustine himself interpret the essence of his story as a soul longing for God: "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." When words like these are lifted off the pages of Confessions and narrated over scenes populated with Roman-era sets and costumes, I am reminded how privileged we are to have with us still today a voice as personal, worshipful, and ancient as Augustine's.
Restless Heart is currently playing very limited distribution until its DVD release sometime in 2013. If you're interested in bringing the film to your church or community, click the above link.
Tim Avery is a writer who has lived in places as exotic as Brazil, China, and Wheaton, Illinois.
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