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Saint Ralph (9/10)

by Tony Medley

Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher) thinks he’s a sinner. All of us who went through Catholic schools thought we were sinners. At least if we were conscientious, which I was and which Ralph is. So, even though he believes he’s sinning, he still does it. We see some of the things he thinks are sins, generally relating to those mysterious females, and they are pretty funny. Females are pretty mysterious to young teenagers who just admire them from afar. Unfortunately, the more one gets to know them, the more mysterious they become, as Ralph discovers.

At the beginning of the film, Ralph’s mother, Emma (Shauna MacDonald), lapses into a coma before his eyes. Ralph believes that if he can perform a miracle, it can bring his mother back to consciousness. Ralph’s devotion to his mother takes him on a trip through Catholic training to perform the miracle. The miracle he wants to achieve is to win the 1953 Boston Marathon, even though he’s only 14 years-old and has never been a long distance runner.

While this doesn’t sound funny, believe me, this is a comedy. But it’s a heart-warming comedy. And it’s driven by outstanding performances by Butcher and Campbell Scott, who plays his mentor, Father George Hibbert. I last saw Scott in “Roger Dodger” (2003) in which he played a profligate bachelor in New York City inducting his teenaged nephew into the swinging world. Scott ended up the pupil learning from his nephew. Here he’s a free-thinking priest who wants to teach Nietzsche to his religion class, much to the disapproval of his boss, Principal Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent), who is definitely the heavy in the film. Fitzpatrick doesn’t like Ralph and he doesn’t much like Father Hibbert.

Fitzpatrick is a nasty piece of work. I was taught by nine nuns in grammar school. Eight were considerate, compassionate, dedicated people. The ninth, who taught me in 8th grade, was in the Fitzpatrick mold. So people like Fitzpatrick do exist even if they are in the minority. Fortunately, the Principal of my school, Sister Mercedes, was a good person in the mold of Father Hibbert. I worked in the office, ringing the bell and making announcements and stuff, and remember telling her something my 8th grade teacher did to me and Sister Mercedes said, “Sister E___ and I are made out of different stuff.” Sister Mercedes, and the other eight who taught me, were the norm and Sister E___ was the exception, as is Father Fitzpatrick. Pinsent gives an outstanding performance as the personality-flawed Fitzpatrick.

In enumerating this terrific cast, I don’t want to forget the wonderful Jennifer Tilly, playing Nurse Alice. Tilly has a charismatic presence for me whenever I see her. Even though her role is small, I enjoyed every second she was onscreen.

The only criticism I have of this film is that when Ralph is training for the Marathon he runs 26 miles in the rain in laps, with Hibbert timing him. Problem is, even though raindrops have obviously been added in post-production, neither Ralph nor Hibbert gets a drop of water on him. Not on their clothes, not on their faces, not on their hair. It’s pouring rain and they are perfectly dry in every scene. This isn’t enough to ruin the movie, because it’s a terrific movie, but it’s a weakness that shouldn’t have occurred. Either dump the rain, or show Hibbert and Ralph soaking wet in their scenes together. And get them some wet clothes.

Writer-director Michael McGowan brilliantly takes a comedic look at all the Catholic guilt put on your shoulders by the clergy, mostly about sex. Poor Ralph makes a confession at the beginning of the film that delineates hundreds of sins. The lighthearted look at Catholic High School in the ‘50s doesn’t detract from Ralph’s belief in the deity and in the possibility of a miracle, which he’s willing to try in order to get his mother out of her coma. This is a funny, pleasureful 98-minute film. You might shed a few tears at the tender moments between Ralph and his comatose mother, but you’ll laugh and chuckle far more often. This is one of the best of the year.

August 1, 2005