Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, a 1997 film produced by Rev. Elwood Keiser, written by John Wells, directed by Michael Rhodes. 110 minutes. Rated PG for sexual situations.
Paulist priest and film producer Ellwood Kieser became friends with Dorothy Day in Rome at the 1965 Vatican Council. Day was there publicly fasting and praying for the Catholic bishops to condemn nuclear warfare. In 1978, Keiser asked Day’s permission to tell her story in a network Movie of the Week. He reports that she replied rather brusquely, “Wait until I’m dead.” He did, but the wait was hardly worth it.
Those who were expecting Keiser to deliver a work on a par with his earlier film, “Romero,” will be disappointed with “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story.” This film concentrates on Days early period in Greenwich Village and her socialist journalism, her romances, her abortion, her conversion to Catholicism, and the beginning years of the Catholic Worker movement. It stars Moira Kelly as Day, while Martin Sheen struggles with a French accent as Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin.
The film movingly portrays the turmoil that Day’s conversion caused her and that has made her spiritual autobiography, The Long Loneliness, an important contribution to the literature on conversion. It also accurately conveys the ongoing struggles and deep doubts Day endured as to the meaning of her faith and her work with the poor. The trouble is, this film hits you over the head with each crisis of faith and every turning point, usually sending Moira Kelly to an empty church to pray out loud, leaving little to the possibly inspired imagination of the viewer.
In one of the most important scenes in the movie (even though it never actually happened), the local cardinal comes to see Day to tell her that people are calling her a communist, claiming that her support of unionism is embarrassing the church, and challenging her motivations. The cardinal suggests Day is egotistic, playing “the great mother savior.” Day did, in fact, struggle with pride all of her life, and the film accurately and effectively weaves this theme throughout the story line. As the cardinal is about to leave, he softens and tells Day, “You have chosen a hard life, giving without getting back, loving without being loved. I couldn’t do it. But I just wonder how long you will be able to keep it up.”
The scene is important because it gets to the heart of the meaning of Day’s life and legacy: unconditional love in demanding settings for nearly fifty long years. It is also important because it highlights the film’s primary weakness. By stopping the story in 1937, Day’s remarkable and inspiring consistency over the long haul goes untold. More important, a central element of Day’s life and of the Worker movement-radical pacifism-is largely ignored. It was only after the late 1930s, with the Spanish Civil War and the early rumblings of World War II, that the pacifism of Day and the Worker fully developed and became a principal tenet of her movement. While her spirituality shines through on this screen, the radical nature of her peace witness, the prophetic aspects of her confrontations with the government and the IRS, and the revolutionary results of her personalist politics are all left by the wayside.
The film takes its title from a comment that George Schuster, editor of Commonweal, once made in response to someone’s suggestion that the socially ungraceful Peter Maurin ought to be ushered out of a room. “No,” Schuster reportedly said, “You might be entertaining angels.” I don’t know if angels would be entertained by this film or not. But I am convinced that a golden opportunity to entertain film viewers, while at the same time inspiring them to take seriously the primary challenges presented by Day’s life, has been squandered.
-Patrick G. Coy