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from issue no. 03 - 2003


Depardieu and the Doctor Gratiae

«I’m very happy. If I’d encountered him earlier I’d have saved myself years of analysis». Thus the French actor explained his encounter with Saint Augustine. And on a cold Sunday in February, in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, almost by surprise, he read excerpts taken from The Confessions. The story of a special day

by Pina Baglioni

Gérard Depardieu reads The Confessions of Saint Augustine in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Beside him, André Mandouze, the elderly latinist who helped and encouraged the great actor in his understanding of the Bishop of Hippo

Gérard Depardieu reads The Confessions of Saint Augustine in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Beside him, André Mandouze, the elderly latinist who helped and encouraged the great actor in his understanding of the Bishop of Hippo

His attitude is restrained, or to put it better, subdued. With twenty kilos less, lost because of serious heart trouble, he looks like a kid, with his blue suit and light-blue shirt worn without a tie. So different from the plump thespian that everybody has always admired. Yes him, Gérard Depardieu, the Gallic giant, one of the most versatile sacred monsters of world cinema, comes out of the sacristy of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on tip-toe, moves in front of the small white marble altar in the middle of the transept, positions the lectern where he keeps open the Confessions of Saint Augustine, from which he will soon begin to read, and almost stands to attention. He doesn’t say a word. He stays there waiting.
Cyrano de Bergerac, Danton, Fouché, Jean Valjean, the great leading character of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, just to mention some of the parts he’s played in over two hundred films, are light-years away: on a very cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, the 9th of February in the year of grace 2003, there’s just a fifty-five year old man, who has had all and more of life and who in this mature season finds himself having to take account of something strange that happened to him in Rome during the Holy Year of 2000: The «encounter», as he himself describes it, with Saint Augustine thanks to reading the Confessions. «I’m very happy. If I’d encountered him earlier I’d have saved myself years of analysis», he has admitted.
Le tout Paris is talking about it and can’t explain. An event, this in Notre-Dame, that Depardieu has not wanted to publicize: agents, press office and reporters have been left on the sidelines. He has granted only one interview, published by the Catholic daily La Croix and broadcast by the episcopal television station Kto.
Indeed, it is striking that inside the cathedral there is just a small notice stuck on a pillar that says: «Reading of the Confessions of Saint Augustine. Gérard Depardieu and André Mandouze». Asked up to an hour before the event even the people working in the cathedral’s information office said they knew nothing, in a tacit accord to silence.
Now that it’s about to begin, only the light of seven candles and an enormous basket of white flowers, set on the steps that lead up to the little altar ultra-modern in look, light up the gloom in which Notre-Dame is sunk. It’s packed with silent people waiting for their best-loved actor, recognized by the legendary Jean Gabin as his sole heir, to lend his voice to one of the most passionate autobiographies ever written. Outside the cathedral, thousands of others have been queuing in the icy rain for hours, vainly hoping to get in.
Meanwhile André Mandouze arrives, an eighty-seven year old Latinist and historian of religions, considered one of the most learned exegetes of Augustine in France. He sits on Depardieu’s left and for fifty minutes he will alternate with the actor in telling the human and spiritual life of the saint. Meanwhile, Father Jean-Yves Riocreux, the Rector of Notre-Dame, is trying to get rid of the ordinary people who have helped themselves to seats in the rows reserved for guests of honor. Jacques Lang, former Socialist Minister of Culture, arrives and so does Bernadette Chirac, wife of the President of the French Republic. Finally Depardieu’s children: Julie, Guillaume and Roxanne. And his current partner, Carole Bouquet, a talented actress.
People close to the actor say that since he came back to the faith his terrible relations with his rebel firstborn Guillaume have improved. An actor like his father, the son acted with him in All the morning of the world in 1991, a film by Alain Corneau. And for some days now in Paris the last film they made together has been showing, entitled, believe it or not, ‘Father and Son’. And yet, Guillaume allows himself a little gesture of defiance even today: during the whole reading he never takes off his hat. It is 15:45: Jean-Marie Lustiger, the cardinal of Paris arrives. First he goes to greet the actor’s family, then in a paternal gesture he embraces Depardieu. Finally Lustiger goes up to the altar and, introducing the special event of the day included in “The year of Algeria in France”, the demonstration he has sponsored, he briefly tells us of the extent to which Augustine has been «important for universal civilization». And finally he gives the word to the actor.
It is exactly four o’clock. «You are great Lord, and well worthy of praise…», he begins with a thread of voice. «Yet man, a particle of your creation, wishes to praise you. It is you who spurs him to delight in your praise, because you made us for you, and our heart has no rest till it repose in you». They are the opening words of the first book of the Confessions.
Those expecting the atmosphere of the playhouse are disappointed: if Depardieu could he would vanish into thin air, so moved is he. He spoke some time ago about reading the Confessions: «I like the state of communion and of prayer and I want to read them softly, with sweetness». And indeed here in Notre-Dame one gets the impression that, through the words of Augustine, it is he himself who is addressing the Lord. Then, swapping with Mandouze, he re-evokes the saint’s leaving of Tagaste, his native city, his studies in Carthage, and, on and on, up to his arrival in Milan, his encountering of Bishop Ambrose who was to baptize him on Easter night between the 24th and the 25th of April 387. The relationship with his mother Monica and her death in Ostia Tiberina, the port of Rome, from where she was to leave for Africa with her son. Depardieu reads with particular feeling the moment in which Augustine and his mother experience ecstasy: «Driven by a burning desire towards the “all in the same instant”, we went step by step through all the beings formed of matter, including the sky… Then we began to rise, thanks to an inward movement of thought, of word and of admiration for your works».
Depardieu’s voice becomes ever slighter and someone calls out from the back of the cathedral. Only in that moment does Depardieu remember he’s Depardieu and he answers in irritated fashion. Then Guillaume also begins to argue with the photographers who are disturbing his father with constant and annoying flashes. «Silence, please, Guillaume,» Depardieu implores. And with difficulty re-begins. «What do I love when I love you? Certainly not the beauty of a body. It is not this, when I love my God, the one I love, but at the same time I love a light, a voice, a smell, a dish, an embrace for the man I am within».
It’s all over in little less than an hour. At the end long and affectionate applause swells round Depardieu who bows his head in thanks and, as at the start, doesn’t say a single word. Protected by bodyguards, he hurries out the back of the cathedral. Pointlessly followed by the crowd who can only watch him disappear.

A faith that comes
from afar

As it happens the afternoon in Notre-Dame was not the first reading of the Confessions. Depardieu had already done it in the church of Saint-Suplice, again in Paris, in front of a few friends on 12 January, at the funeral of another friend: the seventy-seven year old director Maurice Pialat. On that occasion he had chosen the passage “Death of a most dear friend” from book four, where Saint Augustine describes his pain at the loss of a much loved companion. Pialat was the director with whom Depardieu had made the film ‘Police’ in 1985 and thanks to whom he had won the Volpi cup as best actor at the Venice Film Festival. His old friend had been his alter ego: as Depardieu is sanguine, passionate, hypersensitive, bulimic towards every aspect of life, Pialat was, on the contrary, solitary, standing against the stream, misunderstood in his way of conceiving cinema, to the point that his films were considered body-blows. The friendship between the two had taken on particular intensity during the making of ‘Under Satan’s sun’, filmed in 1987, based on the novel by Georges Bernanos and thanks to which Depardieu won the Palme d’or at Cannes. The actor was very struck by the character he played, the Reverend Donissant. He even began studying the works of Bernanos.
From that film on the two friends often met to discuss God, the origins of evil and other aspects of the faith. And how ephemeral worldly fame is. Pialat was to be of great help to Depardieu in that regard, when, on 4 February 1991, only a step away from winning an Oscar with Cyrano de Bergerac, the American review Time bushwhacked him: it published an article by Richard Carliss which quoted various statements from the actor: he’d taken part in his first rape at nine years old and committed others later. A violent press campaign deprived Depardieu of the hoped-for statuette. Some time later, the reporter Paul Chukrow reconstructed the truth on the basis of the tape of the interview: the translation from French to English had been manipulated. What the actor had actually said was that after witnessing a rape he decided to leave his birthplace Châteauroux in disgust.
Certainly his growing up had not been easy: he left school at thirteen and the Catechism even before communion. Or rather, he was thrown out because he was too troublesome. «In fact I was a person who looked to life, greedy, vital. With my body twisted with the desire to know everything, to understand everything,» says Depardieu. At the time, the ‘fifties, in which the children of the poor did not mix with those of the rich, the lively lad was an outsider. His father, a tinsmith, was illiterate and had six children to feed. «I grew up wild, always animated, however, by the wish to do good. I was a non-practicing Catholic, and I always had in me the presence of mystery. Without knowing anything, even without being aware of it, I had the faith. If by faith you mean the desire to live and to see everything, to understand everything.»
His relations with his parents weren’t good, however: too many bans and too much narrowness. And then at thirteen he ran away from Châteauroux, not least because of the continual brawling with the American soldiers from the Nato base in the town, and he went off to Paris to seek his fortune. He went to live with three friends who, different from him were very studious. The young Depardieu didn’t care much for culture, even if, by his own admission, two books, the only ones he’d read, served to guide him at that time: The song of the world by Jean Giono and the Stories of a Russian pilgrim, by an anonymous Russian monk of the second half of the nineteenth century. About the latter he says: «It was substantially a book of prayers and in a very difficult period it saved my life. At thirteen, because of pathological hyper-emotionality, I’d lost the capacity to express myself, to use words. In certain ways it was a real bit of luck. And to calm my anxiety then I used the words of those prayers which could express what I felt and that I wasn’t capable of saying with perfectly corresponding words. I often found myself alone on the road hitchhiking, at night, and the noise of the animals and of nature terrified me. I was afraid of surprises, of being surprised. One’s always afraid of being surprised. Then I’d recite to myself a prayer from the Stories of a Russian pilgrim that went: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!”. I breathed it and my fears went away. I had the faith without knowing it. Even today, when worries and doubts pile up, I repeat the same prayer». He also recounts that as he was growing he began to have more to do with books, reading them with just one criterion: «I was looking for the words of the faith. I always had an ear cocked because I was looking for what lies behind the words, and what I call Being. That’s what I was looking for when I read Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Michaux».
It still wasn’t enough, however. With the passing of the years, despite fame, glory, the many women, the films made frenetically one after the other, the questions, the anxieties, the fears, the search for something remained. Then he sought help in analysis, and was to do so for twenty years. His analyst is «a man full of energy, like André Mandouze. I don’t know whether he’s a believer or not but we’ve had very long conversations together on spiritual hearing. And for me, as an actor, the most sublime example came from the Greek tragedy». Analysis and Greek tragedy then, to find the answers that obviously didn’t come to him from elsewhere. But in May 2000 a third book came to his help: The Confessions of Saint Augustine.

Dpardieu's reading

Dpardieu's reading

Everything comes
from Rome
It was the end of April 2000. On the road that was to take him to Cannes for the Film Festival, Gérard Depardieu stopped over in Rome. Because he had to finish shooting Ettore Scola’s film ‘Unfair competition’. But above all because he had to take part to the First of May concert put on in the Vatican as part of the Jubilee of artists.
There he found himself surrounded by actors, musicians, painters and many great and less great names in the international artistic firmament. Depardieu was presented to John Paul II who, looking at him with an ironic expression and putting a hand on his shoulder, suddenly said: «Here’s Saint Augustine». Depardieu was very much struck by the Pope and his words. A few days later he was invited to the Vatican by Cardinal Paul Poupard, President of the Papal Council for Culture. The meeting was not, however, a spur of the moment thing: it had been preceded by a lot of correspondence between Depardieu and the cardinal. The conversation lasted two hours and touched on matters of great import, and concluded with an unexpected and significant commitment by the actor to collaborate in a television drama. Agreement between the two important figures emerged on the harm done by cinema, and on the often insurmountable difficulties weighing on independent productions. «A surprising meeting, intense, altogether unexpected,» Poupard was to reveal. «Depardieu loathes multi-screen cinema which he describes as “real American colonialization”.» When the cardinal lamented that he couldn’t except in rare cases find films in contemporary cinema that dealt with the fundamental questions of mankind, Depardieu replied: «I’m an actor who’s experienced the unrest of the actor in constant search of perfection as a yearning for grace. But that aspect requires times, silences, waiting, ways that don’t correspond with film-making today. The film industry, and above all television, are only interested in filling space: it’s become their nightmare. That’s why I’ve committed myself to making films drawn from the classics of world literature: if I have to fill the screen, I’ll do it with something worthwhile. Like the Count of Montecristo, Les miserables».
At a certain point Depardieu said something pivotal: «And then I’m intrigued by the life of Saint Augustine, even though I don’t know him». It was like squaring the circle: for some time, in fact, the idea of making a television feature on the bishop of Hippo had been worked out at the Papal Council for Culture: even the director had been considered, Rachid Benhadj, an Algerian of Islamic belief. And the scriptwriter: no other than Cardinal Poupard himself. For the production, Ettore Bernabei’s Lux Vide would be very happy to take it on. A Saint Augustine then with the face and charisma of Depardieu would be a fascinating enterprise. Cardinal Poupard asked the great actor how he’d feel about acting him.
Depardieu was intrigued and promised the cardinal he’d think about it. He came out of the Vatican and while strolling in the center of Rome, Carole Bouquet went into a bookshop and bought him a French copy of the Confessions that he was to take to Cannes. «From the moment I had it in my hand I’ve been glued to the book and it hasn’t let me alone and I open it everyday. Augustine stuns me because of the way he addresses God informally,» he was to declare some time later.

In Algeria,
In search of Augustine
In the terrible September of 2001, marked by the tragedy in New York, Depardieu, who meantime was in danger of drowning in the mare magnum of Augustine’s writings which he now couldn’t put down, heard that in Algeria, the birthplace of the saint, there’d just been an international conference on him, organized by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a great admirer of the Bishop of Hippo. Without wasting time, he packed and left for Algeria. He thought highly of Bouteflika’s courage in inviting to Algiers highly respected scholars to discus a great Christian figure like Saint Augustine at a moment when religious fundamentalism was making a ferocious resurgence.
The trip enabled him to meet, thanks to the good offices of the Algerian president who is his friend, André Mandouze, considered one of the most respected scholars of Saint Augustine. With the old Latinist, who has been fighting for sixty years to get the writings of the Doctor Gratiae read in French churches, a great friendship was born, and the shared passion for the Father of the Church helped Depardieu to greater familiarity with his writings. The two became absolutely complementary: thanks to Mandouze’s help Depardieu, who only has elementary school to his credit, managed to bring out something that was already in him and to which he couldn’t give a name: the faith. «Saint Augustine is “the why”. When one goes into the Confessions one realizes that it is a completely modern work. Outside all the confusion we live in now. It’s the demonstration that words don’t explain faith: Faith is a state, a live thing. Like that of Augustine who, as one does with a friend, even gets angry with the Lord,» says Depardieu. And he then hazards a thought: «According to me there’s something that just doesn’t function in the Catholic Church, that even sends people away from Catholicism. For example the liturgy: too many useless words, too much noise, too much confusion don’t help prayer, recollection, meditation. All that disturbs me, makes me uncomfortable. As if the century and the media weren’t already enough to distance one from the Church. I talked about it years ago with a priest, but he couldn’t give me an answer. With Saint Augustine it’s different: with him you get the experience of something lived, he speaks to us, he really speaks to us».
And it was in Algeria that the desire was born of going into churches, synagogues, mosques, even in the desert. Without publicity, without money and without racket. Maybe asking permission to go in and, without upsetting anything, without disturbing, by the light of four candles, starting to read the beloved Confessions. Where people can collect themselves «to ask “the question”, refresh themselves in the faith, open their heart. Where people decide to come not to get pleasure from my acting skill, but to “hear”. Behind the words there’s the formulation and behind the formulation there’s where the words come from: from a man who has lived, who has doubted, who has freed himself, who passes from the darkness to the light of the absolute in a gratuitous, normal fashion. Augustine is one who lives». There then is the origin of the gathering of 9 February, in Notre-Dame in Paris.

The film cancelled
Meanwhile the plan to make a film on the life of Saint Augustine was abandoned. «After reading the Confessions I said no. Because you can’t make a film on him: it would divert attention from the essential to the anecdotal. One has to get into the Confessions and listen to the words that resound in ourselves and enter into another truth. Acting is my trade, I can be Obelix or Napoleon, I’ve done it hundreds of times. But I couldn’t play Saint Augustine because in encountering him I’ve found the answer to a greater need. It’s my faith, my resource of life, the truth. From him I get the strength to stand upright, the joy. I’ve understood that hope is stronger than knowledge. Because even when I couldn’t say what I felt, what I was seeking, the thing existed all the same. And then a film on Saint Augustine could only be made by someone like Pier Paolo Pasolini: someone who through images would have transmitted the Word».
When one asks him whether his criterion for choosing his films will be different after coming across Augustine, he says no. «Saint Augustine also had different stages in his life: he lived in communion with the Lord but also together with other people. He knew how to distinguish what is monstrous from what isn’t. Recently I happened to go into a criminal hospital packed with criminals, murderers. Child-killers even. Nothing should be censored in life: not in the sense of experiencing everything. But of not being afraid: of accepting reality as it is without forgetting anything». q

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