Documentary about dull sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean is best known as the inspiration for the film Dead man walking, based on his 1993 book, starring Sean Penn as a man facing death and Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen. But his story goes much further. In the decades that followed, she continued her campaign to save the men from execution, unsuccessfully, and to offer them comfort, however guilty they were and however horrified by their crimes. It is the work of a lifetime that she continues to accomplish at 85 years old. “I’ve seen six men die on death row and I’m about to witness my seventh,” she says in Rebel nun. Yet, “I wake up every morning filled with hope.”

This story deserves a major documentary. This well-intentioned film is far from that. Rebel nun is pedestrian at its best and cringe-worthy at its faux-arty worst. Sister Helen’s tale is interrupted by clichéd filmmaking that includes flat-footed imagistic montages and far too many tracking shots through narrow prison corridors toward an execution chamber. Sister Helen herself is a powerful yet calming presence, and thankfully much of the time is devoted to her simple, down-to-earth first-person narrative. His strong character is not lost, but to see it, you have to go beyond that of director Dominic Sivyer (the Netflix series The masked scammer) choice of actions.

Rebel nun

The essential

A missed opportunity.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
Director: Dominique Sivyer
Writers: Dominic Sivyer, Kari Lia

1 hour 40 minutes

Sister Helen’s story dates back to her middle-class Catholic childhood in Louisiana in the 1950s, seen in family photos, and her decision to become a nun. In the early 1980s, working in disadvantaged communities, she was asked to become a volunteer correspondent with prisoners and ended up meeting Patrick Sonnier, murderer and rapist. She remembers that when she first walked through the grim gates of Angola State Prison, she thought, “I’m not in Nunville anymore. Bride of Christ? Forget that. You can see why people identify with her. She witnessed Sonnier’s execution but closed her eyes when he died. On the way home, she vomited, but later decided that she would witness and never close her eyes during an execution again. Her memories and descriptions are vivid and create a portrait of how she became the person she is, visiting the killers and wandering around her house feeding the pet birds.

But there are also these montages. The first, when we are introduced to Sister Helen’s work, includes a burst of religious music and statues, flashes of electric currents (as if we couldn’t manage it: electrocution!), wilted flowers and a clock old. . Later, she explains how the Catholic Church’s reforms in the 1960s changed the dynamics of its social service. Able to wear ordinary clothes instead of a made-up nun’s habit…

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