PÖFF 2023: Jaap van Heusden on The Man from Rome
Interview by Nick Cunningham
In Jaap van Heusden’s dramatic feature, a Catholic priest arrives at a small town in The Netherlands to investigate the case of a weeping Madonna statue. The director discusses his film with SEE NL.
Still: The Man from Rome - Jaap van Heusden
How do you investigate a miracle? Especially when there is so much at stake. The Vatican may wish to head off dodgy claims at source so as not to further undermine the supposed legitimacy of the established sites such as Lourdes or Fatima. On the other hand, such is the psychology of faith, if you believe enough, then miracles really can happen.
Such is the dilemma at the heart of Jaap van Heusden’s The Man from Rome**, when a house in a small Dutch town becomes the focus of Catholic devotion after a Madonna statue is seen to weep. The mother of the household is devout and ardent and won’t take any nonsense from troublesome naysayers. Meanwhile, the daughter of the household (Therese, in whose room the Madonna first wept) is, in equal parts, angelic and ethereal. And rendered mute by a recent trauma.
Father Filippo comes from Rome to investigate and must report back to his highly skeptical Vatican masters. He, too, arrives with more than a modicum of cynicism, but little by little that is eroded by the tsunami of devotion he encounters, and by his fascination for the other-worldly Therese, who seems a plausible vessel through which God can work. What’s more, a miracle seems to occur when he, himself, holds the Madonna statue, adding even more plausibility to the claims. Maybe only pure science, in form of an MRI scan, can prove one way or another the legitimacy of the claims…
The project took wings after Jaap van Heusden and his journalist wife Carola Houtekamer reported in the national newspaper NRC on a recent Vatican investigation into an alleged miracle at Lourdes. But the team of experts that the Holy See gathered came from all disciplines, and certainly not all were card-carrying Catholics. “Something that is supposedly only in the domain of the spiritual and the religious was being picked apart by secular researchers and scientists to decide if it was actually true. I thought that was a crazy combination,” says Van Heusden. At which point he decided to examine the subject himself via the medium of film.
He and co-writer Rogier de Blok based the story of The Man from Rome partly on another different case in The Netherlands from 1995, one which involved a weeping statue and which was investigated and subsequently disproved by a Vatican investigation. Van Heusden was able to interview the cleric who conducted the investigation as well as gain access to the forensic report he wrote, hence the accuracy of the processes we see depicted in the film.
“In the film Father Filippo is somebody who must bring clarity, which is interesting as he is sent by the Vatican,” says Van Heusden.
“Most people think that they [The Vatican] are the ones that invent the fairytales and try to sell them as much as possible. But we learned that, no, the Vatican is actually more concerned in trying to make sure that the fake stuff doesn’t get out of control. So that was surprising and ironic.”
The film is presented with a pared down, monochrome aesthetic that underscores the devotional aspect at the heart of the story. DOP Melle van Essen was insistent that his frame wasn’t cluttered by unnecessary ephemera, so as “to leave enough room for the audience to invest in the film and discover things within themselves,” says Van Heusden, who also cites the photography of Robert Bresson as a key influence.
“It's a difficult word to use maybe, but there's a ‘transcendent’ space that Bresson creates in his films that is devoid of any machismo or showing off, and is stripped right back,” the director continues. “And this is also what Melle is like. Can we remove that from the shot? Do we actually need this? Would it also work if we take this away? And do we still believe what we are seeing?”
The Man from Rome is produced by IJswater Films (NL) in co-production with Fiction park (DE). It was nominated for 4 Golden Calves (Dutch Academy Award Nominations) at the Netherlands Film Festival 2023, winning the Golden Calf for Best Music (for Minco Eggersman).
Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival takes place from November 3 to 19. For more information, click here. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
*Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund
**Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and Production Incentive