India's new saint comes alive on big screen

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (Reuters Life!) - A film about a Roman Catholic nun who was declared India’s first woman saint, opens in cinemas in November, just weeks after the Pope canonized her in a special ceremony at the Vatican.

A tapestry depicting Sister Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception is seen among the statues of St. Peter's Colonnade during the canonization ceremony led by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter square at the Vatican October 12, 2008. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Sister Alphonsa, who deliberately disfigured herself at a young age to ward off suitors and enter the convent, died at the age of 36 more than six decades ago.

Her tomb in the southern Indian state of Kerala, became a pilgrimage site and she was credited with several miracles, particularly curing illness and disease.

Last month, Pope Benedict declared Sister Alphonsa a saint, and soon after a local filmmaker announced that he was making a film on her life, hoping it would spark interest in the saint’s life, who is little known beyond her native state.

“St. Alphonsa,” made in the regional Malayalam language and spoken in the nun’s native state of Kerala, begins with a priest narrating the story of her life to a group of children visiting her tomb.

“I was a regular visitor to her tomb. I have experienced a divine feeling after making the film,” said V. S. Jose, who co-directed the 90-minute film with Jayeendra Sharma.

“I am sure the viewers will also get the same feeling.”

Alphonsa’s canonization took place on October 12, at a time when Christians, who make up just over 2 percent of India’s billion-plus population, have come under fresh attack amid long-running tensions over religious conversions.

But the film steers clear of religious riots, piecing together the saint’s life with the help of books and people who were associated with Alphonsa.

“St. Alphonsa” was shot in locations around Bharananganam, where Alphonsa lived until her death.

“It shows the ancestral home of the saint, the school where she studied and the convent where she served as a nun,” Jose said.

The low-budget film, slated for release in Kerala on November 6, features an actress who closely resembles the nun.

Alphonsa is India’s second saint after Gonsalo Garcia, of Portuguese parentage, who was canonized in 1862.

Albanian-born Mother Teresa, who served the poor and destitute in Kolkata, was beatified in 2003, a first step to canonization.

Writing by Tony Tharakan; Editing by Bappa Majumdar