Indian nuns of the indigenous Franciscan Clarist congregation join other pilgrims in praying at the tomb of Blessed Sister Rani Maria at Udainagar in Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh on Nov. 5, 2017, a day after she was declared Blessed at a function in Indore city. (Photo: Saji Thomas/ ucanews.com)
The foundation of every church, of every Christian community in history, has been its apostles and martyrs.
It’s the apostles, the missionaries, who are “sent” to strange lands to preach God’s word, and it is the “martyrs” who witness the “good news” of Jesus with their lives.
Their lives are an inspiration, and their violent deaths nourish the faith from which the Church grows. So it was with Stephen, Agnes, Barbara and Catherine.
So it has also been in India.
The list of India’s martyrs is impressive — from Thomas, the Apostle [1st c. CE ]; to the four Franciscan martyrs of Thane ; to the five Jesuit martyrs of Cuncolim, Goa [1583 ] to Gonzalo Garcia in distant Nagasaki ; to John de Brito in Oriyur [ 1693]; to Devasahayam of Kanyakumari.
And now to Blessed Rani Maria Vattatil, near Indore, central India, in 1995.
Blessed Rani Maria Vattatil was a Franciscan Clarist sister from Kerala who worked with tribal women for several years in central India. She was murdered because her work empowered women and the landless poor, and threatened the oppressive power structures in the area. Rani Maria was just 41 when killed.
In earlier times, martyrs witnessed their religious faith. Today the “witnessing” that martyrdom demands is much broader.
There are many today who espouse human rights, uplift the human spirit, take the side of the oppressed against vicious and dictatorial governments, agitate for freedom of speech and movement, and fight for the rule of law against the feudal practice and corporate lobbies — and they pay for this with their lives.
Blessed Rani Maria was one of these.
In 2017, Rani Maria was “beatified” by the Church, that is, she was held up as a model of holiness, and people were encouraged to pray to her.
This is the context in which a young filmmaker Shaison Ouseph felt that a film on Blessed Rani Maria would be an apt vehicle to get the story of her life and mission to millions who had never heard about her.
Shaison had achieved a certain skill and confidence as a documentary filmmaker. But making a biopic about a religious sister who was an activist and a martyr requires many other talents.
With patience and tenacity, Shaison built his team of collaborators — to write the screenplay, to raise the funds, to select the actors, the setting, the storyline, to direct the production and the post-production, until the film finally made it to our screens: The Face of the Faceless [Trilight Creations, 2023. col. 134 min. with Vincy Aloysius in the main role.]
Films on female religious figures are not common, but whenever they have been made, they succeed beyond one’s wildest expectations. Think of the numerous films made on Joan of Arc, of Therese of Lisieux, and on Mother Teresa.
Here we have the story of Miriam Vattalil, a young, idealistic woman from a traditional Catholic family in Kerala, who joins a missionary congregation and is abruptly thrust into the “faceless” savagery of the Indian countryside.
The first part of the film brings this out graphically: anyone who dares to tamper with the existing feudal power structure is summarily eliminated. And as always, it’s women who suffer the most.
The film also deals sensitively with the situation of many religious communities in such places: how much can one get involved? Doesn’t upsetting the local power structure have severe repercussions on the larger apostolic works of the community? How to deal with those few who demand involvement in the lives of the oppressed, versus the many who are diffident?
These are critical issues facing the Church in this country, and they are vividly presented through the life and mission of Rani Maria.
In years to come it will not be scholarship and sermons which will guide the Church in India, but the courageous example and the heroic witness of ordinary people like this simple nun.
And I like to think that a film like The Face of the Faceless carries her message across the world, and inspires others to become like her.
The film comes in four language editions, Malayalam, Hindi, Spanish and French, each with English subtitles. It has been entered for competition at Cannes (May 2023), after which it will be available for public release.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.