Augustine: Son of Her Tears – A Few Reflections

Yesterday I was finally able to watch the last film about Augustine, directed by Samir Seif, and produced originally in Arabic.

My friends know that I am not a fan of Augustine, as a person and as a theologian, even if I admire his genius and certain of his contributions as a Father of the Church.

My main theological reservation has to do with his psychologising views on the Trinity. Also, in a typically Western fashion, he roots divine unity in a common ousia, rather than in the person of the Father, as fons divinitatis.

However, and more importantly, I view Augustine as the father of Church misogyny. His disdain of women, a pathological reaction to his life of debauchery before his conversion to Christianity, together with his (and others of his contemporaries) Neoplatonist disdain of the body and physicality, paved the way for the marginalisation of women in the cultus and the demonisation of sexuality which still dominates the mindset of most Christians until today.

Yet, Augustine was one of the greatest minds in the history of the church and nobody in their right mind should ignore him or underestimate his influence, for better or for worse.

I am not a specialist in cinematography, so my considerations here are those of a mere spectator, with an interest in the subject matter.

The fact that the movie is set in North African context and played by Arab actors is a plus, giving more authenticity to the story and to its contextualisation. This, however, has a downside, it seems to me. The life of Augustine before his conversion is highly ‘sanitised’ and reflects very little the scandalous sexual immorality in which the young Augustine lived his life before conversion.

One the other side, the ambiguity of Augustine’s relationship to power is illustrated quite well in the movie. His daylight dream of being received in triumph in Tagaste, after his initial failure in the school of rhetoric is emblematic in this sense. As is his cowardice, pointedly underline by his other, which prompted him to disappear from Bishop Ambrose’s palace when the hierarch was supposed to be arrested. No surprise then to see, years later, Bishop Augustine’s utterly unjust attitude towards his theological opponent, Pelagius.

Monica, the great hero of the story in Christian chronicles, appears to me, besides her undeniable commitment to the Christian faith, as she understood it, as a pale character and a confused woman. She buys completely into the patriarchal mindset of the time, and not only gladly accepts, but appears to justify the abusive attitude of her husband, almost finding justification for it as a divine right. Furthermore, she has no hesitation in accepting the injustice of the social rules of the time that forbid Augustine’s marriage with his concubine, Tanit, (played brilliantly by Sandra Chihaoui), with whom he had a son, Adeodatus. Even more, Monica does not hesitate to suggest to Augustine another woman for marriage, in total insensitivity to the mother of his child.

Tanit (Sandra Chihaoui)

For me, the great hero of this movie was Tanit, the Christian slave who was Augustine’s concubine. She is in this story the best illustration of Christian love, during her entire relationship with Augustine, as proven, in the end, by her supreme sacrifice, in leaving her son in Monica’s care and disappearing forever from Augustine’s life, in order not to be an obstacle in his ecclesiastic career. Similarly, in the contemporary parallel story of the documentary on Augustine, Kenza is the luminous loving figure, in comparison with Hedi, the confused French-Algerian journalist.

The historical part of the movie ends with Augustine’s decision of celibacy being presented as an act of Christian heroism. For me, the true heroism would have been for Augustine to look for the estranged Tanit, and to establish with her a legitimate family, in spite of social convenience. But, of course, that would have been to much to expect even from a genius hero like ‘Saith’/Blessed Augustine.

Sorry! Not my cup of tea. Or coffee if you wish.

The movie could be watched, probably for a limited time, on youtube

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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