How do you make a documentary about purgatory? Not like this.

A new Polish documentary from the maker of films about St. Faustina Kowalska and St. Maximilian Kolbe muddles Church teaching about purification after death with a sometimes appalling presentation of the ideas of a Ukrainian mystic.

Purgatory screens in theaters for two nights only — Monday, October 25 and Thursday, October 28 — via Fathom Events. SDG

The Catholic Church’s official teaching on purgatory can be summed up in a few brief sentences. Those who die in the state of grace and in friendship with God, but imperfectly purified, undergo a temporal process of purification. This process involves suffering — the Church’s tradition speaks in this connection of cleansing fire, although this suffering is entirely different from the punishment of hell — but the living can assist those being purified and ease their suffering through prayer, good works, penance, and, above all, the sacrifice of the Mass.

While not much more can be said with authority, artists, spiritual writers, homilists, and mystics have not been shy about offering considerably more detail. St. Catherine of Genoa maintained that the sufferings of purgatory, though different in nature from those of hell, are no less severe — but also that those in purgatory experience joys and peace beyond anything on earth.

“Immense joy and great suffering” is how a French priest interviewed for Purgatory, from the Polish Catholic documentarian Michal Kondrat, describes the state of the holy souls undergoing purification. There are other helpful perspectives sprinkled through the film, mostly in similar talking-head interview footage featuring Polish, Italian, or French priests. These are overshadowed, though, by the filmmaker’s decision to structure the film around the visionary writings of a 20th-century Ukrainian mystic named Stefania Fulla Horak, some of whose ideas, as presented here, come across as bizarre, appalling, and cruel.

Purgatory is Kondrat’s third feature film, after Love and Mercy: Faustina (about St. Faustina Kowalska) and Two Crowns (about St. Maximilian Kolbe). Kondrat’s kitchen-sink approach blends talking-head commentary, docudrama and fictional vignettes, archival video and still photography, location shooting, sacred images and artwork, montage, expository voiceover, and voiceover readings from Horak’s writings. (These are read in English by Polish actress Lena Gora, who also dubs the English dialogue of actress Malgorzata Kozuchowska, who plays Horak in the docudrama sequences.)

Perhaps most insistently, the film emphasizes Horak’s idea that grief, sorrow, and tears for our loved ones not only affords them no comfort, but actually burdens or harms them in some way.

Purgatory is Kondrat’s most technically accomplished film to date, with a surer handling of the diversity of his materials. I appreciate that the interview footage this time around is subtitled rather than dubbed. The weak link continues to be the docudrama segments, which are flat and amateurish and (once again) enacted with Polish-accented English dialogue. English is also used in expository voiceover (delivered by Relevant Radio host Drew Mariani), but that’s not as big a deal.

Although Purgatory touches on the experiences and actions of other mystics, including canonized saints like Padre Pio, the film is dominated by Horak. This seems an odd and unfortunate choice, especially since Kondrat helpfully includes a caution from an elderly Italian priest against private revelations that lack Church approval, but never tells us whether Horak’s visions have been approved, or even evaluated, at any level in the Church.

Who is Horak? Virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, the visionary was born in Ukraine in 1909 and died in 1993. She apparently abandoned her faith as a young girl, but recovered it as a result of mystical encounters with heavenly visitors, including St. Pio, St. John Vianney, St. Joan of Arc, and Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich.

Horak’s account of purgatory includes various “circles,” from the initial “circle of wandering,” in which souls “hover close to the earth” but have no contact with it, to circles of “hunger, fear, horror, and distress” about which less is revealed. Perhaps most insistently, the film emphasizes Horak’s idea that grief, sorrow, and tears for our loved ones not only affords them no comfort, but actually burdens or harms them in some way.

“Nothing is so burdensome to the soul in purgatory,” we hear from Horak’s writings, “as the grief or the hate of those who remain on earth.”

That our hatred should burden souls in the process of purification makes sense, but that our grief should burden them seems baffling and cruel — and it’s not a passing idea tossed off in one line. “The indescribable suffering of the soul is caused by its inability to tell their loved ones that their tears and sorrow do not bring it any relief or benefit,” Horak emphasizes. “In fact, they only make its passage more difficult and add to its suffering.” Not surprisingly, then, Horak denounces grief and pain over the loss of loved ones as not just useless and harmful, but selfish.

Perhaps there are translation issues or missing context. Grief and pain can be taken to excessive and unhealthy extremes, and it’s conceivable that loved ones in purgatory might be saddened (though not, I think, burdened in the purgatorial sense) by excessive grief on earth. But nowhere in Purgatory is there any acknowledgement of the proper place of grief and pain in bereavement. What’s especially frustrating this is that we’re repeatedly assured by Horak and the clerical interviewees that all kinds of suffering — voluntary penances, of course, but also heat and cold, headaches, family misunderstandings, you name it — can be offered up on behalf of holy souls in purgatory. But not grief? This one kind of pain is useless, harmful, even selfish?

While the explicit message of this sequence is correct — we must forgive all who sin against us, living or dead — framing domestic violence solely in terms of the victim’s duty to forgive the abuser creates insoluble problems.

Kondrat illustrates these ideas in vignettes with touches of magical realism. As the family follows the casket out of the church, the camera lingers on a man in a pew kneeling to pray alone. An older man wandering down the side aisle slides into the pew behind the praying man, gazing appreciatively: the soul of the dead man. Later we see the dead man’s daughter-in-law manipulatively cajoling his son into skipping going to the grave on the anniversary of Dad’s death — while Dad’s spirit sits sadly on the couch. “For the soul in purgatory,” Horak tells us ominously, “family or loved ones are of no importance if they cannot be expected to help them.”

The hardest sequence to watch includes a vignette with a young widow identified in the credits as “Alcoholic’s Wife,” though a more accurate title would be “Batterer’s Wife.” In fleeting but brutal flashbacks, “Alcoholic” violently shoves and slaps his wife, even thrashing her with a belt. (That these shots are carefully framed and cut to just avoid explicitly showing the worst of the violence makes them no easier to watch.) Despite this, the widow goes to the cemetery and lights a candle for her late husband — a scenario that comes amid a series of warnings about the importance of forgiveness and warnings that those who do not forgive will not be forgiven.

While the explicit message of this sequence is correct — we must forgive all who sin against us, living or dead — framing domestic violence solely in terms of the victim’s duty to forgive the abuser creates insoluble problems. The widow in the vignette may be in no further physical danger from her departed abuser, but the surrounding discussion of forgiveness is more general in scope, and not limited to forgiving the dead. But forgiveness, in connection with domestic abuse, is an enormously fraught topic that can’t be responsibly invoked without some attention to what forgiveness is not: for example, it does not equate to trusting, staying with, or even talking to the abuser, nor is the trauma of abuse negated or mooted by the decision to forgive. Perhaps, given the documentary’s focus, there was no good way to bring up topics like physical safety and emotional healing. Well then, don’t introduce images of domestic abuse to illustrate the theme of forgiveness.

What’s frustrating is that there’s good material too. A Polish priest describes purgatory as a “school of love,” identifying the cleansing fire with longing for God. An Italian priest offers a lovely account of the picture advanced by St. John Henry Newman and C.S. Lewis of the soul at judgment eagerly embracing purgatory in order to be cleaned up so as to be fit company for the saints and God most holy.

There are some splendid paintings and sacred images, and Kondrat ends on a high note with a bravura dolly shot down the main aisle of a church empty except for Horak kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. The camera turns and pulls back — and, in a final flourish of magical realism, the church is revealed to be full of throngs of holy souls who slowly, solemnly turn and exit, with the camera tracking back down the aisle, passing into the white light flooding in the doors as the camera fades to white. It’s almost goosebump-inducing. If only Kondrat had been as inspired in his selection and presentation of material.

P.S. Purgatory is accompanied by a 12-minute supplementary feature offering a pretty standard, if somewhat chatty and glib, theological explanation of purgatory by Father Chris Alar of the Congregation of Marian Fathers — an explanation he says is intended to “make this movie make perfect sense.” A movie ought to make sense of itself. There’s also more discussion about Fulla Horak, whose works are being translated into English. (Is the documentary part of a campaign for eccelesiastical approval for her visions or a cause for canonization?) There’s also an 800 number to call to connect with the Holy Souls Sodality and the URL for their website, prayforsouls.com.

Documentary, Religious Themes