At once passionately heartfelt and dramatically bland, “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story” is a well-intentioned but only fitfully compelling biopic about the human rights activist who has been called America’s answer to Mother Teresa. Pic may find an enthusiastic audience in specialized bookings and non-theatrical venues. But it will take a miracle for the period drama to click with mainstream ticketbuyers.
After a brief prologue, which introduces a sixtysomething Dorothy Day (1897- 1980) in a prison cell after her arrest at a 1963 ban-the-bomb protest, “Entertaining Angels” jumps back to 1917. Dorothy (Moira Kelly) is a militant suffragette and radical journalist who’s very much a part of Greenwich Village’s bohemian scene. She wants to write about the deplorable living conditions in New York slums. But she also wants to drink and party all night with the likes of Eugene O’Neill (James Lancaster) and other leftist luminaries.
Deeply depressed after a failed love affair and a traumatic abortion, Dorothy retreats to Staten Island for two years. Forster Batterham (Lenny Von Dohlen), a former drinking buddy, shows up on the beach one day. Before long, they are living in common-law marriage, and Dorothy is carrying Forster’s child. At the same time, however, Dorothy begins to question her own atheistic views after close contact with Sister Aloysius (Melinda Dillon), a nun who operates a soup kitchen and provides temporary shelter for homeless people.
By the time Dorothy is ready to return to Manhattan, she and her daughter are baptized Catholics. (Forster, who’s averse to both religion and long-term commitment, drifts away.) At first, Dorothy tries to resume her career as a muckraking journalist for radical leftist newspapers. But the more she involves herself in helping the poor and homeless of the city, she more she’s ready to start her own newspaper, the Catholic Worker, which also evolves into a way of life.
Under the guidance of Peter Maurin (Martin Sheen), a French-born philosopher and itinerant social activist, Dorothy operates a combination soup kitchen, homeless shelter and newspaper office. Her charitable activities along with her frequent criticisms of a system that benefits the rich and exploits the poor cause many to brand her a socialist at best, a Soviet-sympathetic Marxist at worst. But Dorothy repeatedly insists that she simply is doing the Lord’s work, even when an image-conscious cardinal (Brian Keith) tries to talk her into dropping the word “Catholic” from her organization’s name.
Period flavor is vividly evoked throughout, thanks to the impressive efforts of cinematographer Mike Fash, production designer Charles Rosen and costumer Gail Evans-Ivy. (Many of the New York exterior scenes were filmed at Paramount Pictures’ “New York” backlot, designed by Albert Bremmer.) Although produced on a relatively small budget by Paulist Pictures, the same Catholic group responsible for “Romero,” pic looks far more lavish and richly detailed than many more costly features.
Unfortunately, director Michael Ray Rhodes isn’t able to ignite much fiery passion while telling Day’s story. Working from an episodic script by John Wells , Rhodes does manage to convey just how difficult it can be for even a modern-day saint to deal with poor and downtrodden folks who also happen to be larcenous, incontinent or mentally disturbed. Rhodes’ problem isn’t that he wants to present a rose-colored, relentlessly upbeat picture, but that his pic lacks forceful narrative momentum and sufficient dramatic conflict.
There are signs that “Entertaining Angels” was reshaped and rearranged in the editing room. In one scene, Dorothy sports a bandage on her forehead. Yet she doesn’t suffer the injury that necessitates that bandage until several scenes later.
Kelly gives a credible performance, even though her aging makeup isn’t consistently applied. (She looks a good deal older during a testimonial dinner scene than she does in subsequent scenes.) Kelly is especially good at expressing Dorothy’s occasional moments of self-doubt. The pic could have used a few more of those moments.
As Maurin, Sheen relies heavily on twinkly-eyed sagacity and a tricky French accent. Among the supporting players, Dillon is a standout with her serenely self-assured portrayal of a nun who is absolutely certain that, when push comes to shove, the Lord will provide.