Veteran Canadian helmer Lea Pool’s “The Passion of Augustine” gets pleasing mileage from a potentially cliche-ridden premise by sticking to the inherent modesty of its setting: a late 1960s convent girls’ school in rural Quebec, threatened by shrinking church funds and secular education trends. The combination of nuns, teens and let’s-put-on-a-show plot mechanics might have easily resulted in a conventionally cute crowdpleaser, but to Pool and co-scenarist Marie Vien’s credit, this middleweight tale with lots of classical music provides a good dose of inspirational uplift without ever seeming to reach for it in the obvious, expected ways. Outside Canada (where it launched regionally this spring), the pic is a solid candidate for select tube and rental sales.
Mother Augustine, nee Simone (Celine Bonnier), presides over a small-town, small-scale convent whose boarding school she’s singlehandedly turned into a channel for her primary passion (vocation aside, perhaps): music. Her students have already won several prestigious piano competitions, attesting to the value of her program. But the liberalizing policies forced by 1962’s Vatican II council is upsetting the very traditional ways of this Catholic institution. Meanwhile, even more drastic progressive shifts in the secular world have made such religious education seem outdated, even objectionable to many politicians and citizens.
As a result, schools like Augustine’s are on the chopping block, their very existence at the mercy of draconian budget cuts. To make matters worse, the region’s pragmatic new Mother General (Marie Tifo) is no fan of music in general, or the defiant Mother Augustine in particular.
While tending to these worrying administrative matters, Augustine must also cope with a new enrollee: Her own niece Alice (Lysandre Menard), who’s unceremoniously dropped off in the middle of the school term for murky reasons by her mother (Maude Guerin). Arriving in hippie poncho and floppy felt hat, Alice is a worldly exotic to her fellow classmates. Less impressed is Augustine, particularly once the girl segues at the keyboard from J.S. Bach to her own jazzy improvisations. That will not do here, and a medium-boil war of wills thus commences between Mother/mother substitute and undeniable instrumental prodigy.
The supporting characters are colorfully but just glancingly drawn, with only one other student, a nervous stammerer (Elizabeth Tremblay-Gagnon) with the singing voice of an angel, getting much screen time. The sole significant subplot concerns grumpy Sister Lise (Diane Levallee) and her ill-concealed panic at various modernizations including, eventually, a radically less concealing habit. But “The Passion of Augustine” never feels simplistic, or slow, its leisurely yet purposeful progress gracefully folding in numerous performances of classical piano works — as well as gorgeous vocal excerpts for girls’ and women’s choirs, performed by ensembles from original score composer/music director Francois Dompierre’s alma mater, Conservatoire de Musique de Montreal.
While the adult thesps represent a rock-solid cross-section of practiced Quebec stage and screen talent, the younger actors include several newcomers who are genuine musical talents, including pretty, accomplished pianist Menard.
No Catholic-school-is-hell horror story, “The Passion of Augustine” takes its visual cue from the simultaneous austerity and cheerful industry of the convent, its handsome look furthered by d.p. Daniel Jobin’s frequent shots of the beautiful wintertime countryside. Other tech/design contributions are fine, naturally including the fine-tuned audio aspects.