— To find screenings of The Triumph throughout the U.S. click here.
I recently got the chance to see Sean Bloomfield’s newest film, The Triumph. The film was playing at an AMC theater, in a suburb outside of Chicago, an hour-and-a-half drive from my house in the city. Making great time, I arrived two hours early for the screening, and found a used bookstore across the street where I went to kill time.
As irony – or Providence – would have it, I found a Medjugorje book in the store, bought it, and saw that two chapters were dedicated to Sean Bloomfield’s conversion story and experiences with Medjugorje. The book was Wayne Weible’s A Child Shall Lead Them: Stories of Transformed Young Lives in Medjugorje.
Reading it before the screening proved providential indeed, not only in seeing how far Sean has come in his life because of the transforming encounter with Our Lady of Medjugorje, which made the cinematic experience with this filmmaker’s work that much more fascinating, but also in realizing that this movie — likewise — has the potential to transform young lives.
Towards the end of the film, I found myself sitting in the theater, enraptured, and thoughtfully reflecting: “I love this movie.”
The Triumph is a bold film. It makes a lot of courageous choices, creating an original, edgy, and unapologetic experience at the cinema. Using fast-paced camera-work, unconventional angles, a thrilling sound-track, and vivid re-enactments of the first days of the apparitions (which have a touch of the whimsical to them, honoring the otherworldliness that is a mystical encounter), the documentary is a cool, stylish movie filled with raw energy, creativity, and an intensity that is often absent when it comes to films on spiritual matters.
I recall that when Randall Sullivan, as a secular journalist years ago working for RollingStone Magazine, began researching Medjugorje, he was critical of all the books that seemed like “devotionalist drivel” to him on the subject. Essentially, he ended up writing one of the best journalistic accounts of the apparitions ever written with The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions, a book that can appeal to both secular and religious audiences.
If we were to transfer the same perspective to films, you could say that the Triumph is anything but “devotionalist drivel,” having an appeal that could easily open the hearts and minds of a bigger – meaning both a secular and a younger – audience.
Worlds collide in this movie as if East meets West. The Triumph follows an American named Ben, a 28-year-old man –- fun-loving, youthful, adventurous, filled with energy and life yet also a bit immature, vulnerable and tragicomic in so many ways, with a deep-seated emptiness and angst within his soul that the world cannot satisfy, searching for something—something deeper.
Ben, who is struggling with addiction, ends up in Medjugorje in search of peace and inner freedom. At first, he’s not sure whether he believes in the supernatural experiences of the visionaries or not. Receiving an invitation to be present at the apparition of visionary Mirjana Soldo, who is a reoccurring and powerful presence throughout the film, Ben’s ambiguous faith is tested—with monumental results.
A climactic moment comes in the film when Ben gets a chance to sit down and speak with Mirjana; a beautiful and priceless encounter. The reality of polar opposites coming face-to-face is evident here, as Ben, who in many ways resembles a Johnny-Knoxville- MTV-generation type faces the Slavic visionary who experiences monthly visits from the Mother of God. Of course, what is most endearing is Mirjana’s obvious normalcy.
The authenticity of her joy, her sense of humor, the sincerity of her faith, her wisdom and spiritual motherhood, are all conveyed in this exchange in the most human and natural ways, beyond the grasp that any interview (no matter how thoughtful or sincere) could capture. Few things are as revealing as the sublime intimacy of two human beings spontaneously conversing with each other.
This is a scene that speaks wonders to Medjugorje’s authenticity through Mirjana’s witness; watch it, watch the way she treats, and interacts with, Ben—notice the depth of goodness, empathy, genuine interest, appreciation and joy that emanates from this visionary—you see an encounter which behind the mask of simplicity uncovers the depths of holiness in various ways. It is a pleasure and an honor to watch.
One of the most fascinating portrayals in the Triumph is how well the film depicts the struggle with addiction, a reality addressed by a psychiatrist, by priests, by a visionary, and by an addict, as well as numerous recovering (or recovered) addicts, in the film.
One of my favorite interviews came from Dr. James Paul Pandarakalam, a U.K. psychiatrist who has published scientific papers on the events in Medjugorje, personally examining the ecstasies of the visionaries. Dr. Pandarakalam also spoke eloquently of addiction, making a fascinating comparison between chemical and spiritual solutions, examining how human beings yearn for a higher state of consciousness – for a purer and deeper state – and often succumb to chemical methods (drugs or alcohol) in attempts to reach such a state when they should, in fact, be seeking the true solution: spiritual methods (an encounter with God, with the interior life, with true peace and freedom).
These are deep, fascinating and important issues which are seldom addressed so purely and eloquently. It made me think of a few things. Consider that one of the 12 Steps to Recovery in the Alcoholics Anonymous program is a spiritual experience – monumental for the conversion to transpire. Consider that Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the papal preacher and such a holy man, writes of the deeper encounter with the Holy Spirit – an encounter of pure experientialism with the divine – using the language of “sober intoxication” (again, a state of “intoxication” -– but spiritual, not chemical; thus truer).
It made me reflect about how when I first wrote an article sharing my testimony of my past struggles with addiction, and the liberating consolation and freedom that I found in faith, I originally titled the article “In Search of Ecstasy.” For me, as for so many countless others, the deeper ecstasy came when the experience of God came into my life. That is when a higher state of consciousness, an intimate mystical reality allowing one to find freedom and empowerment, penetrates our lives: when we give ourselves to the Lord and develop a meaningful, growing relationship with Him, one of constant conversion and interior depth.
Sean Bloomfield is no stranger to such a reality, as I read before the screening how he went through a period of alcohol abuse in college before discovering a life of faith and meaning in God through Our Lady’s apparitions. The filmmaker thus is no stranger to the seriousness of the situation that his art depicts through this powerful documentary.
I was also glad to see that the Triumph does not shy away from the anthropological situation surrounding the history of Medjugorje and the other regions of the former Yugoslavia, as being areas of historic (and horrific) conflict between Croatian Catholics, Serbian Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Here Ben (as the film’s protagonist) plays a double-role.
Beyond being the subject of the movie Ben becomes a facilitator (almost an MC, of sorts) who conducts interviews with Serbian Orthodox priests at a monastery and with Muslims at a mosque, entering these sacred places of worship and becoming an actor in the play, so to speak, as the camera follows him and records his exposure to these sites and the inter-religious encounters that come with them—encounters which ultimately are able to balance moments of the solemn with the comic, presenting a perfect paradox that is so often experienced with experimental efforts at ecumenism and with an encounter with sacred joy, which frequently arrives as a result of such efforts.
The Triumph is a different film, unique from any other Medjugorje film. There’s an emphasis on the youth. There’s great emphasis on the annual Youth Festival in Medjugorje and on the joy and spiritual freedom that so many young people meet there. There’s emphasis on the struggle with substance abuse that so many young people encounter throughout the world, and also a great depiction of the Cenacolo Community in Medjugorje which helps young addicts overcome that which enslaves them. There’s emphasis on the inter-religious importance of all that Medjugorje represents, as the Queen of Peace introduced herself as a Mother of all people, not just Catholics. There’s striking emphasis on the severity of the Medjugorje secrets and world events which vividly speak of how far humanity has gone from God, conveying the urgency of the situation in an electrifying wake-up call.
The most original thing about this film is its style. As mentioned, it has a very edgy, fast-paced style that is intense, energy-driven, and free of any restrictive boundaries underwritten by conventional filmmaking. I like to think that when dealing with such edgy and intense issues like addiction, mysticism, and a world in need of spiritual transformation, then it’s not a bad idea to take such an innovative and electric path in conveying the realities depicted. So many young people, and so many in the secular world especially, will relate well to how this is done. Judging by his testimony, I think Sean Bloomfield has a gift for connecting with (and evangelizing) such audiences. This movie – and its spreading – makes an important contribution to efforts in the new evangelization.