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A Conventional Portrait of Social Activist ‘Dorothy Day’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dorothy Day, the great social activist, once remarked unforgettably: “The best thing to do with the best things in life is to give them away.” Few among us have such unselfish generosity of spirit, but Day actually practiced what she preached--right up to her death in 1980 at 83 in her residence for the homeless in New York City.

From the start, Day was a supporter of radical causes concerned with the plight of the oppressed, but she was also a hearty bohemian--a woman of various lovers who entered a common-law marriage in 1925 and two years later bore a daughter. Yet her dedication to the downtrodden sparked an understandable spiritual longing that led to her eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism.

The woman whom historian David J. O’Brien proclaimed “the most significant, interesting and influential woman in the history of American Catholicism” deserves far better than “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story,” a relentlessly conventional treatment of the life of a most unconventional woman. Director Michael Rhodes and writer John Wells seem to run out of inspiration beyond the apt casting of the versatile Moira Kelly as Day.

As Day bravely attempts both to run a shelter and launch the socially committed Catholic Worker in the depths of the Depression--a two-pronged undertaking that provokes a spiritual crisis--Kelly actually brings this remarkable woman alive in a luminous portrayal. But Kelly’s Day is too much surrounded by the trite and the predictable. Martin Sheen affects a distractingly artificial French accent as her mentor Peter Maurin, and Lenny Von Dohlen is awkward as the father of her daughter. The film is needlessly vague about the passing of time and doesn’t even tell us that Day was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of a sportswriter.

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Outside Kelly, the film’s strongest element is Charles Rosen’s meticulously detailed period production design on what surely must have been a modest budget. Rosen has created a very real world for Day to inhabit; would that what was happening in it was less contrived and more lifelike.

Arguably, it’s good that attention is being paid Day, whose incredible life deserves a miniseries, but this film is like a previous Paulist production, “Romero,” in which the late Raul Julia was as outstanding as El Salvador’s martyred archbishop as the film awkward and unconvincing.

* MPAA rating: PG-13 for a range of thematic elements, some sexuality and brief language. Times guidelines: The film’s depictions of poverty and hardship may be too intense for children.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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‘Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story’

Moira Kelly: Dorothy Day

Lenny Von Dohlen: Forster

Martin Sheen: Peter Maurin

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Melinda Dillon: Sister Aloysius

A Paulist Pictures presentation. Director Michael Rhodes. Producer Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, C.S.P. Screenplay by John Wells. Cinematographer Mike Fash. Editor George Folsey Jr. Costumes Gail Evans-Ivy. Production designer Charles Rosen. Art director Mary Olivia McIntosh. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

* Exclusively at the AMC Century 14, Century City, (310) 553-8900.


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