Sister Smile -- Film Review

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TAORMINA, Italy -- 'Sister Smile," Stijn Coninx's film on the life of the Belgian "singing nun" Jeannine Deckers, owes much of its success domestically in Belgium and France to star Cecile de France. A far cry from Debbie Reynolds and her squeaky-clean performance in the 1966 film, De France brings restless passion and a steely energy, as well as her own singing, to the true-life tale of the Dominican nun whose 1963 "Dominique" was an international success but whose own life was tumultuous.

More than a biopic, "Sister Smile" is a film about a dynamic woman who needed to express herself at a time when women still had few options to do so. It takes its name from the pseudonym (Soeur Sourire) under which Deckers recorded her music and quickly establishes her contradictory and rebellious nature.

Craving freedom, as a teenager in the late 1950s, she left her stifling home with a suitcase and guitar in hand, and paradoxically entered a Dominican convent, very much against her parents' wishes. Once there, and despite her sincere belief in God, her disdain for authority and the Church's inability to adapt to the social changes taking place at the time became even more evident.

Sensing a need to harness the young nun's energy or else lose her, the Mother Superior eventually gave Deckers back her guitar. It was not long before her peppy song about the order's founder attracted attention, a documentary crew and a recording deal.

When even "The Ed Sullivan Show" came knocking, Deckers' desire to become a star exploded, as did the rift between some of her more emancipated views and the conservative Church. Once again with suitcase and guitar in tow, she left the convent to continue her newfound career as a musical sensation. However, with the convent owning the rights to "Dominique" and her pseudonym, Deckers was thwarted in her attempts and started wallowing in drugs, alcohol and self-pity.

An attempt at a comeback tour in Canada was cut short when she debuted a song about the marvels of the birth control pill. Trapped by her previous stellar success, Deckers found that the public was not more interested in the singing nun than the singer.

The scriptwriters deftly portray a complex woman who herself did not know how to balance her faith with conflicting feelings about her goals, sexuality and artistry. Only when Deckers gave up music and returned to live with her friend Annie (Sandrine Blancke), who would become her lifelong lover, did she find peace.

Stijn smoothly stitches the events together to create an even narrative that does not suffer from the biopic trapping of explaining too much. Yet for those unfamiliar with Deckers' story -- and there are many the ending is ambiguous if not misleading.

Venue: Taormina Film Festival
Production companies: Paradis Films, Les Films de la Passerelle
Cast: Cecile de France, Sandrine Blancke, Chris Lomme, Marie Kremer, Jo Deseure, Jan Decleir, Johan Leysen, Dilip Peeters, Christelle Cornil, Tsilla Chelton
Director: Stijn Coninx
Screenwriters: Chris Vander Stappen, Ariane Fert, Coninx
Producers: Erick Heumann, Marc Sillam, Christine Pireaux
Director of photography: Luca Coassin
Production designer: Arnaud de Moleron
Music: Bruno Fontaine
Costume designers: Florence Scholtes, Christophe Pidre
Editor: Philippe Ravoet
Sales company: Roissy Films
No rating, 122 minutes