It seems that movie reviews always call for an attitude of ironic detachment, or at least a tone of scientific indifference, toward their subjects. Allow me, however, to be frankly enthusiastic about The Last Summit (La Última Cima—2010). This low-budget documentary tribute to a late Spanish priest, Pablo Dominguez, might be the most powerful movie about the priesthood that I’ve seen to date. It invites, moreover, searching questions about our contemporary images of priesthood.
The tragic event that forms the constant background to The Last Summit turns out to be a hiking accident, an accident that cost Pablo Dominguez his life in 2009–at only 42 years of age. Posthumous interviews with family and friends, edited and reorganized around different aspects of his life and ministry, form the bulk of the movie. With the strange exception of a young priest who records corny music videos in his roman collar, Pablo’s friends come across as attractive and believable.
As a foil to these glowing encomia, however, the documentary also features street-interviews with “typical” Spaniards, interviews which—if they are in any way representative—suggest that the whole Iberian Peninsula runs a low-grade, anticlerical fever. This generalized antipathy perhaps makes the somewhat embattled tone of the narration a bit more understandable (the documentary opens, for instance, with an animation of a priest being crucified). It also makes the relative success of the film even more remarkable. It seems that the film, supported by an advertising budget of only 2,000 Euros, eventually attracted over 125,000 viewers to the 100+ Spanish art-house theaters that screened it.
According to the film’s narrator and director, Juan Manuel Cotelo, both the power and the novelty of The Last Summit lie in the fact that it documents the impact of an ordinary priest—i.e., one who is neither a Pope nor a pederast. However, it quickly becomes clear that Pablo is anything but ordinary. He is handsome, charismatic, an outdoorsman, the holder of two doctorates, and—despite all the foregoing—most remembered by his friends for the qualities of humility and prayerfulness. His preaching draws large crowds. His chance encounters with agnostics and sinners seem to trigger conversions. He travels, teaches, meditates and endures sickness at a humanly unsustainable rate. He has, in other words, many of the traditional notes of sanctity.
What makes Pablo Dominguez unique among saintly curés, however, is his simultaneous and seemingly effortless alignment with the contemporary “ethics of authenticity.” Interview after interview recounts his spontaneous affection, his wry sense of humor, his compassion for the suffering, his delight in the company of children, and his attunement to natural beauty. His friends recall that he said Mass with most devotion, for instance, not in the local basilica, but on the peaks of the Pyrenees.
One of the qualities most often attributed to Pablo is cercanía, or “closeness” (usually translated as “warmth” in the English subtitles). But his cercanía walks a fine line, notably resisting exaggerations in the priestly ideals of both the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church. Pablo’s manner clearly goes against the grain of the Tridentine-era manuals of priestly piety, which tended to encourage a certain sociological distancing—e.g., the construction of secluded seminaries, the avoidance of local taverns, the shunning of an indiscreet “familiarity” with one’s flock, the cultivation of a grave and measured bearing (which St. Ignatius, by the way, rather prized—see here). Pablo, who met his death while hiking with a young woman on Mt. Moncayo, is hardly the poster-boy for these values.
At the same time, Pablo doesn’t exactly go for the liberationist cercanía esteemed in many quarters of the Spanish speaking world. Pablo usually wears clerical attire (a much bolder statement in Spain, I’m told, than in the U.S.). He entered seminary out of high school. His life centers unabashedly on the celebration of the sacraments. He gives conferences to cloistered religious and preaches regularly about death and the life to come. His cercanía, in other words, does not devolve into redundancy; his family and friends frequently recall that he brought something distinctive to their lives.
In sum, one gets the impression that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had someone very much like Pablo when they crafted Optatam Totius, The Decree on Priestly Training. There they advised that seminarians receive “the fitting opportunity … for social and cultural contacts and for contact with one’s own family” (s. 3), that they
be formed in strength of character, and, in general, [that] they … learn to esteem those virtues which are held in high regard by men and which recommend a minister of Christ. Such virtues are sincerity of mind, a constant concern for justice, fidelity to one’s promises, refinement in manners, modesty in speech coupled with charity (s. 11).
Admittedly, the “manners” that Pablo refined are not the gruff austerity of a St. Jerome nor even the aristocratic reserve of the early Jesuits. They are the spontaneous and self-expressive “manners” esteemed in the contemporary West. Still, one can see how Pablo has been able to bring the “ethics of authenticity” and the demands of the Gospel into a sort of harmony in himself, and how this harmony has rendered him an unusually credible minister of Christ.
The Last Summit both inspires devout Catholics (especially priests and prospective priests), and gives pause to the disaffected. It debuted at one theater in Miami on Dec. 19 and, depending on its success, may come to theater near you. Highly recommended.