The Act of the Heart
(L'Acte du coeur)
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 103 min
Quest Film Productions
Martha Hayes (Genevieve Bujold), a young, devoutly religious woman from Quebec's North Shore who fancies herself a saint, arrives in Montreal to serve as nanny to a widowed business woman, Johane (Monique Leyrac), and her son Russell (Bill Mitchell). Martha joins a church choir and becomes emotionally attracted to Father Michael Ferrier (Donald Sutherland), an Augustinian monk who has selected her to sing solo in an interfaith concert. When Russell dies, Martha suffers a crisis of faith and declares her love to Ferrier in the church. Ferrier reciprocates and leaves the order so they can live together, with Martha singing at a roadhouse to support them. But she is tormented by guilt for betraying her profound religious principles and immolates herself on a hill overlooking Montreal.
The second of three films by Paul Almond featuring Bujold, his wife at the time (see also Isabel and Journey), The Act of the Heart aroused considerable difference of opinion upon its release. It was hailed by John Hofsess in Maclean’s magazine as an "astonishing example of a new mood, quality and purpose in Canadian filmmaking ... the first Canadian feature film that compares in artistic quality and importance with the best of our literature, painting and music ... a masterpiece, a film that ranks with the work of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini." Echoing this praise, Ron Blumer stated that "in terms of deep, rich subject matter it is head and shoulders above most features made on this side of the Atlantic."
Equally vociferous in their opinion were those who found the film pompous. Marshall Delaney called it "appallingly portentous ... full not of sophomoric film-school ingenuity but of graduate school symbol-mongering." He also deemed the tragic figure of Martha to be "one of the least likeable little prigs in the recent history of the cinema," while Molly Haskell pointed to the film’s failings on "the naturalistic level" as a serious flaw. Similar complaints about pretentiousness and lack of psychologically believable characters and plots were made about Almond’s other features – though no one denied his technical skills, nor his talent as a director of actors.
If The Act of the Heart is, finally, no more than the sum of its parts, it stands nonetheless as a profound statement on the universal themes of ritual, sacrifice and purification. Less a statement on God and theology, still less a portrait of profound love, it is essentially a film about the effects of repression, dominated by Bujold’s disturbing and commanding performance.
A disappointment at the box office, The Act of the Heart nevertheless won six Canadian Film Awards – including Direction (Almond) and Lead Actress (Bujold) – and was nominated as best foreign film by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.