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Help for the dead: A review of the film Purgatory

Polish director Michael Kondrat’s new film about a commonly misunderstood doctrine is uneven in places, but is a timely program for a modern world that constantly avoids and tries to escape death.

A scene from the film "Purgatory", which is directed by Michal Kondrat and stars Małgorzata Kożuchowska (left). (www.purgatorymovie.com)

MPAA Rating, Not rated at the time of this review
USCCB Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Polish director Michael Kondrat has been hard at work producing a series of excellent Catholic docu-dramas of the past two years including Love and Mercy: Faustina and Two Crowns.

Now, he has created the first film not about a saint but a commonly misunderstood doctrine: Purgatory. The film employs the writings and experiences of many saints combined with contemporary theologians to paint a picture not just of what purgatory may look like us, but—most importantly—how the living are perceived by our beloved departed.

It’s a timely program for a modern world that constantly avoids and tries to escape death, but must be reminded of everyone’s inevitable fate and of the afterlife.

While not a biography, the film centers around the life of Polish mystic Fulla Horak. In early adulthood, during the 1920s, she was a hardened atheist and boldly challenged a Christian friend’s foolish faith at a party. Her friend is unfazed, and Horak discovers that she had no responses to her friend’s rebuttals.

A decade later, Horak was not only Catholic but God allowed her to see the souls in Purgatory. She compiled her visions into a book entitled Afterlife. The film uses this book and other mystics, such as Padre Pio, as the springboard from which to discuss the concept. It must be admitted that, as of this writing, I could find little information (in English) about Horak and her visions. I have no knowledge of the canonical status of the visions or the overall holiness of Horak’s life. However, the theological information given in the film is entirely orthodox.

Purgatory is a place of hope but also great suffering. There is hope because Heaven is so near; yet suffering as the souls has not yet fully detached themselves from sin and the world. Thus, the dead need our prayers and attention. Again and again, Horak has visions of souls begging her to pray for them and mourning how their own family has forgotten them.

Prayer for the dead is a vital spiritual work of mercy just as important as feeding the hungry. It is a sobering fact that there are more dead people than living ones, nearly all of whom need our prayer at some point. The gates of Heaven are not iron but pearly, and we must keep our relationship with the Church Suffering just as fresh as with the Church Militant.

As a cinematic work, Purgatory is not nearly as compelling as Love and Mercy, mostly due to the lack of a central narrative. It was also disappointing that Kondrat does not explore the Biblical roots of Purgatory. However, there are plenty of keen insights and dozens of interesting accounts. I was especially interested in the “purgatory relic” phenomena, which I previously did not know existed. Apparently souls in purgatory will leave physical impressions on objects to make their presence known. There is even a gallery of these objects in the Vatican Museum, including a clear handprint on a sacred text left during prayer.

Kondrat is a fine filmmaker who, it must be acknowledged, still has some growing to do as an artist. However, every film he creates is a powerful work of evangelization, and I eagerly await his annual entry. While these films may not be great entertainment for a Saturday, they are essential viewing for classrooms. I hope for many more.


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About Nick Olszyk 167 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

10 Comments

  1. Offer your next Rosary for the most forgotten soul in purgatory.

    Then – do it again.

    Have a Mass offered for the most forgotten soul in purgatory.

    Then – do it again.

    Who knows – someone might do the same thing for you someday.

  2. Haven’t both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict 16th written definitively that “purgatory” is a state of mind and not a distinct place/time, which state of mind may cause great pain both in this life and perhaps in the next. But since we can know nothing about the state of mind of the dead, wouldn’t Catholics be better off praying for and trying to reduce the painful states of mind of the living?
    Perhaps even abandoning the definitive traditional concept of purgatory and keeping only the value of it as as need for humility and for the fear and respect for God, the only good, and as following our deep instinct to want to come, alive or dead, into God’s presence as clean and undefiled as possible. When subjects once came for an audience with the king, they wanted to present their best side. Purgatory stems from our human psychological need and not a painful purging necessary by some metaphysical or theological axiom. We create our own purgatory by failing to live up to our human potential, but we can never be “perfect” alive or dead. and it seems obvious that God does not expect us to be perfect. If in heaven we are to know even as we are known by God, surely God knows us better than we know ourselves. It seems both impossible and unnecessary that even after millions of years of painful purging of our sins and failings we would by that alone be worthy of the beatific vision, to have earned our destiny of knowing God as God knows us.

    • Maria Simma’s conferences on the suffering souls visiting her and begging for masses and rosaries might adjust your thinking. After reading her assurance that a bouquet of 9 masses would save a soul, I had 2 bouquets said for family members. Her experiences are eye opening. Her confessor would contact dioceses in foreign countries, discover the agonising souls visiting her were real recently deceased members of parishes, and ask family to have masses said as requested… Maria Simma insist on the importance of praying for Holy Souls. She was chosen for this strange and lonely mission aged 20 and dedicated her entire life to it. Reading her simple words of remarkable everyday contact with the Holy Souls inspires prayer for the Church Suffering as well as the Church Militant. Both Peter AND Paul? 😉

    • If you don’t believe in Purgatory…that’s you prerogative…but you won’t have long till you’ll find out for yourself. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

    • I am praying for you! Disappointed that you start off on track and in agreement with the movie’s idea of the human psychology aspect of purgatory, but not able to recognize that this psychological need is not a failing in any way, but a direct result of how God Himself made humanity, and part of being created in His image and likeness. What I am driving at, I guess (I am just well read, but no theologian) is that it is not considered a failing of a person but the natural state of a soul to desire God, but if they have not repented for their sins, this still requires some cleansing before heaven, in accord with God being all-just as well as being all-merciful. Part of the mystery we probably never fully comprehend, but these two aspects of God are not actually in conflict, but complementary. As to the expressed teachings of the Popes; while they provide insights from a clearly well informed and vetted source (one you referenced even a Saint), even that does not clearly make their insight dogma, but simply a window into understanding part of the mysterious the Church professes. I think the only conflict with the theology of the movie would be in the physicality of it, which you mention. I guess the film-maker was highlighting the evidence from the many mystical visions and some physical evidence to suggest that it is or can be linked to the physical places of ones life and sins. While that is not Catholic dogma, it does seem consistent with the concept of purgatory as a ‘place’ between earth and heaven, between our earthly temporal existence and our eternal reward! Is it a ‘place’ that the physical world can interact with? Well, God being all-powerful (OK, that might sound like a cop-out)…At Mass, God has created a ‘place’ on Earth where Heaven and Earth intersect. Why not purgatory, especially if it serves the purpose of helping advance the kingdom, both by allowing the Church suffering to call out for help, which then further calls the Church militant to prayer (and thus, holiness), and through this process, more souls are saved and enter into God’s glory!

  3. Matthew 5:23-26
    “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Reconcile with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid up the last penny.”

    [Jesus is assuring us (“truly I say to you”) that we will be imprisoned for a portion of our transgressions until we have paid the last penny if we do not forgive others or obey. Key word ”until.”. It is clear that once we have paid for our sins, then we will be released from our prison. Not hell where there is no escape It is purgatory where you will be imprisoned for a time (read: purified and made holy) but eventually allowed into heaven.]

    1 Corinthians 3:12-15
    Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will come to light; for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

    [Saved, but still will suffer loss as yet through fire. And “the day” Paul is speaking of is the Day of Judgment. Many whose works were odious to God, but he a believer, God will save but he will have to be purified through fire. Purgatory is a cleansing fire.]

    Note: For me, I was greatly disappointed by this film makers movie on St. Faustina. The Divine Mercy of Christ revealed to and implored by Christ to Faustina was completely missed. As were so many arresting and comforting words of Jesus to Faustina. And the evidence for its authenticity. The story it did tell moved no protestant to a greater understanding of the most important message for our times. (imo)

  4. Matthew 5.19:

    “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

    Disease, poverty, warfare, miserable weather — these are the products of mankind’s turning of the back on God’s precepts, commands, and laws. These are the results of the Fall of Adam and Eve. These conditions clearly are Purgatorial, and to find how to be free of them is what the ministry of Christ represented. When you leave this world your soul will receive what it merited, and then continue in another body. It is seeking to know God, and accepting the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, (See Jer. 31.31-34; Lk. 22.20) that will secure the blessings of the Eternal Covenant (See Lev.26).

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I will give you a response after I view it. Purgatory is as real and important as anything we are doing here today. The world needs God and moat seem too afraid to think about it.

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