Saint RalphWednesday, April 1st, 2009 7:33 pm—Film
Saint Ralph (Canada 2004, Comedy/Drama/Sport), Writer/Director: Michael McGowan
Saint Ralph is such an uplifting movie. It’s definitely capable of drawing both kinds of tears, in the very best way. I first saw it as a special screening at the Summer Institute of Film and Television in 2004. But I’m bringing it back in honour of my good friend GR, who’s getting ready to run the Boston Marathon in just over two weeks.
This is one film I’m proud to call Canadian. It’s written and directed by former distance runner Michael McGowan, and it tells the story of Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher), a 14-year-old Catholic schoolboy who believes that winning the 1954 Boston Marathon will be the miracle he needs to bring his mother out of a coma.
From the outset, it certainly looks like it will take a miracle. Ralph is an occasional smoker, and frequent self-abuser who is forced into running by Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent) after an “accidental” self-abuse incident in the community swimming pool—which involved a water jet and a conveniently angled view into the women’s change room. When Ralph shows up for his first practise, the stunned runners ask, “You’re not joining the cross-country team, are you?” “Of course I’m not joining,” Ralph replies. “I was conscripted.”
But after spending his first few weeks at the back of the pack, Ralph gets it into his head that if he can win the Boston Marathon in six months, his mother will miraculously awaken. So, with all the vigor and enthusiasm he used to give to self-abuse, Ralph commits himself to running. His passion inspires Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott)—once the top marathon runner in Canada—to help him train for Boston, despite Father Fitzpatrick’s strong disapproval.
In all the sports movies I’ve seen, I’ve never wanted a character to win as badly as I wanted Ralph to cross that finish line first. He’s so heartbreakingly earnest and sincere that you can’t help but root for him, even when his ideas seem completely implausible. No task is insurmountable, and nothing breaks his spirit (at least, never for very long). After reading up on Olympic diving, he decides there isn’t much competition in the field and starts his training off by belly flopping from the highest diving board with great gusto. When his dream girl turns him down because she plans to become a nun, he sees her calling as a way of denying her true feelings for him and refuses to give up.
By the time the starting gun goes off in Boston, nearly all the disbelievers have come around and are rooting for Ralph to win. Watching what he’s accomplished, and knowing the reasoning behind it, it’s impossible not to be swept up in the moment. Part of what makes the movie’s marathon climax so moving is the soundtrack. Gord Downie recorded a gorgeous, unusual arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah for the movie. It’s the thing I remember most about Saint Ralph after all these years. (And while we’re on the subject, if you’re a Leonard Cohen fan and haven’t heard Allison Crowe’s stunning version of the song, you should change that pronto. I think it’s even better than K.D. Lang’s beautiful version.)
For sports fans—and especially running fans—Saint Ralph is a sweet, funny little treat. And for everyone else, it’s always good to be reminded that people like Ralph exist. After all, as Father Hibbert says, “if we’re not chasing after miracles, what’s the point?”