The Triumph: A Critical Review,
by
Kevin J. Symonds, M.A.

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The Triumph is a 105-minute documentary on the alleged apparitions in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Hercegovina. The film is directed by Sean Bloomfield and produced by Zaid Emmanuel Jazrawi who describe the video as investigating “one of the greatest mysteries in the modern world… a real-life prophecy unfolding today.” The documentary was shot in Medjugorje and its environs.

When one hears the word “documentary,” it is common to think of a video that will discuss the history of a thing from its origins to the present or some point in the past. Interviews are conducted with people either involved with the history or who are otherwise knowledgeable about the subject. While some basic history is recounted, The Triumph is not so much a documentary in this mold as it is a chronicle of two people.

The first person is a young man named only in the film as “Ben.” He is around 28 years old, hails from Ohio and has substance abuse problems. The film opens up with Ben asking questions about his life in relation to God. He found himself in Medjugorje in 2011 after his family “brought him [to Medjugorje] in hopes of getting his life on track” says the documentary.

The second person chronicled in the storyline is alleged visionary Mirjana Dragicevic-Soldo. She is interviewed throughout the documentary, speaking in English, discussing Medjugorje, its history, message, etc. She is filmed during some of her alleged visions with Ben nearby. Towards the end of the film, she meets with Ben, talks with him, encourages him, etc.

Various other people are interviewed throughout the film and from different walks of life, from young people to priests. However, their role is clearly secondary and, at times, supportive of Ben and Mirjana who emerge as the main protagonists of the film.

Triumph is a difficult film to review for a number of reasons, primarily because of its subjective focus upon Ben’s experience. The film follows Ben emergence from a hard life of partying to suddenly being in a powerful faith environment. The shock of this environment forces Ben to examine his life and ask questions. The underlying theme is conversion—a central tenet of Medjugorje’s alleged messages. The problem created by this is the impossibility of understanding another man’s experience.

The viewers watch Ben struggle with faith questions and an instantaneous bond is formed. Add to this the “charm of music” (in the words of Pope Pius XI), which in Triumph is quite contemporary and upbeat, and the connection is sealed. In such a climate, any constructive criticism against the video can be conceived as a personal attack. This is most unfortunate because Medjugorje has a long and highly controversial history that deserves some treatment.

Triumph says next to nothing about the controversial matters as it presents Medjugorje in a favorable light. This manifests itself in its positive references to Our Lady “appearing” in Medjugorje and other such verbal acknowledgements that attribute a supernatural character to the alleged visions. These attributions are questionable in the light of Church directives on Medjugorje and may lead the unsuspecting faithful into disobedience.

It is not the intention of the film to present the controversial history and this approach has both pros and cons. By not presenting the controversial history, Triumph’s directors can focus solely upon the protagonists, their interaction, etc. An otherwise beautiful story can then be woven that shows a very real struggle of the human heart with which most people can identify. The downside to this, however, is the inability of the audience to arrive at an informed decision about Medjugorje’s claims owing to a lack of information.

The chosen approach presents a theological undertone often cited with respect to private revelation, namely the “fruits.” This approach allows the directors to recognize some positive “fruits” of Medjugorje—prayer, penance, etc. However it is a theological mistake to consider only the fruits when, in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger in his book God and the World, “the fruits are only one criterion.” Secondly, it is overwhelmingly positive “fruits” that are presented without reference to dissenting voices or opinions. The chosen “fruits” are cherry-picked, not well-examined, and, in addition, other fruits in the basket are not presented.

Also, concerning the fruits is the unsatisfactory way Ben’s storyline ends. At the end of his stay in Medjugorje, having received the encouragement of Mirjana, Ben heads off to Belgium, where for two nights straight he drinks heavily. Afterwards, he wakes up in bed, acknowledged he blacked out and, in shame and guilt, remembers nothing of what happened, depending on the cameraman to relay what he did. Ben admits his weakness and decides to go back to Medjugorje and enter the local Cenácolo community, an organization for troubled young men (usually with substance abuse problems).

The aim of the directors in portraying the above is to demonstrate concupiscence and the human condition. Seen within the dynamism of grace and sin, Ben’s fall is understandable from a Christian perspective and links well with the idea behind the film—that the “triumph” of Mary takes place in individual hearts over time. Ben then becomes a figurehead for this triumph as he decides to let go of his pride and enter the Cenácolo community to get the help he needs.

While the above portrayal is the intended aim, the facts as presented in the film could lead one to an alternative explanation known as a “spiritual high.” Throughout the film, one catches glimpses of the “spiritual high” theme through such scenes as a youth rally in Medjugorje (referred to in the movie as a “Catholic Woodstock”) in which religious sisters are dancing, there are demonstrations of teenage displays of affection, etc., etc.

Is the environment created by the above formed by the emotionally-charged, faith-driven atmosphere in Medjugorje or is it the grace of true supernatural joy communicated from an apparition of the Mother of God? The theological ramifications of this question must be addressed if we are to come to a balanced appraisal of this film.

Though it was the intention of Triumph’s producers not to focus upon the controversial aspects of Medjugorje, some “ghosts” arise at various points in the movie.

The first ghost manifests itself within the first four minutes. Mirjana has been questioned by local authorities in the past after she contradicted herself. In the documentary, Mirjana is being interviewed and makes a comment to the effect that in 1981, she did not believe Our Lady could or would appear on earth. This is suspect because in earlier testimony recounted elsewhere, it appears that Mirjana read a book on the apparitions in Lourdes, France, prior to the alleged events in Medjugorje.

Another old “ghost” of Medjugorje is this highly controversial remark attributed to Our Lady by alleged seer Vicka Ivankovic: “…all religions are dear to [Mary] and her Son.” This statement questioned the centrality of Jesus Christ and His Church. This theme arises again in the video when Ben visits a mosque south of Medjugorje. The local Imam is filmed talking about the three great religions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) and the place of the Blessed Virgin in each. The Imam says she is spoken of highly in all three religions, “so I feel that all religions are truly one religion. There is only one religion” he says. Such statements lend themselves easily to religious syncretism.

An ongoing controversy regarding the Bishop of Mostar and Medjugorje appears towards the end of the film. Prior to Ben’s departure from Medjugorje, he is filmed discussing a pair of shoes said to belong to Pope John Paul II. In Ben’s somewhat wistful rendition, the Bishop (of Medjugorje) never invited John Paul II to Medjugorje, so the Pope never came. Instead, he gave a pair of his shoes to Mirjana who has them encased in glass on display. The story is dropped on the audience and nothing else is said about the matter, leaving them with a questionable image of the Bishop.

Ben’s narration of the above story paints a picture which leaves the impression it was somehow the Bishop’s fault concerning the late Pontiff’s apparent inability to travel to Medjugorje. This can be understood as a subtle, even if unintended, attempt at demonizing the Bishop, who has received numerous insults—and threats to his person—for his belief that Medjugorje is not supernatural in origin.

One last observation in the film concerns its language. An additional concern over scandal is present in one instance when a priest—in front of a tabernacle and altar—spells out “B-I-T-C-H” in an apparent attempt to side-step the full force of verbalizing the word itself. This same priest also imitates characters from The Simpsons and South Park at various points in the film. These actions were in an original cut of the film available to the press in March/April, 2013 and may not be in the final cut.

In conclusion, The Triumph portrays events that claim a supernatural origin. However, despite the good intentions of the directors, the opposite impression is given. The natural order continuously demonstrates itself, and where this could be explained through alternative viewpoints, these are not presented in the documentary. In the end, the video may serve as a reference point for the critics of Medjugorje.

This review was written after attending an early screening of the video.

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