“The Staircase” review

Sarah Wandor

Critic’s Corner Columnist

St. Joseph’s feast day is approaching and, for some of us, our consecration day to St. Joseph is approaching with it.

In light of this, I thought it fitting to review a film about one of the miracles attributed to him that is mentioned in the “Consecration to St. Joseph” book by Donald Calloway, MIC — the miracle of the staircase in New Mexico, purported to be built by St. Joseph.

The 1998 film “The Staircase” does not portray the carpenter who built the staircase as St. Joseph himself, but rather a kind stranger, nor was it made to be a spiritual or religious film, yet the film still retains the mystery of how the staircase was built.

Some may think a film about how a staircase was built would be rather boring and dull, yet “The Staircase” does not fall into that category, in part thanks to the dialogue, the characters and the lead character, Mother Madalyn, portrayed by Barbara Hershey.

The characters are all very full of life. The nuns are seen laughing and joking and are shown to be very human. Many films make the mistake of portraying nuns and religious as content yet dull, stiff and inhuman, simply existing. However, the nuns in “The Staircase” are very different. They laugh and are very open and relaxed.

They are written and portrayed as human, not perfect levitating angels. They are not horrible hypocritical people; they are normal people. They make jokes, they laugh, they get mad and worried. They are no more or less human than anyone else.

This is exemplified in Mother Madalyn most of all as she is dying throughout the movie. Her illness is unknown but she has less than a year to live and feels as though the new chapel is her one thing to give to God. Her humanity is shown more than anyone else’s, which makes her a marvelously written character.

Hershey does a wonderful job of bringing her from the page to the screen. Her weaknesses are shown in her anger toward herself that is sometimes taken out on others, in her struggles with her past and coming to terms with the fact she is dying. Her strengths, on the other hand, are also shown in her will and determination to see things through and the love she has for other people.

To write a character such as this and to portray her well takes talent. Her character has many layers which are peeled away to reveal what lies beneath as the audience watches her health deteriorate. This delayering is done slowly, not suddenly, which adds to the realness of her.

A relatable character who is not cliché yet still well written is hard to come by and even more difficult to create, but “The Staircase” accomplishes this perfectly in Mother Madalyn.

However, the character Joad, the carpenter who builds the staircase, needed further development. He was shown to be a kind and caring person but there is not much else to him.

He did not have the depth required and needed of such a character if the creators of the film intended for him to be seen as St. Joseph. It feels as though he is in the film because someone is needed to build the staircase and help people during the process. Beyond that, he had very little charisma, causing his character to stick out and feel out of place.

“The Staircase,” despite the way Joad was written, gives a beautiful portrayal of what it means to be human and to struggle in life. The nuns are simple yet filled with life, bringing the mundane to screen in an entertaining way.

Mother Madalyn struggles with dying and feeling like she has made too many mistakes that she cannot repair in the little time she has left. Watching her through the film is an enjoyable experience and a meaningful one, as it asks us to confront our own humanity and accept it and how simple things don’t matter. Our actions, character and soul matter the most in the end.