Joseph Roth’s short story The Legend of the Holy Drinker was written a few months before his death, at the age of forty-four, in May 1939. In 1988 the film of the book was released to critical acclaim. The film, directed by Ermanno Olmi, stars Rutger Hauer as Andreas, an ex-miner jailed for an accidental murder, now released from prison and living homeless in Paris. He is as poor as Saint Francis of Assisi

A mysterious old man offers Andreas two hundred francs on the condition that he repay it the following Sunday to the church of Sainte Marie des Batignolles. The film chronicles Andreas’ encounters with faces from the past and present and presents a scenario in which each time he spends the money he wakes up, usually from a drunken stupor, to find that the bank notes have miraculously reappeared in his wallet.

There is a sense in which Joseph Roth’s own life echoed that of Andreas. Alcoholism had destroyed his health and in 1938 he suffered a heart attack which left him severely incapacitated. In what can be regarded as being perhaps the most powerful and painful scene in the film, Andreas escapes from the torrential rain by spending the night drinking alone in a bar. Throughout the night his solitary drinking contrasts with the experience of deep respect, caring and love displayed in the interaction of others in the bar. Andreas, in his isolation, reflects upon his life and appears to experience despair, meaninglessness and a sense of loss. Through his promise to repay the money to the Church Andreas has the possibility of finding a purpose, goal or mission to his life. When Andreas’ money runs out it is always unexpectedly replaced. Is this chance, coincidence or providence? He encounters friends and loved ones from the past who have a significant effect on his present life; how is this to be explained? The task of returning the money to the Church allows him to transform his apparently aimless life into a life lived from a transcendent perspective.

In his experiences, both joyful and despairing, Andreas appears to be searching for meaning to his life. Indeed, Andreas appears to be engaged in a profound existential quest, attempting to make sense of his situation. Ultimately, the film poses the question “Is death the premature and tragic end to Andreas’ life or is it the fulfilment of his mission?”

Through such themes and concepts the film can be recognised as being an inspiring, and deeply contemplative, exploration of the nature of existence, including the joy and the pain of life, together with examination of the relationship between meaning and well-being. However, it can be suggested that The Legend of the Holy Drinker is actually a parable about the human condition. Perhaps what it powerfully illustrates is that human beings have available to them all the resources they need to live well. Indeed, even though Andreas appears to squander the money which he receives from others, it is regularly replenished. The gifts which Andreas receives can be viewed as being a metaphor for the gifts, the resources, the natural world provides to us in abundance which are, all too often, shared inequitably or are wasted on a vast scale leading to the creation of a world which is ravaged by greed and the quest for power and dominance. In succumbing to his personal addictions, Andreas all too often finds himself to be alone, alienated from others, cut off from those around him, even those who try to reach out and help him. Whatever the messages of the film may be, it does appear to suggest that, echoing Francis of Assisi, meaning is found in encounter with others, through a reverential, loving engagement with our fellow human beings and through a response to, and relationship with, the Divine. In such a perspective, the world in which we live, therefore, has personal, social, ecological and cosmic dimensions and meaning and well-being is to be found in a holistic interaction of these dimensions. As the years pass I increasingly find that the season of Lent is a time to be still, to take stock, and to mindfully reflect upon what truly matters.

Kelvin Ravenscroft is a retired RE and Philosophy teacher.