What do the evangelization of Ireland and a modern pandemic have in common?

Well, for one, they both brought a torrent of setbacks.

When movie theaters nationwide shut down as part of the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, would-be-moviegoers anticipating the two-day screening of “I Am Patrick” may have gotten a small taste of the many disappointed plans the titular saint encountered in his own life.

The new docudrama from the Christian Broadcasting Network had drummed up substantial hype in the months leading up to its release, scheduled for March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. “As of March 11, we had over 25,000 tickets sold on pre-sale,” Gordon Robertson, president and CEO of CBN, told Angelus. “And [we] were looking forward to an encore presentation on March 24.” 

But just days before the film was slated to hit the big screen, the coronavirus took the wheel. Both AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas announced temporary closures of all theater locations March 17, and the next day Cinemark Theatres followed suit. Robinson told Angelus that attendance numbers in Cinemark locations on March 17 are not yet available, but it’s safe to say that thousands of fans with “I Am Patrick” on their calendars never made it to the movie theater. 

All this would be a real shame regardless, but it is especially so because the film itself is quite impressive, and not for the reason viewers might expect. Rather than fawn over its protagonist as a charismatic miracle worker who drew throngs of Irish people to Christianity by brandishing a shamrock, “I Am Patrick” lays bare the constant struggle, persecution, and frustration St. Patrick endured in his mission to evangelize a land many saw as beyond redemption.

Thanks to a striking performance from John Rhys-Davies (best known for playing the dwarf Gimli in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) as the elder Patrick in the opening scene, the film instantly draws the audience into his multilayered story. And thanks to several interviews with historians, biographers, and religious experts, it deftly separates fact from legend and the certain from the uncertain.

The key resource driving the film’s narrative is St. Patrick’s own autobiography and testament, “Confessio” (“The Confession”). Toward the end of his life, we learn, the saint faced a slew of accusations, both from Irish natives and Church leaders in his home country of Britain, and he penned this document in order to defend his character and mission.

Together, the historical sources and dramatic reenactments present St. Patrick’s gritty humanity and stalwart faith against all odds. They remind viewers that his path to sanctity was anything but smooth (from nominal Christian to slave to priest to missionary), and that his life as an itinerant preacher was anything but easy (imprisonment and attacks were regular occurrences). The Patrick of this film is no impersonal stained-glass window; he is a true person and a true saint.

Like its protagonist, “I Am Patrick” is not unfamiliar with disruptions to a mission. After the theater closing fiasco, CBN Films had to switch to a DVD-only release (available for order via iampatrick.com and cbn.com). According to Robertson, CBN is currently negotiating with its contracted event company, Fathom Events, in order to move up the release date for streaming.

In the midst of all the challenges, Robertson’s gaze stretches beyond his own company’s film. 

“This is a chaotic situation for everyone involved with the closings of all movie theaters and the suspension of all movie productions,” he told Angelus. “Our hearts go out to everyone employed in the production, distribution, and marketing of films. Their jobs just went on furlough and they will need support as we all go through this together.”

St. Patrick’s life and work went unrecognized for most of his lifetime, but his legacy eventually transformed Ireland into one of Catholicism’s best-known strongholds, and made his name one of the most celebrated in Church history. 

Viewers can hope that after a series of setbacks, the film about this perseverant saint awaits a similarly bright future.