News Column

OPINION: Filmmaker captures late uncle's walk through illness and into 'whatever is next'

July 13, 2014

By Mark Bennett, The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.



July 13--TERRE HAUTE -- Paul Fleschner sensed a remarkable strength as he filmed his beloved uncle one final time.

Larry Fleschner was near the end of a battle with colon cancer. He'd agreed to participate in the film with his nephew, Paul, as a way to offer hope and help to others suffering through terminal illnesses. It was September 2007. Just beginning a film career in Los Angeles, Paul was 27, exactly half the age of his uncle Larry, a Terre Haute attorney and businessman. Paul had returned to his hometown of Terre Haute to help care for Larry after the cancer returned earlier in '07, following two years of remission.

Six days before Larry died, they filmed once more. He was "remarkably cognizant, aware and articulate," Paul recalled last week. The scene is "not a moment of anxiety for [Larry]. It was a moment of anxiety for me -- I'm the one talking in the film -- but he's peaceful."

As for Larry's spiritual destiny, his outlook in that last scene of Paul's upcoming documentary, "Piercing the Veil," appears clear. "His confidence is shocking," Paul said, adding, "He felt carried to whatever is next." Amid that energetic instance, the two men discuss Larry's request that Paul offer a eulogy at his funeral. Paul asks Larry what the message should be.

"People need to see this film to see what [Larry] says," said Paul.

The opportunity is approaching. Paul plans to conduct private screenings in Terre Haute later this year for residents interested in viewing his 56-minute independent production. Many locals will remember Fleschner as co-writer, co-director and co-star of "The Drunk," a dramatic comedy loosely based on the life of Eugene Debs, which premiered to a full house at the Indiana Theatre in downtown Terre Haute last February.

"Piercing the Veil" differs completely from that movie.

"It's a much more contemplative film," Fleschner, now 34 and married, said last week by telephone from Chicago, where he lives and works as an actor and writer.

Religious faith has a prominent presence in "Piercing the Veil," but Fleschner emphasized that viewers of any, or no, belief could relate to the experience Larry and his family endure. That potential widespread connection represents the reason Larry agreed to open his life in such a vulnerable condition. "This film features both Catholic and Protestant family members," as Paul's film synopsis explains. "It interweaves their heartfelt responses to suffering close at hand. And the underlying story speaks to all denominations, perhaps all traditions -- anyone suffering with a crisis of faith."

Paul described his uncle as a "very charismatic and magnetic" personality, "a bachelor, a ladies man -- and he would say that, a man of the world," who also worked 70-plus-hour weeks. He embraced Catholicism in 2005, the year of his initial diagnosis, and sought spiritual mentoring from Sister Marie Kevin Tighe of the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. They became close friends. In 2006, Larry -- in remission and vigorous again -- traveled to Rome with his brother, Steve (Paul's father) and Paul to witness the canonization of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, the foundress of the Sisters of Providence and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. They roamed the ancient city, searching for the best espresso and gelato shops, Paul remembered. A few late nights, Larry briskly ventured the cobblestone streets alone.

Two months after they returned, Larry's cancer did, too, in terminal form.

The film shows Sister Marie Kevin and Larry's parents, George and Irene Fleschner -- members of the Faith Wesleyan Church for more than a half-century -- attend to and pray for Larry. In an exchange included in the film's trailer, Sister Marie Kevin tells him, "Birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection -- we all go through the same steps." Both Sister Marie Kevin and Irene Fleschner have since passed away.

A quotation from Saint Mother Theodore defines the last two months of Larry's life, the span covered in the film: "Put aside all uneasiness about the future. Place yourself gently into the hands of Providence." Providence refers to God's loving care and guidance. Paul, who converted to Catholicism at age 18, witnessed that submission in his uncle. "I think I saw Mother Theodore's advice lived out," he said. "I saw spiritual wisdom in a real-life setting and it was amazing."

In his narration, Paul says, "At that threshold of stillness, there was an amazing comfort in the grace of letting go."

In those days, Paul heard Larry express only one regret, that he'd worked too much. "He said, 'There's more to life than work. I wish I spent more time with my family,'" Paul recalled. Larry's fondness for his family plays out in the documentary.

Several film industry veterans who added technical touches to "The Drunk" do the same with "Piercing the Veil." The finishing stages of the project involve its marketing, as well as foreign-language translations. With seven years, "considerable" personal financial resources, and a love "like brothers" for his late uncle invested in the project, Paul hopes to raise $140,000 through an online Indiegogo campaign to complete the film. If so, "Piercing the Veil" could appear for free viewing on YouTube.com eventually.

In the meantime, he is inviting people of any background to contact him via email if they'd like to attend, or schedule, a private viewing of the film. "I think it's just a spiritual message for anybody, whether you're a person of faith or not," Paul said, "that you can't control life."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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(c)2014 The Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, Ind.)

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Source: Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, IN)


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