Tagged: religion

¡Viva! 28 #7: Clara Sola (Sweden-Costa Rica-Belgium-Germany-France-US 2021)

My final post from ¡Viva! 28 is another début feature, another film made by a creative team led by women in key roles – and it’s a cracker, one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Writer-director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén was born in Sweden. Her mother is from Costa Rica and her father from Uruguay. Nathalie went to Costa Rica as a child and returned to Sweden to go to university. (See this interview on Cineuropa) She has benefited from various film festival projects because her short films attracted critical attention. Clara Sola screened in the Director’s Fortnight programme at Cannes in 2021. I’m not sure I have seen a Costa Rican film before. I know little about the country, only that it has a reputation as a stable democracy, with good education and healthcare and has become known for eco-tourism.

Clara is the centre of attention at religious festivals

Clara Sola is a narrative in which a woman has been recognised in a small, tight-knit community as having powers which bring her close to the Virgin Mary. It is believed that she can heal the sick and she becomes an important figure in religious festivals and community events. In such cases the woman is usually young and in danger of being exploited. In this case, however, Clara is older at around 40 and appears to have some form of social difficulty, perhaps she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum? She is under the control of her mother, Fresia, who she lives with alongside her niece in a house in the wooded mountains. The three women also have relatives in the nearest village. The narrative disruption which allows the development of a dramatic situation is linked to Clara’s niece Maria who is approaching her fifteenth birthday or quinceañera, a festival occasion which marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Maria’s excitement is heightened by the presence of Santiago a young man who comes on most days to hire the white mare Yuca, needed as part of tourist activities in the mountains. Clara has a close attachment to Yuca and to the local flora and fauna in general. She is therefore unhappy that Yuca is taken away, but she too is interested in Santiago, an attractive young man who befriends her and teaches her new things.

Clara with Yuca

Maria’s emergence into a sexual being and her growing friendship with Santiago are followed by Clara who is slowly awakened to her own sexuality – something her controlling mother has always been anxious to curtail. Fresia goes as far as denying Clara an operation to correct a spinal deformity that affects Clara’s posture and her gait. She wants Clara kept ‘pure’, just as she was delivered by God. There is one scene involving chilli juice which will cause a wince or two for anyone familiar with preparing and cooking chillies, ouch! This is a film with not much in the way of ‘back stories’ so the audience is required to take the situation as it stands instead of wondering why this is happening to Clara now rather than twenty or more years earlier. But perhaps Clara’s late ‘awakening’ signifies her mother’s fierce control developed by a conservative religious belief?

Natalie Álvarez Mesén and her co-writer María Camila Arias (who is Colombian and co-wrote Birds of Passage, Colombia 2018) screened in ¡Viva! 25) mix several approaches to create a distinctive style. In several ways the narrative might appear to be heading for melodrama territory and the ‘return of the repressed’ as Clara begins to discover her sexuality. Instead, however, the narrative conclusion is reached almost as a calm revelation, involving magic realism. I found the ending was appropriate and somehow very satisfying.

Director Natalie Álvarez Mesén with Wendy Chinchilla Araya as Clara

The ideas in the script work because of the performances by the principals, all of whom are non-professionals as far as I am aware. Wendy Chinchilla Araya who plays Clara is a dancer. She must have used her knowledge of her body and control over her movements to create the awkward walk of the character. Daniel Castañeda Rincón as Santiago conveys the remarkably patient and sensitive young man very well and both Ana Julia Porras Espinoza as Maria and Flor María Vargas Chavez as Fresia are impressive. Performances by non-professionals require careful direction and this feels like a very assured début film. It is enhanced by the camerawork of Sophie Winqvist who is able to use big close-ups and beautiful long shot compositions in a CinemaScope ratio to place Clara in her environment and close to the flora and fauna she feels part of – she knows the secret names of animals. I think that the credits suggest that much of the footage was shot in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, a region that includes the ‘Cloud Rainforest’. Beware, you’ll probably want to visit Costa Rica after watching the film.

Clara in the blue dress she wanted strikes out on her own

The good news is that Clara Sola is coming to the UK, having been acquired by Peccadillo Pictures with a possible release date of September 2022. I heartily recommend it. Do try to see it on a big screen if you can.

¡Viva! 28 #2: Contactado (Peru-Brazil-Norway-Venzuela 2020)

The title of this film refers to the idea of a ‘contactee’ – a person who acts as the link between a local community and alien forces. The narrative is set in Peru, in the capital Lima and along the coast. This is an area subject to earthquakes and ‘big waves’ off the coast. It is also the centre of Andean culture and the mythologies of the Incas. But this is the 21st century and the central character is Aldo, a former teacher of theology, now in his fifties, who seems to be withdrawing from the world and its troubles. He makes money selling his old books and acting as a guide to the ancient Inca sites around the city. He’s also still a landlord, attempting to collect rent from his lodgers – but the neighbouring houses are being demolished and the future for the house looks grim. His mother is in a home but whatever ails her is not clear. In fact Aldo’s background is presented to us in fragmented ways. Eventually we will learn that in his younger days he acted as a spiritual leader promising his followers access to another world through rituals which open ‘portals’.

Aldo’s daily routine of taking his surfboard for a morning dip, visiting the market and his mother and acting as a guide is disturbed by the appearance of a young man who claims to recognise Aldo from his days as a preacher and wants to know more. His promptings both annoy Aldo but also stir up his vanity. Who is this young man (named ‘Gabriel’) and what does he want? This is the enigma in the narrative and hints at a genre structure, possibly a thriller of some kind? Aldo is remembered by some of his followers but not all, some still remember their devotion, others feel he let them down.

Aldo (Baldomero Cáceres) and Miguel (Miguel Dávalos)

The ¡Viva! screening includes a recording of an introduction by Dr Rebecca Jarman of the University of Leeds (available via ‘HOMEscreen‘). She tells us that the filmmakers, director Marité Ugas and producer Mariana Rondón, have worked together for many years. They co-wrote this film and they have alternated producer and director roles. The two women trained at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution in developing Latin American cinemas. They founded Sudaca Films in Venezuela in the early 1990s and have developed links with productions in Peru and other Latin American countries as well as accessing international film festival and regional funding schemes. They are perhaps best known for their 2013 film Pelo Malo (Bad Hair) which won many prizes and was widely distributed worldwide, including in the UK. Dr Jarman points out that Aldo finds himself marginalised, drifting on the edges of what appears to be a revival of local cults associated with UFO sightings. She suggests that this could be linked to the rise of populist leaders in Latin America and that there is a possible metaphor here in which the de-stabilising of Aldo’s life is linked to a more widespread sense of a destabilising of Latin American societies and indeed global peace and security. She points specifically to the ways in which leaders like Bolsonaro and Trump have worked with evangelical Christian groups. I’m not sure, however, about her comments comparing ‘characters in crisis’ in other films such as Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (UK 2016). She suggests that unlike Daniel Blake and similar characters who are “lionised”, Aldo is an unsympathetic figure but more ‘human’ and therefore accessible for audiences. I can see the arguments she makes but the films aren’t comparable for me, having different genre elements. Loach’s film is a realist melodrama, Contactado is a more expressionistic thriller/mystery and there is no direct reference to the political situation in Peru (which has been turbulent for much of the last twenty years).

Aldo vists the beaches where his followers once performed ‘rituals’, each in their circle of stones

Ugas and Rondón have worked with a small crew on several films and have often used the same actors. The creative team on this film includes several women, Peruvian cinematographer Micaela Cajahuaringa also trained in Cuba and she has worked on other Sudaca productions. The film’s visual style is quite fluid, often hand-held and makes good use of the distinctive landscape in CinemaScope compositions. It is matched by the music of Pauchi Sasaki. The performances are strong with Baldomero Cáceres as Aldo and Miguel Dávalos. Overall this is an intriguing mix of a character study in set against an unsettling background of religious beliefs, traditional mythologies and the rise of cults. There are two further screenings of Contactado on Sunday 27 March and Wednesday April 6th.

L’apparition (France 2018)

Anna (Galatéa Bellugi) works in the convent’s factory making duvets. Has she really seen the Virgin Mary? photo © Shanna Besson

L’apparition is a film with a UK cinema release by MUBI. No doubt it will eventually appear on MUBI’s streaming service. I’m surprised that the film did get a release in cinemas given the present hostile environment for foreign language films in the UK. It has several good points to recommend but at 137 minutes and relatively little ‘action’ it’s quite a difficult sell I would think. Some of the reviews have compared it with aspects of The Exorcist or a Dan Brown adaptation. I can see the connections but I’m not sure that they are helpful references.

The ‘apparition’ of the title refers to an event as understood by Roman Catholic ecclesiastical practice to involve a vision of the Virgin Mary – a ‘Marian apparition’. There have been many such events in history such as those of Saint Bernadette in the mid-19th century and more recently in Fatima, Garabandal and Medjugorje. At the beginning of the narrative the protagonist Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon) is returning from a journalistic assignment in the Middle-East (for the French newspaper with the largest circulation, Ouest-France), during which things have gone badly wrong with the death of his photographer partner. Jacques has PTSD and an injury affecting his hearing. He takes sick leave but is approached by the Vatican to become part of a ‘canonical investigation commission’ looking into this new apparition which has created considerable public interest in the French Alps. Jacques is an agnostic and his role is simply to ask questions of the young woman who has made the claim to have seen the Virgin. The remainder of the team will make observations based on their own specialisms.

Vincent Lindon – honesty, reliability, solidity (and potential for anger)? photo © Memento Films

After the opening scenes and Jacques’ summons to Rome, the next section of the film becomes ‘procedural’ as the newly-formed commission travels to the Alpine region of South East France where the site of the apparition seen by Anna Ferron (Galatéa Bellugi) has become ‘commercialised’ and a big attraction for pilgrims from around the world. 18 year-old Anna lives in a convent (where she operates a machine that blows the feathers into convent-branded duvets). She has two ‘protectors’ (beside the nuns). Her local priest has defied the Vatican to be her spiritual guide and there is a multi-lingual character who seems to represent a congregation in the US. He organises TV coverage of Anna’s appearances.

The film’s writer-director Xavier Giannoli had some success with his previous film Marguerite (France 2015) with Catherine Frot. In fact L’apparition is his seventh feature and several of his films have featured major French stars or well-known character actors. Giannoli wrote the film for Vincent Lindon and as one of the most reliable figures in French cinema he is expected to carry the whole film. Lindon often looks serious and sombre, as he does here. We trust him. We feel his pain. We also know there is an inner strength and the possibility that he could explode into violent action. But it is still a tall order to keep it going – and hold onto the audience – for over two hours without much support. That said, Galatéa Bellugi is always watchable as Anna.

The canonical investigation begins and Jacques asks the questions . . . photo © Shanna Besson

But is it interesting you ask? Well it might depend on your own religious/spiritual beliefs. Like Jacques, I’m an agnostic and once Jacques has performed his role as a disinterested interviewer I did wonder how the narrative would develop. It fairly soon turns into a familiar crime investigation – at least in terms of procedural conventions. Jacques meets Anna outside the formal proceedings, he visits the apparition site and tracks down Anna’s past. He even has a wall full of photographs and maps etc. in his room. As a journalist he wants to find the facts and he suspects that he hasn’t been offered the truth. I’m guessing that the concept of ‘truth’ is what Giannoli sees as the philosophical question. The Vatican and the other commission members follow practices that have their own internal logic about how claimed apparations and miracles should be evaluated. They are concerned to be seen to treat the claimants with compassion, but not to undermine the authority of the church. They have established criteria to use in a ‘canonical investigation’ so this is a carefully negotiated application of faith/belief and institutional values. It’s difficult for the rest of us to get engaged in this which is perhaps why we prefer the familiar excitement of Jacques’ investigation which tends to put human feelings at the top of the agenda. But perhaps this belief in journalistic investigation is just as constructed as the Vatican’s faith in its actions? In the Press Notes, Xavier Giannoli makes the point that:

. . . one should not imagine that the Church hopes for and encourages the authentication of apparitions. On the contrary, I think they are a hindrance to them . . . Faith doesn’t need proof or it’s no longer faith.

The ‘chase’ for Jacques and the fate of Anna and the tourist attraction that her vision has created involve the kind of narrative twists commonly found in crime fiction. There is also a coda in which Jacques finds a different kind of resolution, symbolically located in the desert. I was still with Jacques by the end of the narrative and I was moved by his relationship with Anna. I didn’t find the canonical investigation as interesting as I thought I might. There is a music score for the film in which Giannoli sees Arvö Part’s music which:

. . . doesn’t predispose you to accept the possibility of the supernatural. His music leaves room for silence, doubt, profound humanity and the poetry of doubt.

I’m afraid it didn’t do that for me or at least it did some of that but mainly seemed too relentlessly mournful. I’d have liked more of the visual expression offered by the feather-blowing machine. Overall, the presentation of the commercialisation of the apparition site and the pilgrimage industry is very good. In terms of religious belief it would be interesting to compare this film with Stations of the Cross (Germany 2014).

Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg, Germany 2014)

This paper was written by Shabanah Fazal

Dietrich Brüggemann ’s arresting fourth film about Catholic fundamentalism was a departure from his previous major features Renn wenn du Kannst (Run if you Can, 2010), 3 Zimmer, Küche Bad (Move, 2012). And Heil (2015), the wild satire on neo-Nazis he followed it with, looks like a determined over-reaction to it. Yet what links them all is self-aware comedy and a concern with darker aspects of contemporary German culture. All his films are available on DVD but take note that Neun Szenen and Heil do not have English subtitles. Brüggemann studied Directing at Potsdam Film and Television Academy and his interest in formal composition is also evident in his work as photographer, musician and producer of music videos. His short films are critically acclaimed and Stations of the Cross was widely feted at international film festivals. It is his first film to be screened on British television and I saw it late night on BBC4. I was deeply affected by it, perhaps because its small-scale but shocking narrative is served well by the intimacy of the television screen.

Brüggemann tells the story of 14 year-old Maria, who is preparing for her confirmation with Father Weber. She belongs to the Society of St Paul (based on the real Society of St Pius X), a fundamentalist off-shoot of the Catholic Church that rejects the reforms of Vatican II. With dwindling numbers, they see themselves as the embattled guardians of the Church’s original, pure teachings. Father Weber enjoins his young flock to fight a daily battle in their hearts against the ‘satanic temptations’ of the world and to sacrifice simple pleasures such as music, films, provocative clothes and even food. These restrictions are strictly reinforced at home by Maria’s domineering mother, who struggles to bring up her mute four-year old son. Caught between these twin pressures and eager to please both adults, Maria decides to sacrifice her life for the sake of her brother. She becomes anorexic and so begins the self-destructive journey of martyrdom signalled by the title. Brüggemann structures the film in chapters matching the 14 stations of the cross, which in Catholic tradition mark the stages of Christ’s suffering on the way to crucifixion.

Brüggemann wrote Stations of the Cross with his sister and regular collaborator Anna, who has also starred in many of his films. They were justly awarded the Silver Bear for Best Script at the Berlin Film Festival, a fact many reviewers seem to overlook in their focus on the film’s visual stillness. On the first viewing, it is the dense script – the power of the Word, especially in the long but compelling opening catechism scene – that drives the narrative forward. The intertitles also intensify the impact of a narrative that takes place over just seven days. They create a sense of inevitable doom (‘Jesus is condemned to death’ – in the first scene, by Father Weber’s indoctrination), comment ironically on the action (‘Jesus falls the first time’ – Maria’s chaste attraction to a fellow Christian boy) and point to a metaphorical purpose (‘Jesus is nailed to the cross’ –  Maria is a victim of Catholic ideology). Above all, their sheer incongruity underscores the tragi-comedy of a vulnerable teenage girl sacrificing her whole life for so little.  And Brüggemann’s choice of names seems to support this: the comically tautological ‘Maria Göttler’ (evoking a divine Virgin Mary), and ‘Christian’, the innocent evangelical boy she befriends.

Unlike other films about the Catholic Church such as The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015), Brüggemann’s film does not set out to expose direct physical and sexual abuse.  Rather, his focus is the deeper psychological and emotional abuse that results from indoctrination into any kind of ideology. The film is devastating because of what church and family make Maria do to herself through mind control.  The director’s stated motivation for making the film was concern about the 21st century global upsurge in Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. He does not object to benign forms of religion and understands how the sense of community it offers for many fulfils a human need.  For Maria it becomes part of the surrogate family she creates around herself: Father Weber and Bernadette replace her own ineffectual father and unloving mother, and she herself plays surrogate mother to her young brother. Some reviewers see the film as a savage criticism of those who live by religion.  But it is clear to me that the director draws a distinction between the teachings of the Church and the central characters: Maria, Bernadette (her family’s au pair) and Christian are entirely sympathetic. The deeply vulnerable, naturalistic performance he draws out of 14 year old Leah van Acken in her first film role made me feel the desperation of a parent powerless to help. Even Father Weber (played by a young, attractive Florian Stetter) is a skilled, fair-minded teacher whose quiet charisma would cast a subtle spell over any impressionable teenage girl.  I had no trouble understanding why Maria would be seated at the right hand of her god and be so eager to tell him what he wants to hear.

Maria (Lea van Acken) in the car with her mother (Franziska Weisz)

Brüggemann plays out the conflict created by the imposition of ideology chiefly through family melodrama, the aspect of the film that resonated most with me.  In interviews, he urges the viewer to ask themselves “What are we doing to our kids?” when we use any ideology – whether that be religion, socialism or feminism – to torture our children.  Brüggemann’s friend Franziska Weiz, a seasoned professional actor, gives an indelible performance as Maria’s controlling mother.  Some reviewers have described her as a caricature with her near-hysterical imprecations against the dangers of “gospel and jazz!”  However, to anyone brought up by a strict religious parent, she is frighteningly familiar and convincing. Brüggemann says he based her on his own father during a fundamentalist phase of his life when he made his children attend a Society of Pius X church. Maria’s mother is arguably portrayed less as a Carrie-style demon mother but as a woman struggling to cope with a young autistic son, and an adolescent daughter whose sexuality she has been taught it is her duty to monitor at all times. She can also be read as a tragic victim of a patriarchal ideology that limits her role in life to home and motherhood.  It warps her energies into control of her daughter, so that in the domestic realm at least she has some power.  She repeatedly grinds Maria down and forces her to bend to her will, rewarding her with approval and affection.  In turn, like so many intelligent but powerless young women growing up in a patriarchal system, Maria comes to realise her only means of resistance to her mother is to outdo her in religious devotion. Her method is self-mortification, her body now being the only thing she still has any control over.  We see their power struggle being played out painfully in Station 2, where Maria’s mother forces her to put on her cardigan and pose smiling for a family photo, and the car scene, which acts as a visual metaphor for their entrapment in a destructive power-dynamic.

Brüggemann first experimented with a fixed camera and long static shots in his 2006 feature Neun Szenen (Nine Scenes). In Stations of the Cross, he works with long-time collaborator Alexander Sass to take it to another level: in the whole film, the camera moves only three times. The effect is to create a series of carefully composed painterly tableaux that evoke the traditional Christian iconography of the 14 stations of the cross.  On second and repeat viewings we are reminded of the original contemplative purpose of these images, but I feel Brüggemann’s aim is less spiritual than ironic. The opening tableau for example, reminds us of da Vinci’s Last Supper, foregrounding Father Weber as a false prophet whose ‘meal’ is a perversion of Christ’s. Credit should also go to production designer Klaus Peter-Platten for mise en scène decisions that intensify what Brüggemann calls ‘locked-in’ shots. In the first and the later confessional scenes, dim lighting and austere stage sets with tiny windows, severe horizontal and vertical lines signify the imprisonment of vulnerable minds like Maria. Through the confessional grille, Father Weber even admonishes her for ‘sins’ of her innocent imagination: pride in hoping that a boy would find her attractive and conceit for knowing the truth – that she would be a better mother to her brother. Time and again, she is presented as powerless and invisible, pushed to the edges of the frame. For example in Station 2 and 7, when she battles with her mother and then her gym teacher, she is forced to the other side of the frame, underscoring the futility of her resistance. In Station 9, as she awaits confirmation, her pale profile is lost amongst those of other children, and at the critical moment she even disappears below the frame.

Maria is isolated in the gym

For some, this kind of framing (not forgetting publicity material portraying Maria as Christ on the cross) make her too simply a victim to be truly interesting.  And arguably Brüggemann’s film is less subversive than either Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012) or Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch (2009). Both provide a more obvious sociological/political insight into the attraction that ‘exotic’ fundamentalist ways of life might have for rebellious young women alienated by the shallow materialism and dysfunctional family structures of the west. However I believe the aesthetic Brüggemann outlines in an interview with Indie Outlook is political in the best sense: his distancing of Maria and choice of wide shots in particular “liberate the spectator’s gaze . . . to observe the whole system” and find for themselves truths about ideology and power. We see an intriguing example of this in Station 7, where Maria is confronted with the demands of the world, having to dance to ‘satanic’ music during a mixed-sex gym class. In Stations 1 and 2, Brüggemann opts for planimetric shots (see Catherine Wheatley’s 2016 paper) to depict the rigid order of church confirmation class and family life. In ironic contrast, in the gym scene a line of classmates in the background of the shot rebel against their well-meaning teacher’s efforts to integrate Maria into the lesson by running in all directions. They then mock and insult her, leaving her isolated. Their comments reveal as much disdain for her indigenous brand of religious conservatism as for the head-scarfed Muslim girls who are exempted from PE. Brüggemann seems to suggest both are seen as alien and his visually disruptive shot perhaps represents the wider cultural conflicts of contemporary secular Germany.

Fr. Weber joins Maria’s mother at her bedside

The most debated aspect of the film is undoubtedly how far Brüggemann’s film aesthetic acts as an endorsement or a criticism of faith, as distinct from religion. There is no doubt that his story of martyrdom and the miraculous stands within the tradition of directors such as Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson and Lars von Trier. It has clear parallels with von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) but he rejects what has been dubbed von Trier’s ‘sado-modernism’ – a term that could also apply to Katrin Gemme’s 2013 horror-thriller Tore Tanzt (Nothing Bad can Happen), about the abuse of a naïve male ‘Jesus freak’.  He acknowledges the influence of these directors and speaks in interviews of believing in ‘Something Out There’. He also describes how his single-shot no-edit approach puts pressure on the actors to be ‘spiritually engaged in getting the scene right’. He clearly borrows elements of what Paul Schrader terms ‘transcendental style’ (distancing techniques such as slowness, long, static unedited shots, an absence of non-diegetic music etc).  But ultimately does he do so in order to offer a subtle critique of it?

Firstly, we see this in the vein of black comedy running through Brüggemann’s work.  He has spoken of his love of Monty Python and his early features were labelled ‘fresh comedies’ by the German press. He also clearly has a predilection for meta-cinema and his 2011 short One Shot takes mise en abîme to self-parodying extremes. Most interesting of all, he cites as his greatest influence Swedish director Roy Andersson, saying “I watched [his films] on my knees, spiritually”. Andersson’s cinema illustrates his theory of ‘trivialism’, whereby profound truths can come into focus in the most banal, absurd moments of everyday life. And by exaggerating these, the director can bring the viewer closer to those truths. Hence Brüggemann’s own definition of comedy as ‘truth and pain’. We see this played out in the tiny, absurd battles Maria is urged to fight on her way to the cross – whether persisting in taking off a cardigan to mortify her flesh, resisting a harmless Christian boy with whom she bonded over quadratic equations, or sacrificing Father Weber’s biscuit after confirmation class only to later choke on the same priest’s wafer. The idea that a biscuit can become the means by which an ideology kills a child is subtly satirical. Even the hyper-minimalist opening titles, intertitles and closing credits seem less of a reading challenge than a joke.

If all this isn’t apparent to some viewers, it is because of the director’s refusal to comment or condemn directly. For me, it is this very detachment that gives the film its paradoxical power: he appeals to the heart via the head. The viewer is held so far back in a position of helplessness from the protagonist that we are forced to see how she is caught in a larger system that will inevitably crush her. That makes it hard for us to shed the tears for her that we long to. In a TV interview Brüggemann stated: “the best way to make a comedy is with a straight face, and let the bomb explode on the audience’s side” – and the same applies to tragedy.  It describes exactly how I have felt on every viewing, as if something very big I didn’t even notice being planted had imploded unseen inside me.

Here’s one of Brüggemann’s short films, One Shot (no English subtitles but you can turn on German subtitles):

The ‘miracle ending’ (spoiler warning)

Secondly, we should consider his treatment of the ‘miracle’ ending – a very small one compared to the miracles at the end of Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Is it a similar reaffirmation of faith and or a bitter mockery of the very notion of miracles that demand such an extreme sacrifice? There is an equally ambiguous ending to Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009), a film with a similarly restrained aesthetic in which a spiritual struggle is played out on a woman’s body – this time a paraplegic. Catherine Wheatley (2016) argues that both films are examples of ‘cinematic agnosticism’, that emphasise the fundamental ‘unknowability’ of spiritual experience. Brüggemann also insists his film can be viewed from many angles at once – serious or ironic. His final, most striking camera move is withheld till the final station ‘Jesus is laid in the tomb’. Unlike von Trier, he does not offer the thrilling consolation of a god’s-eye view shot and ringing of celestial bells. Instead, a sudden crane shot takes us up over the graveyard, with a final tilt up to cloudy, impenetrable skies, and then returns to silent, black closing credits. We are left to find meaning for ourselves – if there is any.

If you need an uplift after watching Stations of the Cross, I recommend Louise Ní Fhiannachta’s daring, comic short Rúbaí (2013), about an 8 year-old Irish girl preparing for confirmation. Her joyous, life-loving spirit has not yet been crushed by the Catholic Church or her mother. Not only does she question and utterly discombobulate her priest during catechism, but defiantly rejects the life they have mapped out for her.


Schrader, Paul (2017) ‘Revisiting Transcendental Style in Film’, YouTube lecture for TIFF based on his 1998 book

Wheatley, Catherine (2016) ‘Present Your Bodies: Film Style and Unknowability in Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes and Dietrich Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross’, Religions,Volume 7, Issue 6

Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog

Silence (US-Mexico 2016)

Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) forced to witness the torture of Christians . . .

Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) forced to witness the torture of Christians . . .

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Silence by Japanese Christian (and Roman Catholic) Endō Shūsaku (1923-1996) follows a Japanese film adaptation, Chinmoku directed by Shinoda Masahiro in 1971. There was also a Portuguese film in 1996, Os Olhos da Ásia, which featured similar historical events. Scorsese thus finds himself in the same position as with his previous remakes, Cape Fear and The Departed – what can he add? I need to see the Japanese version of Silence to judge whether his close personal interest has been a bonus or a burden in interpreting the narrative. My verdict on The Departed was that he didn’t match the Hong Kong original. At the moment I’m ambivalent as to whether or not his most recent remake works.

The background to the narrative is the attempt by both traders and missionaries to ‘open up’ Japan to the West (i.e. the maritime nations of Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands and England) in the 16th and 17th centuries. These European incursions coincided with the period of civil wars in Japan, the final triumph of the Tokugawa clan and the beginning of the long Shogunate which would only finally succumb to American trade (and military power) in the 1850s. Silence begins in 1640 when the Shogunate has banned Christian missions and forced up to 300,000 converts to deny their Christian beliefs. Two young Portuguese Jesuits set off from Macau (the Portuguese colony on the Chinese coast) to find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) one of their teachers/mentors who is rumoured to have renounced his faith and who is now living as a Japanese. The two young men, Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garrpe (Adam Driver) land secretly in Japan and are hidden by Christian villagers on the coast near Nagasaki (the port where Dutch traders eventually negotiated sole trading rights for the next 200 years). The two Jesuits face an almost impossible mission. They wish to prove that Fr. Ferreira couldn’t/wouldn’t commit apostasy but very quickly they see that the local governor acting as ‘inquisitor’ is willing to adopt various strategies involving torture to force renunciation. Both Jesuits are eventually captured. How will they withstand torture, mainly in the form of watching the villagers die, if the Jesuits refuse to renounce their faith?

Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) with one of the Christian villagers

Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) with one of the Christian villagers

This is a very long film (161 minutes) and there isn’t as much ‘action’ as I expected. I confess that my attention lapsed at times. I thought I had stayed with the narrative all through but watching the trailer and some of the clips available online, I’m beginning to think I missed some moments. The film is beautifully photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and designed by Dante Ferretti – so it looks great. This is especially true of the scenes in the mists that shroud the priests’ journeys by small boat or through the mountains – classical Japanese cinema (especially Mizoguchi) comes to mind. Much of the film was actually shot in Taiwan, though I noted from the credits that some work was based in Kyoto, the home of Japanese historical drama. But no matter how great the film looks, I have problems with the narrative.

This is really Andrew Garfield’s film – Adam Driver (looking almost skeletal) becomes almost a secondary character. Garfield is presented as almost a Christ-like figure (i.e. like the conventional 17th century images of Christ in Europe) and indeed this seems to be the central narrative theme. Is Fr. Rodrigues too concerned with seeing himself as the image of Christ and therefore unable to see the wider picture? As a non-believer I can be reasonably objective about this tendency, but because I find the Japanese history so fascinating and because I see the missionaries as part of mercantilist/capitalist attempts to colonise, my sympathies are generally with the Japanese characters. This should be one of the strengths of the film. The two most engaging characters for me are the interpreter (the wonderful Asano Tadanobu, last seen by me in Harmonium (Japan-France 2016)) and Ogata Issei as the governor/inquisitor. Ogata is remarkable and I perked up whenever he appeared. Yes, he is responsible for torture and death, but at least there is a reason behind his actions, which he explains in a tale about a daimyo (feudal lord) and his four concubines – a clear allegory about the four foreign powers squabbling among themselves and causing unrest in Japan. By contrast, what do the Jesuits offer in a country that already has both Buddhism (imported via China) and Shinto? Why do they need another religion? It’s not as if these Christians have liberated Europeans from feudal rule. I’m intrigued as to how the Japanese version by Shinoda handles this. Scorsese’s script (with Jay Cocks) has the Japanese inquisitor argue that Japan is a ‘swamp’ in which Christianity can’t put down roots. ‘Swamp’ as a description seems to come from the novel, but to me sounds rather demeaning. The suggestion is that Japanese converts simply grasped the hope of this new religion to assuage the misery of their lives in a feudal state without ever understanding it. Christians have always believed in the universality of their beliefs and the righteousness of the gospel teachings. But from the perspectives of other cultures, as the interpreter comments, this looks like arrogance.

During the screening, I did wonder why the Catholic Church successfully grew a large community of adherents across Latin America but had relatively little success in Asia. I note that some reviewers refer to The Mission (UK-US 1986) with Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro as a comparison film for The Silence. I haven’t seen that film, but I understand that the Spanish missionary priest and his lay companion positively help the local people in their fight against Portuguese slave traders. Perhaps Catholicism is not necessarily ‘universal’? Is faith universal? Must it always be contextualised in relation to different cultures? It’s often said that the Catholicism of filmmakers like Hitchcock and Scorsese helps to explain their fascination with guilt, self-doubt etc. I can see that I should have been open to these questions in watching Silence, but the film didn’t move me as I hoped. I can see though that if you believe in a supreme God, the ‘silence of God’ in the face of the suffering must be hard to accept. The narrative provides a ‘way in’ to understanding this by offering us a Judas-like figure, Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yôsuke) who is present throughout, ‘testing’ Fr. Rodrigues.

The Silence is presented with most of the lead characters speaking English and with subtitles for the Japanese speech. The Japanese speak English with accents that reveal the class distinctions between peasants and nobility. I suppose this makes sense but I do wonder why, when non-Anglophone directors can make films in English, Americans (and Brits) won’t use the appropriate languages for the characters in their films. Portuguese-speaking Japanese actors in 2016 is a bit of a stretch (though there are many Japanese-Brazilians) but the principle remains sound. Silence is an impressive film and Catholic audiences may find the questions of faith more riveting than I did, but some kinds of personal projects are always likely to be problematic. It would be good if Marty returned to a neglected genre that he has conquered before. How about a decent female-centred melodrama?

Psalm 21 (Sweden 2009)

Henrik Horneus (Jonas Malmsjö) is the Stockholm priest who has much to learn in Psalm 21

Psalm 21 is a Swedish horror film released on DVD by Revolver and via LOVEFiLM and iTunes on May 30 in the UK. I presume that the distributor hopes that the film will attract fans of Let the Right One In. I wish that Revolver had also organised a cinema release as this is a handsomely mounted CinemaScope movie with strong effects that I think would look good on a big screen.

In some ways it is a conventional horror film displaying many of the familiar tropes – but instead of ending with the vanquishing of evil, its story carries on and offers a different message, seemingly about the Swedish church.

The central character Henrik is a priest and we first meet him in his own church delivering a sermon that appears to entertain his audience of comfortable families from the Stockholm suburbs. But this is only after a prologue featuring a small boy who seems to terrify his mother just by looking at her. We are reminded of this when the clergyman is visited by a parishioner desperate for help who says that she can see the souls of the dead, one of whom stands behind the priest. The flashback to Henrik’s childhood will be re-visited later. He fobs off his parishioner but when he returns home we are aware that all is not well in his household. His own small son ignores him and is soon being taken away by his estranged wife. Then his housekeeper (who may be much closer to him) answers the phone and tells him that his father has died. Against her advice, he decides to drive that night to the small village where his father had been the local priest.

‘Any fule kno’ that in a horror film you don’t go out on your own in the middle of the night and of course he begins to see apparitions and is then forced to seek refuge in a dark house in the woods when his car refuses to go any further. From here on Henrik will uncover the story behind why his father died, what connection he had to the family in the dark house and, eventually, about his own childhood (memories of which he might have suppressed). I’m not sure if Psalm 21 is a ‘scary movie’. It’s more of a psychological horror than a ‘splatter fest’. The effects work (by a company that works on the Harry Potter films) is there primarily to create interesting ghost figures who appear at various points, mostly in Henrik’s dreams. All of the ghosts are known to Henrik or are associated with his father. The ‘horror climax’ features an admonition by his father about Henrik’s behaviour as a child. The father, Gabriel, is played extremely well by Per Ragnar, the older man who acts as a servant to Eli in Let the Right One In. This is a powerful scene.

The film is nicely shot with a muted colour palette and compositions that are reminiscent of both Let the Right One In and the J-horror cycle (and the US remakes) in which ghosts often materialise behind characters. Writer-director Fredrik Hiller is an established Swedish actor (he has a small role in the film) who also appeared in the Hollywood film Beowulf. Psalm 21 has taken some time to complete – it was in production at the same time as Let the Right One In and first emerged at a festival in 2009. IMdB suggests that it was released in Sweden in November 2010 but it doesn’t seem to have made the Swedish Top 20. Perhaps this means only a limited release before DVD? Hiller put his Hollywood earnings into the production and he’s now working on a Swedish zombie movie.

Here is an international trailer that gives a pretty good impression of the film’s style and tone:

As the trailer suggests, Biblical texts are as important in the film as the title implies. ‘Psalm 21’ is short and has two parts. The first is a thanksgiving to God for supporting King David. The second part celebrates God’s power and exhorts him to smite his enemies. This psalm has been interpreted and re-interpreted many times. The crux of the film’s narrative is that Henrik reads it primarily via the first part and sees it as validating a generous God, but Gabriel focuses on the second part and seems obsessed with the ‘smiting’ element. The film also suggests that in the 1970s the Swedish Church (Lutheran but not that far away from Anglicanism if I understand Wikipedia!) renounced traditional views on hell and damnation. Gabriel is presented as diehard supporter of the old view and it is this that he foists upon Henrik in response to their family issues. I won’t give the film’s ending away, but we do learn something about Henrik’s vocation and whether or not his views change after his ordeal.

Psalm 21 is an intelligent psychological horror film which will be scary for some and unsettling for all. I enjoyed watching it.

The website for the UK release is www.psalm21.co.uk