First Reformed (2017)

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“You’re always in the Garden.  Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden, on his knees, sweating blood. He was on the Mount. He was in the marketplace. He was in the temple. But you, you’re always in the Garden.” 

Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese unknowingly formed a legendary partnership in making Taxi Driver (1976) that has left an indelible mark on cinema. Despite their diverging backgrounds, it seemed like they were very much kindred spirits. At least, they understood each other.

Scorsese of course, grew up in the Catholic Church even considering becoming a priest. Schrader likewise, had a deeply religious upbringing rooted in reformed theology even attending Calvin College. Aside from both being cinephiles, each man has battled through his share of demons and yet they have come out on the other side no doubt wiser.

Thus, with the release of Scorsese’s deeply spiritual passion project Silence (2016) a couple years ago, it seems fitting Schrader followed up with First Reformed soon after. I’m not sure if it’s mere coincidence or not but by this time in their lives, with space for retrospection, they have come to a crossroads to make daring, personal pictures about religious faith.

The opening shot is instantly recognizable. We have the stark symmetry of a church steeple. The religious space lacks the same type of iconography as the Catholic Church because the Calvinists came from a  tradition foregoing any amount of pomp & circumstance for a stripped-down aesthetic. All the focus was on the cultivation of the spiritual life.

There still is history, as this particular church is just about to celebrate its 250th anniversary and it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad years before. The resident reverend’s tours include touting the Dutch Colonial architecture and showing wide-eyed kids the trap doors escaped slaves used to hide in.

Now it’s ironically also a spiritual museum-piece — a creaky religious relic — attended by a few stray parishioners. The real center of religious activities is at Abundant Life a well-meaning but somewhat sanitized megachurch set up across the road. Perfectly reflected by their cafeteria wall emblazoned with the words from Acts 2.

The story actually begins with an experiment of sorts. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) will keep a journal for an entire year in a notebook and then he will destroy it. There is an obvious finality to this. He’s set himself a hard timeline.

Though he mentions word documents and digital files, he might as well come out of a Bresson picture. His possessions are few and far between. A well-worn Bible sits on his bedside table accompanied by the works of Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton. His landscape and surroundings are just as stark and humble. Interiors are kept equally simple and straightforward.

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The unadorned yet meticulous composition use geography whether structures or a bit of symmetry to set up scenes. Inside the church with the lines of pews that might be plucked directly from Winter Light (1961). Then, along a row of houses in a neighborhood as a car pulls up to a house.

One house he pays a call on belongs to Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, who grew up in the church and is now worried about her husband Michael’s mental stability as of late. She worries it will affect their future child. The reverend might be able to help.

Upon their first dialogue together, it becomes obvious he is not a learned man. He had a stint in jail for his environmental activism in Canada and currently holds down a job at the local Home Depot.

But he gives a cogent account of why he does not want to bring a child into the world. By 2050 all scientific analysis seems to suggest dire straits are ahead if we do not make radical changes on an international level. Because climate, water levels, and everything else will not leave man unimpeded.

His question is simple. How do you sanction bringing a girl into the world who is full of hope and naivete? Then, she grows up and as a woman, she looks you square in the eyes and says, “You knew it all along, didn’t you?” And yet you brought her into this world of death. Most of what the reverend does is listen to his grief. The only response possible is that the blackness is not a new phenomenon. Man, woman, and child are born to trouble. It seems small comfort.

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As the themes begin to interweave there are continuous nods to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1961) from the snow motif to a deeply troubled husband and even a female associate who takes a deep concern in the well-being of our protagonist. You can sense Schrader acknowledging his deep abiding affections for Robert Bresson — an obvious reference point being Diary of a Country Priest (1951) — with a man of faith suffering from a mysterious ailment. It only serves to exasperate his human relationships and give a physical manifestation to his existential crisis.

In maintaining the transcendental spirituality of the film, Tarkovsky levitations and Dreyer-like “resurrections” are also evoked and the list goes on and on. In fact, it amazes me how obvious and plentiful the allusions are. Schrader barely tries to hide his affinities for certain pictures. They are most assuredly there being represented and it’s generally satisfying.

But it is a film that is also born out of the mind who brought us Taxi Driver and the ties are closer than we might expect. Because it becomes more akin to the desolate alienation of Travis Bickle as the story plods on. After experiencing a tragic death and witnessing the ways the modern world functions, Toller seems to see the need for a martyr in an unjust world. He becomes increasingly alienated.

His life involves helping out with the homeless food line, sitting in on the youth small group, and of course, his tours and Sunday duties. But it’s the old conundrum. He feels confined to the walls of his church. It doesn’t seem like he’s necessary for anything aside from spiritual comfort. He has no true impact on people lives and he himself is struggling to keep in communication with God. Solitary prayer seems empty. Hence a nightly journal.

Something happens when he gets in a spat with a local big whig over negative publicity from a funeral for Michael Masana. It was held at a toxic waste dump with a choir singing an environmentally conscious Neil Young tune. Toller gets lambasted for his “political behavior,” though he was admittedly only upholding the man’s wishes. And yet he is beginning to question how people who proclaim to follow God cannot take a greater stake in preserving his creation.

In documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts, Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2015) was a call-to-action in the realm of social justice. For all those people who claim or at least strive to be good, morally upright people, it is clear this is a universal fight. Likewise, First Reformed is a call or at least a meditation on environmental justice because humans are meant to be stewards. It is not completely about extremism (though Toller begins to inch that way) but in some ways, we are meant to live radical lives. Full of radical love and a radical conception of justice for the earth and other human beings.

But one could say this is not the true punchline. For that we must revert back to some of the deep-set themes of Schrader’s career, returning once again to his first collaboration back with Martin Scorsese back in 1976.

Because First Reformed has one of the most abrupt endings in recent memory. It catches us off guard on numerous fronts. We must start with the ambiguity which is nothing new. Travis Bickle entered the pantheon of cinema characters partially due to the enigma that clouds his fate in Taxi Driver.

Most people who have ever been ambushed by the film will recall the ending. Travis goes on his crusade to clean up the filth and it’s a violent rampage in the eyes of the world but for him, it’s an act of triumphant heroism.

In the final moments, he’s back in his cab again — his personal cathedral — driving the streets and there’s his untouchable girl, Cybil Sheppard, who appears in the back seat. He sees her through his rearview window and rides off. It seems almost impossible to read it in the literal sense. How could this be? Is this his own personal delusion? Could this actually be real? I know my own inclinations but I don’t know what to believe.

First Reformed is much the same. Here we have the Reverend about to take his poison — looking to end his life — in the face of such a dreadful world. Then a door opens and there stands the one person who might save him, Mary, appearing in the doorway like an angel.

They embrace and then beginning kissing and we spiral around and around them in one of the most violently uninhibited camera setups in the film. We have broken out of the harsh asceticism of the entire movie thus far.

Is it about this salvation coming through the physical union between two people? This could be the Ordet-like resurrection or maybe like Taxi Driver it’s all part of the ultimate delusion. The bottom line is we don’t know and Schrader doesn’t tip us. Much like Silence, what’s paramount is what we fall back on in response.

Can we read this as a story of despair or hope? The words of Toller echo through my mind, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.” This is First Reformed at its finest, ever oscillating between the two defining poles of any life.

4/5 Stars

 

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – Dutch Prime Minister and Theologian Abraham Kuyper

Mirror (1975)

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Andrei Tarkovsky has already left such an indelible impression on me even after only seeing a couple of his films. This already makes it very easy to place him atop that ever fluctuating, never quite established, constantly quarreled over, list of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He’s subsequently one of the members of the fraternity with the least recognition; the key is visibility or lack thereof. Because once you see his work, even if it doesn’t completely speak to you, something is released that’s all its own with a singular vision and the unmistakable brush strokes of an auteur.

There has never been a film more fluid and uninhibited in the distillation of memory than Mirror as it slowly slaloms between the past and the present, enigmatic dreamlike movements with unexplained conversations and encounters, spliced together with bits of wartime newsreels and spoken poetry.

In order to even attempt to ingest any of this rumination at all, there’s a near vital necessity to shed all the traditional forms and languages that you have been taught by years of Hollywood moviegoing.

Not that they are completely excised from Mirror but it’s never driven by logical narrative cause and effect. Rather it’s driven by emotion, rhythm, and feeling — what feels intuitive and looks most pleasing to the eye.

It’s precisely the film that some years ago might have been maddening to me. Because I couldn’t make sense of every delineation culminating in a perfectly cohesive, fully articulated thesis, at least in my mind’s eye. It’s far too esoteric for this to happen. But this unencumbered nature is also rather freeing. There’s no set agenda so as the audience you are given liberty to just let the director take you where he will.

To its core, Mirror gives hints of a very personal picture for Tarkovsky as it memorializes and canonizes pasts memories and shards of Soviet history. Because they are tied together more than they are separate entities. And yet, as much as it recalls reality, Mirror is just what it claims to be. It is a reflection. Where the world is shown in the way that we often perceive it.

The jumbled and perplexing threads of dreams, recollections, conversations, both past and present. Childhood and adulthood, our naivete and our current jaded cynicism, intermingled in the cauldron of the human psyche. Back and forth. Back and forth. Again and again.

Because what we watch is not simply about one individual. As with any life, it’s interconnected with others around it. A woman (Margarita Terekhova) sitting on a fence post during the war years in an interchange with a doctor. In the present, Alexei, our generally unseen protagonist, converses with his mother over the phone. We peer into the printing press where she worked as a proofreader. Rushing about searching for a mistake she purportedly made. Regardless, it hardly matters.

In the present, Alexei quarrels with his estranged wife on how to handle their son Ignat. The fact that his wife is also played by Terekhova is more of a blessing than a curse. In a passing remark, he notes how much she looks like his mother did and it’s true that she is one of the connecting points. Even as she embodies two different people, the performance ties together the two periods of the film. Visually she is the same and that undoubtedly has resonance to Tarkovsky.

As the film cycles through its various time frames so do the spectrums of the palette. The color sequences have a remarkably lovely hue where the greens seem especially soft and pleasant as if every shot is bathed in sunlight. It’s mingled with the black and white imagery as the story echoes back and forth, past and present, between different shades and coloring. But whereas these alterations often provide some kind of cinematic shorthand to denote a change in time, from everything I can gather, Tarkovsky seems to be working beyond that.

Because there are scenes set in the past that are color, ones in the so-called present that are monochrome, and vice versa. It’s yet another level of weaving serving a higher purpose than merely a narrative one. If I knew more about musical composition I might easily make the claim Mirror is arranged thus — the cadence relying more on form than typical cinematic structure.

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That and we have Tarkovsky’s long takes (though not as long as some) married with his roving camera that nevertheless remains still when it chooses to. The falling cascades of rain are almost otherworldly in their spiraling elegance. The wind ripping through the trees a force unlike any other though we’ve no doubt seen the very same thing innumerable times. Fires blaze like eternal flames. Figures lie suspended in the air, isolated in time and space. Each new unfolding is ripe for some kind of revelation.

We also might think our subjects to be an irreligious people but maybe they still yearn for a spirituality of some kind. I’m reminded of one moment in particular when, head in her hands, the wife asks who it was who saw a burning bush and then she notes that she wishes that kind of sign would come to her. If there is a God or any type of spiritual world, the silence is unappreciated.

I recall hearing a quote from the luminary director Ingmar Bergman. He asserted the following, “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

The words are striking to me because you could easily argue Bergman’s films also had such an ethereal even refractive quality. Look no further than Through a Glass Darkly (1961) or Persona (1966) and this is overwhelmingly evident. And yet he considers Tarkovsky the greatest.

This isn’t the time or place to quibble over the validity of the statement. But it seems safe to acknowledge the effusive praise the Soviet auteur has earned for how he dares play with celluloid threads and orchestrate his shots in ingenious ways. He exhibits how malleable the medium can be as an art form while never quite losing its human core.

4.5/5 Stars

Solaris (1972)

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Now I can finally say that I have entered the cinematic world of Andrei Tarkovsky and I am better for it. Solaris somehow traces the lines of a paradox rather remarkably. It’s a sprawling epic of nearly 3 hours and yet hardly ever feels overlong. It moves through its rhythms contemplatively but never feels too slow. And though it’s a sci-fi story, it never loses sight of its human components which remain its guiding light to the end.

To Tarkovsky’s credit, he’s able to retain the film’s continual ability to mesmerize again and again and he never lets up. I know for certain viewers this will be dull monotony–even for me at times–but for others, it’s pure magic. Repeatably fascinating for both its enigmatic mysteries and revelations. Because it delivers both up willingly to the engaged viewer.

Like any master painter, Tarkovsky begins the film by laying down his base coats. We’re introduced to enigmatic psychologist Kris Kelvin while simultaneously accustoming ourselves to the director’s naturalistic imagery — glossy and distinct. It’s in these opening moments at the home of his father back on earth where the audience gains more insight and Kris prepares himself to mount a journey to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Only three crew members still survive there and the psychologist is being sent to check in on them and continue to expand the reaches of human knowledge. That’s the idea at least.

However, when Kris gets to the space station it’s far from welcoming, austere and dilapidated thanks to poor upkeep. Now only two crew members remain, the curiously odd Dr. Snaut and the cold cynic Dr. Sartorious. Both men will give Kris very little information about the general state of affairs. And he only learns later that his colleague Gibarian committed suicide for some inexplicable reason.

But the film enters its most perplexing stages when Kris receives a visit from a mysterious woman — her name is Hari and for reasons unknown to us, Kris is very close to her. And his emotional state from that time forth is constantly being manipulated by the presence of this special visitor. He’s frightened of her. Then in love and completely devoted to her well-being. And despite the adamant insistence of his colleagues, he will not believe her to be an apparition. He holds onto the fact that this woman in front of him who is constantly self-destructive and in the same instance totally devoted to him, is the woman he knows and loves. But the question is not so much whether or not that is true, but what Kelvin will do with all that has been thrust upon him as a result.

On the whole, Solaris is a visual treat but not due to grandiose visions of space.  Instead, Tarkovsky blends color and sepia footage into a patchwork while juxtaposing the environmental beauty of underwater vegetation with the dour interiors of the space station. And the suspension of disbelief is maintained through the use of simple special effects and the underlying fact that this film is not really reliant on pyrotechnics of any kind. It’s about people. An equally remarkable observation is the fact that Tarkovsky seems to be self-assured enough to have his characters play their roles with relative restraint. Numerous times they face away from the camera. In other films, directors would be afraid of such a tactic, but here it only works to heighten the amount of intrigue.

It’s a philosophical and psychological study that happens to take place on a space station. And that’s really like any of the great sci-fi movies of our times. They’re not really about science-fiction or technology or robots or any of that. They’re only another mode to tell the most human of narratives even in the outer reaches of the galaxy or in futuristic worlds.

It’s also highly reductive to call this Tarkovsky’s 2001. In deference to both films really. In fact, the director did not see Kubrick’s film until well afterward and I think I too would side with his conclusion that 2001 is a little bit too “sterile.” While 2001 is a decidedly grand narrative of exploration and technological advancement, you can easily make the case that Solaris is a film most precisely about the incredibly human emotion of love. Although it’s also about the human search for some kind of truth much in the same way as its predecessor, it’s also far more personal. Solaris feels more intimate and true — perhaps even more closely tied to some of Ridley Scott’s themes in Blade Runner. Particularly his examination on what exactly separates man and machine when they share striking similarities.

As far as sound goes, there is a score to Solaris, but Tarkovsky only utilizes it at the precise moments, more often than not foregoing typical music for either electronic distortions or perhaps even more boldly complete silence. He also gives nods to the great Flemish master Pieter Bruegel using his work in the set designs inside the space station.

Truthfully, it’s easy to peg Solaris as a pessimistic movie but it’s as preoccupied with morality as it is with the pursuit of knowledge. It’s as much about the innate human desire for love as it is psychological torment. And its ending strikes a note of poignancy and bitter despair in the same instance.  But if you want profound cinema that stays with you and marinates in your mind then look no further. I will certainly be returning to Tarkovsky sooner rather than later.

5/5 Stars