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

Ordet (1955)

Ordet1955screenshotCarol Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet is a deeply thought-provoking, spiritual foray into the realms of faith and love. However, it is as much about doubt as it is faith, as much about discord as it is about love. It shows a spectrum that, while irrevocably Danish with its actors and setting (a bit reminiscent of Bergman), still has a universality that correlates to the contemporary world we live in. This later work by Dreyer is deliberate in pace, simple in its misce-en-scene, but the life is breathed into it by the characterizations and a beautifully subtle approach to depicting them.

The story is based off a play by Lutheran Pastor Kaj Munk, which was first performed in 1932. The majority of the tale takes place on a rural farm belonging to aged and bearded widower Morten Borgen. Aside from being a farmer, he is a prominent member of his community and a devout Christian. Now he contents himself smoking his pipe as he has three grown sons and a couple grandchildren.

His first son is happily married to a wonderful woman and mother of two, but he himself is struggling with belief in a God, and he acknowledges lacking faith in such things. His wife continues to encourage him, but he knows that such news will deeply trouble his father.

Johannes, the middle son, began believing he himself was the incarnation of Jesus Christ after deluging himself with the works of the famed Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. So now he goes around spouting off scripture and calling out those around him for their lack of faith. What makes it so mesmerizing is the dazed sincerity behind each word. He truly believes what he is saying.

Finally Borgen’s third boy, Anders, is deeply taken with a girl named Anne from the nearby town, but of course her father Peter is from a different sect, and so everyone knows that neither father would willingly agree to a marriage.

These are the problems that plague the Borgen family, so they are undoubtedly commonplace in any spiritual community. Dreyer depicts it all in very mundane terms but not as unimportant, not without a deft hand and sensitive touch.

There is one scene in particular that comes to mind. The young girl Inger, a namesake for her mother, comes up behind her uncle Johannes and with all sincerity, in her eyes and voice, she begins to ask him to raise her mother from the dead. They talk about it for a time and while they talk pensively the camera slowly makes a spiral around them. Now if this was Tarantino (in Django for instance), he would need to bring attention to his camera and the scene loses all of its impact, because he’s a director who is often about as subdued as a toothache. But with Dreyer there is a sensitivity to his movement that’s gracefully smooth, accentuated by his long takes, with a simple backdrop, and pinpoint lighting.

Between the bickering over Ander’s betrothal and the sudden decline in the condition of the pregnant Inger,  there is a lot of soul searching to be done and problems to be parsed through. In a sense, it looks like any life full of conflict, pain, and unforeseeable suffering. It’s all there and it hurts the Borgen family and turns neighbor against neighbor. This film has so many different worldviews and philosophy colliding at once. There are those who are devout in their faith, but their faiths differ. There are those who doubt it all or want cold hard facts. Some have blind faith and others are off-putting with their message. Then there those who seem content in their spiritual lives even though they are not perfect people. So essentially we have almost every iteration or cross-section of society, at least to some degree. It makes for an interesting battleground, but within that, it’s interesting how these characters start to find common ground and build rapport instead of breeding bitterness.

Furthermore, the final moments of the film are so surprising in their sincerity as they are for what actually happens. It’s in a sense wholly unbelievable, but we don’t disbelieve it — in fact, we want it — because we have followed this film thus far. What happened felt so close to home and so the ending, although somewhat unusual, feels right. It’s a strikingly beautiful conclusion to a film that speaks to our doubts, questions about faith, and ultimately our capacity to love and be loved.

This is the sort of film that would probably never see the light of day in Hollywood. It’s either you make God’s Not Dead or something that has no spirituality in it whatsoever. Ordet goes far beyond the depth of such films and it is better for it. I will not say I agree with everything that each character says, but that’s the point, because they all come from different perspectives. The best we can do is come and try to understand what others think so we can move forward from there. But spiritual conversations matter.

4.5/5 Stars

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

6d281-passionarcAs cliche as it will sound, this is one of those films that transcends the years for me. It is still that powerful after so many decades.

Using low angles and numerous close ups Carl Theodor Dreyer pulled me into this story early on. It was tense and claustrophobic causing the viewer to become emotionally involved in the trial and the plight that surrounded Joan.

The actors that he chose have wonderfully expressive visages that are so distinct even with out makeup of any kind. Then there is Falconetti who undoubtedly has a pair of the most expressive eyes ever shown on the silver screen.

I watched the film without any score so the complete silence was a new experience for me, but it forced me to pay particular attention to the images. Those were enough to keep my attention by  making me squirm and empathize the entire time.

By the end of the film there is an immense connection for Joan built because she seems an innocent victim. A martyr to be sure who reflects the sufferings of Christ. That is the story of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Certainly a simple tale but a master work of silent cinema nonetheless.

I am intrigued to see more from Carol Theodor Dreyer especially because his filmography is so sparse.

4.5/5 Stars