Monday, September 10, 2018


Two of the year’s finest films come from older masters deeply engaged with spiritual matters. Both encased in an austere, boxy aspect ratio, one is a musical about Joan of Arc’s childhood, the other a depressed diary of a priest at the end of his rope. The former is an exuberant engagement with humanity’s past; the latter is a despairing howl for our future. Despite their differing approaches, they each manage to strike a tone uniquely fitted for our time. They are works of spiritual inquiry in response to overwhelmingly negative odds, asking what good can be done in the face of so much depravity and destruction run rampant. These are films about tormented souls, people who want to purify the world and yet are drawn into darkness as they contemplate what dramatic moves they may need to take to do so. The films are profoundly, respectfully, truly religious. A blessedly far way removed from the pat moralizing and perfunctory messaging of most of what passes for Christian film, here one finds artists wrestling with the big questions of life, asking probing profundities about the dizzying gap that can open up between faith as an ideal and faith as a lived experience, where actions speak louder than words, and the long, dark night of the soul leads to urgent prayerful contemplation. 

This sense of frustrated futility immovably attached to deep spiritual belief hangs over the bright and sunny vistas of Bruno Dumont's Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. Set almost entirely outdoors in one small patch of French countryside during the Hundred Years' War -- a bit of rolling verdant hills, some sandy beach, and a thicket of woods sliced by a trickling stream, all unmarred physically by the battles -- young Joan sits and ambles around the sheep she's tasked with watching. It'll be nearly 90 minutes before we go inside. In the opening scene, 9-year-old Jeanne (in an astonishingly contemplative and interior performance by Lise Leplat Prudhomme, who manages to convey religiosity-beyond-her-years and childlike whimsy in every gesture) sings a lilting melody, declaring, about her little piece of France, “There is nothing. There is never anything.” She sees and hears tell of the injustices perpetrated against her people by the continuing English invasion, and wonders aloud why God (or her countrymen, with His divine intervention) allows it to continue. She speaks to another serious-yet-light little girl (Lucile Gauthier) who wanders through scenes; she speaks to identical twin nuns (Aline and Elsie Charles); she speaks to her rapping uncle (Nicolas Leclaire). They all operate as sounding boards for her youthful tussling with deep moral questions. Must one wage war to end war? What is one to do in the face of spiritual confusion -- a deep sense that her burgeoning visions speak to her, and yet reasonable doubt that she can cause the change she wishes to see in the world -- when the wrongs of the world are so clearly wrong, and the ways of the righteous seem not to matter in the face of them. Dumont -- whose eccentric works are of consistent interest, even when their sprawling tonalities slip (goofy cannibal screwball Slack Bay) as often as they cohere (L'il Quinquin's loopy epic small-town murder mystery) -- directs with a contained restraint, the wide open spaces and distant bleating of sheep nonetheless boxing Jeanne into her state of spiritual inquiry. The musical elements, a film sung through with gentle swirling tunes and serious lyrics deftly danced with little spasms of choreography and scored with plucking strings and heavy-head-banging guitar licks, add to the sense of youthful disgust, fragile and yet strong. Filmed en plein air and recorded with direct sound, there's a lively realism to the cracking voices and stumbling deliveries, at once impassioned and trippingly natural, the cast marvelous as they navigate the heavy internal conflict, the Hamlet-esque questioning -- to be, or not to be the saint she's meant to be -- as political and spiritual awakening, youthful disgust at the world as punkish hair-flipping, religion as deep comfort for one who rides off in the final scene, off into the sunset to become a hero and, whether she knows it or not, to meet her doom.

Even better is Paul Schrader's First Reformed, the best movie of the year. (If I see anything better, I'll be surprised.) It strikes a tuning fork against the mood of its main character and it resonates for the duration. It's a sustained note of unfathomable and entirely persuasive despair. Ethan Hawke, in a career best performance, plays the pastor of a small church in upstate New York. It has a tiny, largely indifferent congregation, which is just as well since the historical building is run mostly as a museum. Owned by a megachurch down the road, whose employees speak of the little 200-year-old building as a "gift shop," preparations are underway for a big anniversary celebration. Hawke's Reverend Toller is supposedly making last-minute adjustments to the grounds -- ensuring the gravestones are upright, the organ freshly repaired -- at the urging of his televangelist boss (Cedric "the Entertainer" Kyles, rumbling with cheery gravitas). But he's distracted. For one, he's having terrible digestive pains, leaving blood in the toilet, eating only bread dipped in whiskey. He refuses to see a doctor. He spends his days largely alone, keeping a diary by candlelight, feeling the despair of the world crush down upon him. He must feel it's duty to feel this pain, to internalize the world's cataclysmic problems. The movie is spare, austere, with pale digital cinematography practically crackling in the cold, shadowy rooms and wan pinkish sunset skies along the polluted river. Toller is called by a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) whose environmental activist husband (Philip Ettinger) is in an overwhelming depression. He's studied climate change science and determined that it's cruel to bring new life into this doomed world. Toller engages him in a lively debate, pulling out all the best logical and Biblical reasons to go on living and celebrate this impending birth, but leaves having been infected by the despairing man's downward spiral. This is invigorating darkness. 

The rest of the film follows Toller's fervor to do something, anything, in response to the overwhelming apocalyptic feeling of modern life, a sense of a society rapidly succumbing to greed and callousness. It's not for nothing that it's set against a megachurch coopting a tiny bit of religious history -- at one point, Toller very seriously tells a school tour about the hiding places under the pews used by the Underground Railroad, clearly lamenting a modern church giving up the moral high ground when it comes to the Big Issues of the day -- in pursuit of corporate donors and a back-patting bicentennial service. Toller sees the world as polluted, and his refusal to seek help for his medical condition and mental anguish is a steady metaphor for the poison he feels rotting away at existence itself. We're doomed, he feels. And so is he. This leads to an escalating tension -- what will he do with the pain so acutely written on his countenance -- as the still frames and quiet pacing twist with an overwhelming suffusion of despair. What does one do when the problems of mortal beings feel insurmountably large, even and especially in the face of eternity? Leaning on the everlasting arms only gets you so far before you feel the need to tear the world down to build it up again. The film has deeply spiritual roots, with Schrader wearing his influences on his sleeve -- his strict Calvinist upbringing, his classic brooding screenplays (Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, Affliction, Bringing Out the Dead), his love of transcendental cinema of Bresson and Bergman (Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light, especially). Yet it is not just the sum of its ideas or influences. The immediacy of Hawke's performance, etched with unshakable sorrow at the state of the world and of his life and of his body, shakes with unspeakable anguish. Not even his diary, or his prayers, can contain the pain Schrader's camera captures, the soul-sick sadness that passes understanding. The film's startling climax, an inevitable escalation of the central spiritual and physical tensions of the film, comes not from merely any act, but from the breathtaking expression of utter exhaustion at society's injustices, and how it pulls back into black at the peak of its thematic exhilaration. Only in the last split second does it seem possible that it's a film that's bleak, dark, and unflinchingly outraged, and still ultimately, with the slimmest flicker of hope, about how it's better to create possibility than to destroy all.

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