First Reformed (US-UK-Australia, 2017)

Religion in the modern world

I’m probably one of the least qualified people to comment on a film about religion as I’m mostly ignorant of the themes that inform them. I didn’t even twig that the potentially redeeming character, played by Amanda Seyfried, was called Mary until I read Gillian Horvat’s excellent Sight & Sound article. So this post will be limited by my secular outlook.

I’m aware that writer-director Paul Schrader has form in dealing with metaphysical issues and was more attracted to the film by Ethan Hawke’s presence. I can’t think of a contemporary actor who consistently turns up in more interesting material and who, invariably, delivers brilliant performances. The only time he disappointed me was when he was, I felt, miscast in Maudie (Ireland-Canada, 2016); here his star power overwhelmed the simplicity of his character. In First Reformed we know that his Toller is a deeply conflicted priest right from the start, as he delivers a sermon, simply through his non verbal communication: his posture is uncertain and intonation full of doubt. Alexander Dynan’s austere cinematography, it was shot in late autumn/winter (and apparently influenced by Berman’s Winter Light, Nattvardsgästerna, Sweden, 1963), beautifully captures Toller’s despair.

Whilst I have no problem with existential angst it was rewarding when, as the film progressed, the despair gained a political edge as Toller tries to console a parishioner who questions the wisdom of bringing a child into the world that is doomed to climate catastrophe. The introduction of the ‘big business’ bad guy (whose argument against mitigating climate change is, “It’s complicated, right!”) also works to root the metaphysical problems in the real world.

Most of Schrader’s camera work is austere too: an unmoving camera placed not necessarily to get all the action. However, he’s not averse to breaking away from arthouse realism. There are two scenes where the metaphysical outweighs the physical: (spoiler alert) one where Mary and Toller float through together through the ether (for want of a better term) and, at the end which for some, Peter Bradshaw for one, went too far. I take Bradshaw’s point, but the ending is only problematic if you read it as realist. In fact, it’s clear that the doors to Toller’s residence are locked and Mary could not have entered so the ending is really all in the priest’s mind.

There’s probably something symbolic about the church he ministers as it’s about to celebrate its 250 anniversary and so places its origins in colonial days. That one went over my head too.

I haven’t actually seen many of Schrader’s films as director (and he’s credited with 26 on imdb); I’ve long wanted to catch Blue Collar (US, 1976) his debut. I need to catch up with him as the ones that I’ve seen I’ve mostly enjoyed.

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