Films that “grapple” with Faith: “First Reformed” (2018) and “Novitiate” (2017)

First Reformed PosterFirst Reformed (2018)  

First Reformed” comes from director Paul Schrader, who co-wrote the scripts to such films as “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980), and who directed “American Gigolo” (1980) and “Affliction” (1997), among other films. It tells of Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a priest in the First Reformed church in Snowbridge, New York, who tries to help one man with his obsessive radical-environmentalist beliefs, but who ends up fighting his own inner demons instead. This film works well on many levels, but it is probably its deep philosophical, existentialist-like quality, as well as its masterful execution, which distinguish it above others. Deep, thought-provoking and resolute, “First Reformed” grapples interestingly with the questions of faith and morality, and, by the end, becomes both a subdued and quiet meditation on life and internal despair, and an explosively powerful statement on hope.

As many other great films before it, “First Reformed” sets its high standard from the opening shot, which is a shot slowly approaching the white counters of the church, with the symmetry of the image perfectly executed. The camera then lingers on the door, and the attention to detail in the frame is evident. This rule of symmetry dictates nearly every shot of this film. The stillness/quietness of the opening shots and attempts to establish the shot symmetry may hint at the initial sense of a (communal) order before the calm and set mind states of the characters are shuttered by the events (chaos) that are bound to follow. The sombre colours of the film, with the emphasis on black and white, give the picture a gloomy, depressing and nihilist feeling, but also the one that brings up a sense of authenticity. Schrader’s initial decision was to shoot the film in black and white, and although he was then pressured to go for colour, the black-and-white vision remained somewhat in this film as is evident by the preference for gloomy colours and the white and black contrast. The white interior of the church is contrasted with the black robe of the priest, and another image clearly presents a dirt-black path on white snow fields. These contrasts and “extreme” colours may suggest the constant battle between good and evil, and between death and birth, which surrounds the characters. The eeriness in the opening shot is also established by the fact that as we glance at the overcast sky and the church, we may discern the faint sound of a door squeaking somewhere far away or some distant rope swings moving in the wind.

Regarding the plot itself, “First Reformed” takes a cue from Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest(1951) to establish an introspective priest, troubled by health problems, who writes a diary in his spare time, possibly as a way of therapy. The film also takes much from Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light” (1963) in terms of establishing the existentialist crisis and the setting. After one morning mass, Reverend Toller is approached by a young woman Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who is worried about her husband Michael, who is involved in an environmental activist group and seems to have radical ideas about what to do with future. Toller promises to help and the friendly link between him and Mary is established. When Reverend then visits the couple in their home to provide some counselling for Michael, we find out that Mary is some weeks pregnant; Michael’s ideas verge on lunacy; and Toller’s own family history is marked by grief and guilt since he feels responsible for losing his son in the war. What follows are events of unbelievable proportions, with each of the three main characters being catalysts in one way or another.

Despite its relatively “thin” plot, it will be a mistake to view “First Reformed” as one-dimensional regarding its themes. There are, in fact, a number of themes hidden in plain sight for us to contemplate on. Firstly, “First Reformed” is a tale of fear and hope, and the finding of the right balance between these two (again, symmetry) is what drives this film forward. There is much talk in the film about one’s fear of the future and all – Toller, Mary and Michael voice their concerns regarding the issue at some point. The male characters come into the story either already “damaged”, uncertain of the future, and in need of a therapy (i.e., Toller, Michael), or their purity of devotion could be questioned, as is the case of Pastor Jeffers, who oversees First Reformed. It is perhaps for that reason we are drawn to consider lamps in the story and there is one futuristic “eye” lamp in Mary’s living room which could not fail to capture all the attention. A lamp could be a symbol standing for hope, a light at the end of the tunnel which all characters in the story want to discover. Reverend Toller is exhausted by his declining health and hopeless about his future, Michael’s despair is outwardly and also concerns the future of the planet, and we first see Mary being very worried about her future child.

Arguably, another theme of “First Reformed” is the relationship between past and future. In the film, past traditions and history collide with some new ways of looking at the world. First Reformed is a 250-year old church which stands for history not to be forgotten, and was built to be used by worshippers. And yet, we see it in the present time as a primarily tourist destination, and which is not even that popular. The sacredness of rituals and the purity of devotion take the back seat when the practical modern considerations take the lead. We may find ourselves in the church in the film, but we also hear of a leaked pipe in a males’ toilet, of shirts in the souvenir shop which are not of the size wanted and of a church organ which does not work. This is the message of religion and tradition (its institution) in decline, and Reverend Toller himself struggles with the modern, capitalistic drives of religion. However, there is a resolution in sight for both the church (and its waning popularity in terms of religion) and for the Reverend (and his own spiritual decline) and the date of the celebration of the church’s anniversary becomes the key hope for reparation.

First-Reformed ShotLinked to this concept of the contrast between past, present and future is also the concept of time itself. We get the hint from the story that time is running out, and we are constantly reminded of the future. We often see clocks in the film, and it seems that the plot just rushes forward towards the celebration of the church’s anniversary, or “salvation”. There is a talk in the film of young people of today who are different and who want “certainty” and “extreme”, and Michael also talks of his not-yet born baby, imagining the age that baby would be in future. Toller may talk of the fact that this year the church celebrates its anniversary, but his own time on this earth is running out fast, as he is allegedly ill with cancer. One scene which exemplified this theme like no other is the scene where Toller and Mary seat on a sofa with two lamps by each side of that sofa. There is an “eye” lamp, which could be described as “futuristic” on one side (signifying the future) and the old-fashioned, ordinary lamp near Mary (signifying the past).

It is true that the film’s voice-over could have been shortened; it seems like the story runs out of ideas in the last twenty minutes; and sometimes the premise is over-ambitious. However, the pay-off is there; the film’s vision is clear; the connection to the audience is established; and the acting is great. Amanda Seyfried gives a good, but self-conscious performance, but it is Ethan Hawke who shines in the main role. He has to portray a character that is imperfect and make him sympathetic, and he nails it. His Reverend is really a priest in an existentialism crisis, trying to lessen the pain with a drink as he seems sometimes to go through some stages of grief. “How easily they talk about prayer, those who have never really prayedand “Courage is the solution to despair”, muses Toller, and Hawke manages expertly to keep external calm/control while also making sure that we guess that his character is evidently battles personal beliefs and the impact of environmental catastrophes.

 “First Reformed” maybe be too gloomy for some, but it is imbued with inner, barely perceivable hope, and the film’s minimalist style, including in relation to colour, is refreshing. The film forces the audience to meditate on uncomfortable topics, and, in that way, it is brave in many ways. Its masterfully presented themes, intriguing story and well-written characters, coupled with the outstanding performance from Ethan Hawke, take this film as close to perfection as any film can get. 10/10

**SPOILER ALERT**

The film works wonderfully as it is, but there will be some viewers who may probably have valid afterthoughts. There is much talk about the film’s ending, and one can really accept it for what it is, but the formed relationship between Toller and Mary may still raise an eyebrow. Even though this film may be all about questionable morality, for the ending to work effectively, the audience must at least sympathise with the characters somewhat. However, one impression could be that we have here this young woman who jumps at the chance to love a priest who, in turn, is some years her senior and who she met in a professional/sacred environment and they unite in a moment of carnal rapture, when her own husband and the father of her child, who died in very traumatic circumstances, is not yet cold in his grave (well, alright, when his ashes are not yet evaporated). Mary’s husband may have had a short temper, but Mary seemed to have cared much for him when she asked the priest to talk to him. Reverend Toller may be written in a way which shows him to be far from a perfect human being, but here he is – essentially using his authority to work his inner charm on a much younger woman, while he quite insensitively rebuts romantic advances of another woman his age.

Novitiate Poster Novitiate (2017)

Novitiate” is an impressive debut feature film from Maggie Betts, which first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The setting is a Catholic Church convent in the US in the 1960s and the protagonist is Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley), the daughter of a factory worker. Cathleen sets her heart to become a nun, despite her mother’s protestations, and enters a convent under the strict authority of somewhat old-fashioned Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair (Melissa Leo). All seems to go well until Cathleen starts to discover her own need for human “comfort” and the new rules from Vatican II of the Catholic Church mean that the important things she has been taught about the Church would never apply.

So many people settle for love that does not really ask anything of them – that they do not have to make any sacrifices for…I don’t want that. I want an ideal love that I have to give everything to…” This is the first line of a monologue that we hear from Cathleen before we see the opening shot of a beautiful old building and church music. Cathleen’s morning in the convent has begun and we see the morning prayers of the girls there who aspire to become sisters and wives to Jesus. This is one of the great things about “Novitiate” – its fascinating insight into the practices of this particular convent and the psychology behind a religions order and its sustenance. The camera then moves to show the faces of new girls at the convent, as they silently gaze at the Christ’s representation, and we see pure bliss and devotion on those faces. Cathleen, who is eighteen, tells us that these girls are in love with God. Then, we are taken back when Cathleen was only a child and see her undesirable and hardly religious upbringing (since her mother is an atheist/agnostic and her father is rarely at home).

Novitiate ShotDespite the film’s curious premise and fascinating issues as it delves into the psychology of devotion, the problems with “Novitiate” can be seen quite early on in the story. Maggie Betts takes a very relaxed approach to establishing a plot. After paying particular attention to the setting and commenting on Cathleen’s background, the linear plot then could be said to be virtually non-existent. There are episodes of girls in the convent being taught the rule of silence and girls sharing their early experience of religion, but no episode really progresses to the conclusion or resolution (maybe apart from some vital scenes involving Reverend Mother in her office), and there is none of the much anticipated tension. The main question becomes whether some girls at the convent are there because of a passing whimsy or because of their unquestionable devotion to God. This laid-back approach to the plot and the emphasis on the peculiarities of the convent would have worked well if the film did not last nearly two hours. The result is a movie which is tiresome at times, and, especially at the end, is quite far from being compelling.

The fresh talent, such as Margaret Qualley (Cathleen) and Rebecca Dayan (Emanuel), is good, but the character of Reverend Mother and the performance by Melissa Leo are the highlights of “Novitiate”. The audience sometimes have to guess whether they perhaps misjudged Reverend Mother and she is simply too strict and too conventional in her approach. Then, the tables turn, and we see the practice of group humiliation and the free use of self-inflicted corporal punishment, all under the supervision of Reverend Mother. Even then, Reverend Mother’s “evil” intentions could be questioned since the practice of self-inflicted corporal punishment has not been used solely at that particular convent before the Vatican II rules. Besides, Reverend Mother could simply be seen as a desperate person who is doing her job and who is unable to face the changes which will bring the decline of the convent. In sum, the uncertainty regarding this character’s intentions and views is maybe what keeps the story so intriguing since what can be more fascinating that to consider that tyranny/evil here could be cloaked in benevolence? Also, Melissa Leo (“The Fighter” (2010)) embodies Reverend Mother so brilliantly and gives such a great performance, it becomes a pleasure to watch.

Strangely, even though the film does everything for us to connect to and feel for Cathleen and her predicament, there could hardly be any sympathy left for her by the end of the story, and, although the ending leaves some room for thought, the ending as a whole is quite predictable.

For a debut feature, “Novitiate” is a worthy of every attention movie. It may be a peculiar film with an uncertain intention, requiring patience, but it also provides an interesting insight into a convent life in the 1960s and tries to emphasise character development. It is true that the film is too long and at times pointless, but arguably, what ultimately saves “Novitiate” from its own self-inflicted wounds is the character of Reverend Mother and the performance by Melissa Leo. With uncertain and subtle antagonistic qualities, as a character, Reverend Mother injects into the movie some darker, subtler and more nuanced undertones, sometimes rescuing the film through the sheer force of her presence. 7/10

For similarly-themed films check out “Silence” (2016) and “Indignation” (2016).

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8 Responses to Films that “grapple” with Faith: “First Reformed” (2018) and “Novitiate” (2017)

  1. Great reviews as usual. First Reformed really connected with me during and way after the end. Definitely one of my films of the year. I felt the ending missed one important scene where perhaps Toller could have delivered some kind of rousing / damning sermon to those waiting in the church. However, the visuals and voiceover conveyed his message throughout and I guess he wasn’t that kind of character, preferring to internalise his angst and despair. Schrader and Hawke really are at the top of their game in First Reformed.

    I look forward to catching Novitiate. Although I will have to practice saying it before buying a ticket 🙂

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks! Now that I think about it you may be right that some final sermon from Toller would have been powerful as well and everyone present in the church could look just amazed. I guess the current ending of him not attending the sermon is also a statement meaning that he remains apart from them, a loner, kind of, with already different objectives in mind. But then again the film is so good that a number of endings would have worked – some better than others.
      Would love to hear your opinion when you do see Novitiate.

  2. Keith says:

    Fantastic reviews. First Reformed has really stuck in my mind. So much more boiling under its surface than I ever anticipated.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thank you! You said it so right – “boiling under the surface”. There is definitely an internal and external turmoil and the film manages to convey/show both.

  3. John Charet says:

    Great post 🙂 I am a huge fan of First Reformed and I honestly believe that along with Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, it ranks as Paul Schrader’s greatest film as a filmmaker. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon: Pickpocket (1959) | dbmoviesblog

  5. Pingback: My 5 Favourite Films of 2018 | dbmoviesblog

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