Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Stations of the Cross (5 Stars)

I went to see this film with the Birmingham Film Club at the Mac, a small independent cinema near the Edgbaston cricket ground. It's the only cinema in Birmingham that regularly shows foreign films. Unfortunately they're not all German.

It's a film that could only have been made in Germany. In America it would have been too controversial to be completed, even if it had been adapted to American Protestant fundamentalism. The film has to do with German Catholic fundamentalism, if "fundamentalism" is the correct word. The story is about a church which belongs to the Society of St. Pius X, a splinter group of the Roman Catholic Church which rejected the decisions of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. They consider themselves to be the real Catholic Church, while the mainstream Catholic Church is apostate. Although it isn't directly stated in the film, this society considers the Pope to be the Antichrist.

The film takes place over a period of two weeks in the life of Maria, a 14-year-old girl who is about to go through the sacrament of confirmation. The film is divided into 14 scenes, one representing each step of Christ's suffering, but it isn't divided into days. The cinematography is stark and beautiful in its simplicity. Each of the 14 scenes is a single take, and in all but two of the scenes (the 9th and the 14th) the camera doesn't move.

There are six children in the confirmation class, but Maria is the one who takes things the most seriously. When the priest asks questions it's always Maria who knows the answer. The priest recommends sacrifice through asceticism to all the children. For instance, he says that his greatest pleasures in life are a chocolate bar, a cup of tea and listening to a classical concert on the radio, but he thinks he can please God by giving these up.

Maria's youngest brother is four and hasn't begun to speak, maybe due to a form of autism, although the doctors aren't certain of the cause. She feels that she can cure him by sacrificing the pleasures in her life. She tries to lead a life pleasing to God, but she's tempted when she's approached by a boy in school who asks her to sing in his choir in another church. For Maria's mother this is the depth of depravity.

The two women in Maria's life are her mother and the French au pair girl Bernadette, who is only a few years older than her. The mother is a monster, a religious fanatic who is so obsessed with her beliefs system that she is blind to the fact that her daughter is suffering. The worst wrong-doers are the ones who think they are doing right. Maria feels strongly drawn to Bernadette and wants to be like her, even though she doesn't share the family's extremist views. Bernadette is the only voice of reason in the film. She believes in God, but she thinks we should enjoy the pleasures of the world.

The film is stunning. When we left the cinema we were hardly able to talk. We were so moved by what we had seen. The film presents religious extremism without judging. That's left up to the viewer. Someone who believes in a strict form of Christianity will feel sympathetic with the church and its teachings, while the majority of viewers will probably condemn the harsh legalistic system oppressing Maria.

This is a film I need to see again. It's already been released on DVD in Germany, but I'll wait to see if there will be a Blu-ray release.

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