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If 2018 Were a Film, It’d Be ‘First Reformed’

Charging full force at religion, mean corporations and environmental collapse, it sums up the moral moment.

By Dorothy Woodend 12 Dec 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

It’s time to reckon with the year that was, but I’m not sure where to begin.

Sometimes it felt impossible to get much work done in 2018. Either you were riveted by the spectacle of the world crashing and burning, or you were struggling out from underneath the latest disaster. With a dozen years or so before total environmental collapse, is watching movies, going to art galleries and reading books really the best use of one’s remaining time?

I don’t know. But you have to find a way through the wilderness, and that’s where I believe cinema can help. For those of you who want to skip past the poking at the entrails of the previous year and simply see some films, here’s my quick hit list of high and low, light and dark, silly and serious from the year that was.

First the narratives:

1. First Reformed
2. You Were Never Really Here
3. The Favourite
4. Madeline’s Madeline and Skate Kitchen
5. Sorry to Bother You
6. Eighth Grade
7. BlacKkKlansman
8. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
9. Roma
10. Vice

And then the documentaries.

1. What Is Democracy?
2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
3. RBG
4. Free Solo
5. Fahrenheit 11/9
6. When the Storm Fades
7. Three Identical Strangers
8. Dark Money
9. Minding the Gap
10. Hal

There was a whack more worth seeing, including Blindspotting, Zama, Isle of Dogs, Kusama: Infinity, Science Fair, Bisbee ‘17, The Price of Everything, Carmine Street Guitars, Maria by Callas, In the Realm of Perfection, Hitler’s Hollywood, This One's for the Ladies, Design Canada and McQueen. And Alain Cavalier’s Six Portraits XL deserves a special category all its own.

A film for the year

But let’s get back to poking things in the gut. The year 2018 was in many respects a carnival of horrors, but it was also a very good time for movies. Make of that what you will. In Vancouver, the Vancity Theatre and the Cinematheque will be offering a selection of the lauded and applauded work over the holiday season. And Netflix continues to roll out top-tier titles as a demonstration of its financial clout.

The temptation to look for an overarching idea or umbrella under which an entire year of films can be collected is something of a fool’s errand. But I am just that fool, and if there was one film that summed up the current moral moment, it was Paul Schrader’s First Reformed.

Schrader, to put it mildly, is an uneven filmmaker. Raised as a strict Calvinist he came late to movies, but went on to pen Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, and directed American Gigolo. Sure, he has also made a number of horrendous films, but the man has something to say, and his latest, First Reformed, charges full force at religion, corporate malfeasance, environmental collapse and the agonized search for meaning. And I do mean agonized. This isn’t the most fun thing to watch over the holidays, but it is riveting in ways that I did not expect. Made with rigour and purpose, it is also possessed of a seriousness and mystery that’s rare in contemporary cinema.

The story is plain, told with little music and shot in a hard winter light that picks out every line of weariness, every spot of doubt. Even the boxy aspect ratio feels cramped and claustrophobic. But in spite of the bleakness, or perhaps because of it, there is something bracing about it. At age 72, Schrader has made a film that is unafraid to look directly at the onrushing darkness. Indeed, it wrestles with the stuff, down in the trenches, throwing wild punches, kicking and biting. It’s an exhilarating cinematic melee, perhaps because we’ve run out of time to dance around things. It’s time to go in hard, fists up, teeth bared.

Trailer for ‘First Reformed.’

The story begins with a pastor named Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) stating that he intends to keep a journal over the course of a year, without censoring his thoughts or feelings. At the end of this period he will destroy this record, and perhaps himself along with it.

Things are not looking good for the reverend. In addition to soul sickness he’s struggling with stomach problems, a steadily dwindling congregation, competition from the megachurch down the road and, worst of all, a God who isn’t paying much attention.

Or maybe he is? And if so, what does this mean for the humans who have despoiled the planet? As Toller contends with his past (a failed marriage, a dead child) and the incipient end of all life on Earth, a deeper battle is also under way.

Toller’s tiny church, the First Reformed in Snowbridge, New York, is on the eve of a re-consecration. Built some 250 years earlier and once a stop on the underground railway, the place is little more than a tourist attraction, complete with souvenir hats. As the pastor prepares for the big day, fixing the organ and prepping the choir, some major strings are revealed. The event, funded by a local billionaire who heads up one of the worst polluting corporations on the planet, doesn’t want anything political to disrupt the celebration. He is supported by Pastor Jeffers (played by Cedric the Entertainer) of the massive and well-funded Good Faith Church.

One day, a young woman named Mary Mansana (Amanda Seyfried), one of the few members of Toller’s fading flock, visits the church with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a member of a radical environmental group. Mary is pregnant and fears that her husband is preparing to take drastic action to save the planet. Her suspicions hold true, but even as Toller attempts to counsel the young man, God is moving in mysterious ways.

If you’re already thinking, “Oh great, another Christian allegory!” hold your horsemen of the apocalypse. You can’t make a film with a beatific pregnant lady named Mary and not assume a bit, but this isn’t simply a retelling of the Mary, Joseph and wee Jesus story. In some fashion it’s a re-investment of the radical roots of this most famous of nativities.

Hearkening back to Schrader’s Calvinist roots, as well his immersion in transcendental cinema, First Reformed is an examination of the struggle between faith and despair, and all the big stuff that demands not acceptance, but active and ongoing struggle. It is this spiritual tug-of-war that forms the iceberg under the surface of the story.

Sometimes you wish he (God, that is) would quit slinking around in the background and come right out with it, but it never works that way. And when it does there are plagues of locusts, raining frogs and a flood that would drown the world. Which is maybe what we’re already witnessing, but simply in the opposite direction, as frogs, insects, and every other creature, big and small, vanishes from the planet. A slow motion end that shares with its biblical antecedent only the obliterating power of rising waters.

The debate between faith and reason is an old argument, and even the very title of the film, with its reference to reformed theology, implies that religion must question itself if it is to remain meaningful.

Watching the film I felt my lack of a Christian education coming out in a way that I haven’t since being savaged in a university class on Milton’s Paradise Lost. But even if you lack a thorough grounding in scripture the film is plainspoken and blunt while also lifting from Tarkovsky, Bergman, Bresson, and other writers and thinkers. And as the layers peel away, a kernel of hard truth is revealed.

The time for radical re-invention is at hand, and if it feels like we are entering an age of biblical catastrophe, an end of days scenario, it’s because we are. Even when things go a little off the rails in the film, with an extended astral travelling sequence that soars over earth and sea, visiting both beauty (purple mountains’ majesty) and horror (rivers of garbage), the immersion in surrealism feels well earned. The thing that I loved about First Reformed was its stubborn, bull-headed refusal to stay down. In the end, it is not about a renunciation but its very opposite — an impassioned plea to grab life in a crushing embrace, to rise up, kiss with open mouth, to live and love, as hard as we can before we cut to black.

To borrow a line from poet Tongo Eisen-Martin, “It’s not the type of season for backing down.”  [Tyee]

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