The subject of religion in modern cinema and the way it is handled is an enigma. For every film that handles the topics of faith and spiritually with grace and intelligence such as Noah, there’s about a dozen simplistic endeavors like Saving Christmas which do nothing other than reaffirm the beliefs of people whose faith is so unshakable in the first place that they take actual writings within the Bible 100% literally. Ironically, it’s the films that go largely unseen by most heavily religious audiences which deal with their subjects in a less condescending or transparently greedy fashion than the types of films that tend to be seen by mass audiences but are ultimately doomed to populate the shelves of Christian bookstores all across the heartland.
The recent Polish film Ida is another example of a religiously themed film that handles its subject respectfully and with actual filmmaking smarts to boot, unlike the amateurish and downright offensiveGod’s Not Dead, which out-grossed Ida by about $55 million at the US box office. Maybe the end times as prophesied in the New Testament really ARE nearer than we thought.
Luckily, Dietrich Brüggemann’s new film Stations of the Cross is one of the good ones; a rare modern religious film which seeks to deal with issues regarding the place of traditional forms of Christianity in the 21st century, without resorting to cheap proselytizing or heavy-handed reaffirmations. Not only that, but it also takes into account the influence said belief systems might have on those young and impressionable enough to take everything at face value without being taught to scrutinize or question it whatsoever.
Such is the case with this film’s protagonist Maria, a 14 year old girl just on the cusp of her confirmation, who right from the opening moments of the film is having the wills and agendas of others being shoved in her face at every opportunity. And due to her youthful naïveté, she accepts such tenets as most modern music being demonic and it being perfectly reasonable to sacrifice one’s own physical comfort in order to appease the supposedly loving and forgiving Christian God. But to the film’s credit, she’s never played up as being overly simplistic or dense, since it’s really only natural that someone her age be so unflinchingly loyal to a cause so near and dear to her heart.
This film comes from Germany and is divided into 14 chapters, representing the titular Stations of the Cross, and it plays them out through 14 single shots. Separating these chapters are individual title cards which detail the experience of Jesus on his way to Golgotha to be nailed to the cross, and subtly parallel the experience of the lead character Maria. Plot-wise there’s not a whole heck of a lot that goes on in this film, but one of the fronts where it shines the most is in the technical department, with being able to pull off having fourteen long takes in succession and make it not feel repetitive or gimmicky.
The film’s heroine Maria is a strong, intelligent young woman in her own right, but she lives in a world where she’s always being told what to do and has everyone trying to force her to live her life *their* way, whether its her overbearing and borderline abusive mother, or her well-meaning but ultimately detrimental priest. The only person in Maria’s life who offers her legitimately constructive wisdom is her family’s French au pair Bernadette, whose soft tone of voice and respect for Maria’s intelligence provides a very noticeable contrast to the elders in this film. Maria and her family belong the the fictional Society of St. Paul, which is based on the Society of Saint Pius X, a reactionary Catholic Church organization that director Dietrich Brüggemann and his co-writer/sister Anna Brüggemann had first-hand experience of as children, and of which several passages of this film are no doubt based on.
In a sense, Maria and her home/church life almost function as an allegory for the very beliefs they all cling to with so much fervor. The adults in this story stubbornly hold onto their archaic and old fashioned values while the rest of the world around them continues to move forward and goes on enjoying their ‘satanic rhythms’ and inward thinking thoughts. But unlike her family and the church she attends, Maria herself is not completely isolated from the outside world. Despite her pretensions of being a so-called ‘warrior for Christ’, she still cannot stop herself from getting a thrill while talking to boys her own age, or while admiring her older surrogate sister Bernadette. These moments might seem fleeting in the overarching narrative of the film, but they speak volumes to the spirit and personality being suppressed by the powers that be.
It’s only in the third act when confronted with the real world that the charade thrust upon her by the church and her parents begins to crumble around Maria, and she has a long overdue mental and spiritual awakening. All of this is conveyed marvelously by leading actress Lea van Acken, whose frail disposition and open, immediately sympathetic face sometimes recalls the stunning Maria Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc – not to mention the not-so-subtle German poster art for the film. I mean for Christ’s sake (he he), the poor girl is chastised during an extended confession sequence as being impure – not for wanting to be intimate with or even just kissed by another boy her own age, but rather for merely wanting to be looked at and noticed!
The suppression of such innocent and youthful urges just begs to be criticized, and it must take the patience of a saint (HE HE) not to portray it in a mocking or critical light. But no matter how ridiculous and outdated the values being explored in this film might seem to those unfamiliar with these types of cultures, it’s clear that the writing/directing duo have a clear and observable sympathy towards it all, which could only come from people who’ve spent considerable amounts of time in its world of fire and brimstone.
If you want it to be, this film could come across as a scathing indictment of modern religious societies the likes of George Carlin and Bill Maher would wince at. But there’s enough earnestness and compassion conveyed through the lead character that the film never comes across as being too mean or hard-hearted. Besides, this all comes from the mind of a filmmaker who is smart enough to realize that simply depicting events as objectively as possible from a narrative perspective will be enough to get previously biased people to sway the proceedings into supporting their respective viewpoints, whereas more open-minded viewers will walk away stunned by the commentary and observations of the subject as intended by the filmmakers (see also: the torture controversy in Zero Dark Thirty). This is how you tell a religiously themed story for our modern times – not God’s Not Dead. More like this, please.