Fourteen-year old Maria (Lea Van Acken) grows up in an extraordinarily conservative religious family, who belong to the (fictional) Society of St Paul. Desperate to please everyone in her life, Maria struggles as she tries to reconcile her feelings for a fellow pupil, whilst staying on the path of righteousness, in the face of the Lord.

 

3.5

BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL: Like many atheists, I’m a sucker for stories of religious fundamentalism. (They’re like our slasher movies: ultimately irrational narratives of punishment and terror.) And like most cinephiles, I’m partial to extreme stylistic formalism. These two varieties of rigour, one seductive and one mysterious, combine to mostly compelling effect in Dietrich Brueggemann’s fourth feature. A film which, much like Christ on his way to Calvary, stumbles more than once—and thus falls just short of the immaculate and irrefutable excellence to which it aspires.

In a small German town, 14-year-old Maria (the extraordinary Lea van Acken) is preparing for her Confirmation. Like the rest of her family, she belongs to an ultra-conservative strand of Catholicism: the Society of St. Paul—based on the real-life Society of St. Pius X, which believes that the Second Vatican Council was a heresy to rank with Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door. Mass, they maintain, should be in Latin; the Eucharist is strictly a matter of transubstantiation, not transignification; and the modern institution calling itself the Catholic Church is a mockery, having long since been infiltrated by Satan himself. As joyless and judgmental as any Mullah, theirs is very much a siege mentality.

Like many adolescents drawn to faith, Maria is tormented by conflicting desires. On the one hand, a wish to serve God truly and wholeheartedly; on the other, a fascination with the temptations of the secular world—as represented, here, by the attentions of a boy in the next class, who asks if she might care to join his church’s choir group? They sing some soul and gospel, he admits, as well as Bach, “but perhaps we could ask if we could do Gregorian chants instead.”

A pretty mild come-on, as teenage flirtations go—but one which nevertheless inspires a torrent of righteous fury from her devout and domineering mother (played, with steely certitude, by an almost-unrecognisable Franziska Weisz). This, combined with an incident at the school gym, when Maria protests having an ‘immoral’ pop song being played as they exercise, inviting the ridicule of her classmates, marks the beginning of her withdrawal from the world: already pale, and dangerously thin, she begins to grow weak, then sickens, and finally dies. (And if you think that’s a spoiler, you’re clearly not the intended audience for this movie.)

Her trials and decline are told in 14 numbered chapters, in accordance with the stages of the Via Crucis. But what’s remarkable is the high style the filmmaker—working, as usual, from a script co-written with his sister Anna—has imposed upon the material. Each scene takes place in a single shot, with a locked-off camera; the actors are mostly positioned within the frame as fixed compositional elements, as in the bravura opening sequence, set in a church sacristy, where an earnest young priest (Florian Stetter) is instructing a small group of students, seated around a table—Maria among them—on their need to become ‘soldiers for Christ’, before warning them of the evils of the modern world. These include, but are not limited to: popular music (which, touchingly, he describes as being ‘soul und funk’—if this dude ever heard Death Grips, his skull would explode), dancing, television, teen magazines, and, er, everything else.

Playing out in real time (there are no edits: no elisions or compression), the effect is mesmerising. The images are tableaux-like, almost painterly, thanks to Alexander Sass’ burnished digital cinematography. Yet rather than commanding our attention, the long take serves instead to focus it firmly on the performances—which are faultless—and the screenwriting.

Elegantly structured, remarkably subtle, the dialogue here offers a stern rebuke to cinema’s current fad for improvisational exchanges, as the priest’s arguments slowly, carefully unfurl—advancing slightly, then circling back upon themselves—until his pupils are ensnared in his insidious counter-logic. As an unscripted exchange, filled with the kind of awkward hesitations and improv-class repetitions we find in much contemporary US indie fare, it simply wouldn’t possess a fraction of the same intelligence or power.

So rigorous and bracing is the aesthetic, in fact, that it’s positively shocking when the camera actually moves—which it does, initially, in chapter nine (‘Jesus falls for the third time’): first panning upward to follow Maria as she rises from prayer, and then tracking sideways to follow her to the altar to take Communion. Where, weak and exhausted, she collapses.

I say shocking; perhaps I mean disappointing. In all, the camera moves twice more before the end—once in the hospital, as Maria dies, and once in the very last scene, at her graveside. The latter I expected—after all that restraint, one sensed a final, directorial flourish was on its way—but the other two seemed to badly contradict the whole point of the exercise. So much so, that you inevitably found yourself wondering if there hadn’t perhaps been some other, better way to block those scenes? Some method more respectful of its own self-imposed restrictions? (Of course, Brueggemann might respond that the whole point of the film is to challenge the settled orthodoxies it offers up, so perhaps in that sense it’s deliberate. Even so, it felt to me like a betrayal of artistic first principles.)

These lapses pale, however, beside another misstep, near the very end: a directorial misjudgment of such extraordinary incompetence that it elicited actual groans from the audience, myself included. I won’t reveal it here, but I dearly wish I’d never seen it, since it singlehandedly undermined much of the excellent work that had preceded it. Directing is chiefly a matter of taste—so why had Brueggemann’s forsaken him? Did no one tell him that, of all the way he might have handled the revelation in question, this was by far the clumsiest and worst? Until that point, I was ready to anoint the arrival of a major new German filmmaker; after it, he couldn't help but seem like a false prophet.

Details

1 hour 47 min

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