Film Review: Stations of the Cross image

Film Review: Stations of the Cross

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As Christmas approaches, what better way to celebrate than by watching a film that uses Catholic iconography of the crucifixion to level attacks at religion? Wait, what?

Well, let’s rewind a bit, and start with both the plot and an egregious name drop. Stations of the Cross – an award winning German drama that is unlikely to hit your multiplex any time soon – tells the story of a girl, Maria, who develops unhealthy ideas about God after buying into the dogmatic teachings of her sect of Catholicism, the Society of St Pius XII. It follows her in the week leading up to her confirmation as she deals with guilt, ostracism and ill health because of these ideas. It’s a display of legalism so destructive the Pharisees would blush, embodied in particular by Maria’s mother and priest. Yet the director, Dietrich Brüggemann, assured me that it wasn’t an anti religious film, saying that religion is only destructive “if you take it too seriously.” Yet the chances are that if you read ThinkTheology, you take your faith pretty seriously. So what do we make of a film where the church is clearly villainous? And why do I consider this apparent attack on Christianity to be one of the best films of the year?

For starters, Stations is just an astonishingly well made film. The central conceit is that Maria’s week is depicted in 14 scenes – one for each of the stations – and each scene is just one shot. To contextualise that, if you think about any conversation you see in a film, there are at the very least three angles, one for each face and one showing both of them, and the scene will continually cut between them. Any scene in a film is made up of several shots edited together to give an impression of a coherent progression, and allows the director to choose exactly which part of the action you see. In recent years, big budget cinema has often taken this to extremes by cutting every two seconds during action sequences so you can’t tell what’s happening. The opposite is something like Hitchcock’s Rope, which looks like it is all just one shot, or Russian Ark, which actually is all one shot. Stations, then, is unusual in its pacing and form, and while it may tax those whose minds wander during a 30 minute sermon, the formal, measured approach of the 14 shots lends the film real power.

Firstly, it forces the viewer to engage with the scene. Over-editing spoon feeds the audience, telling them where to look; a static frame makes you take it all in yourself. It also gives the actors breathing space, letting the scene play out more naturally and allowing for crescendos and silences that are more devastating because of it. Finally, it makes it all seem very real, and inescapably so. Each frame is perfectly chosen, some echoing or subverting religious art, while others emphasise the changing statuses of characters within the scene, often denoted by their size and position within the frame. Yet it never feels forced or gimmicky, instead it’s more like the camera is a perfectly-positioned fly on the wall, and at times you feel like a voyeur, watching on helplessly as the events unfold. It’s a slow moving film, but one that you can’t tear yourself away from.

The form of the film is inextricably tied to the questions it is asking, and Stations is immensely important because of it. Brüggemann was right when he said it is not an attack on religion; it’s far more complex than that. The film makes it clear that Maria’s experience is not representative of Christianity as a whole, setting her apart even from the other Catholics in her town. Yet her questions are similar to those asked by anyone of faith: how to respond to sin and guilt; the relationship between sickness and God’s healing; what it means to “take up your cross.” At the very least it is simply refreshing to see cinema that tackles complex questions in mature ways, and treats faith as something worthy of exploring beyond a comedy sidekick or a bigoted villain. Beyond that, however, the frank discussions of deep theological issues should cause us to confront our own ideas, particularly the way legalism can creep into our lives.

While the story is more extreme than most of us are likely to experience, Stations perfectly portrays the way false teaching can have destructive influences. Maria – played with astonishing nuance by Lea Van Acken – does not start out with the anxieties and beliefs that she ends the films with. It is over the course of the 14 stations that a spirit of legalism enters her thinking like the grain of yeast that Jesus warned about in Matthew 16. A graceless scolding by her irate mother here, and a guilt-laden confession there, all leavening her thinking until the meaning of the cross is lost behind the idea that she can save herself – and others. It’s also a warning against those of us who are more prone to think like her mother or priest. It’s not pointing the camera at a Christian and saying ‘aren’t they silly?’ Instead, it follows the journey of a girl who is tragically misguided, and asks the question of how she got to that place. Ultimately, the film is as compassionate as it is critical, balancing the anger with a humanity that, while never really warm, makes the audience care about the characters and leaves them with a mustard seed’s amount of hope.

Keen eyed observers of cinema will have noticed that films this year have been especially critical of religion. John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary showed a priest unable to answer the soul-searching questions that his community asked of faith, with an undercurrent of anger against the paedophilia scandal that has rocked the Catholic church. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was both an exposé of the corrupt links between the Russian Orthodox church and Putin’s politics, and a meditation on suffering for which the church seemingly has no answers. Like Stations of the Cross, they are upsetting, sometimes difficult films to watch, and yet all three will inevitably feature in my top 10 of 2014. Films that view faith as legalistic, corrupt and helpless in the face of suffering can be difficult for Christians to watch, and these films certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. Yet this is important cinema, not only because it reveals the anger and urgency of questions that people are asking, but because it is some of Europe’s most inventive and creative minds asking them.

Stations of the Cross opens on 28th November, and is playing at the following cinemas: Curzon Soho; Curzon Victoria; Cornerhouse Manchester; ICA London; IFI Dublin; Lighthouse Dublin; Glasgow Film Theatre; Broadway Nottingham; Showroom Sheffield

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