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All you need is love?

05 October 2012

The BFI London Film Festival opens next week. Stephen Brown previews its offerings

Tale of the convent . . . and the world: Orthodox nuns partake of a meal in Beyond the Hills. See below

Tale of the convent . . . and the world: Orthodox nuns partake of a meal in Beyond the Hills. See below

FOR anyone seeking enlightenment in matters of faith, the 56th London Film Festival (10-21 October) isn't a bad place to look. There are several features with strong religious issues to be found.

The Sessions, based on the autobiography of Mark O'Brien, is likely to be the most commercial choice. The presence of two of Hollywood's finest actors, Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets) and William H. Macy (Fargo), will see to that. A sympathetic priest (Macy) counsels a frustrated polio victim (John Hawkes) who is yearning for sexual intimacy. Being eternally bound to an iron lung denies him that expression and experience of physical love which so many others take for granted. Fr Brendan's compassion is matched by Cheryl (Hunt), a sex surrogate, who helps Mark.

The Sessions goes on general release early next year - unlike The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which has yet to attract a UK distributor. Mira Nair, who directed Salaam Bombay, tells this story of an ambitious Pakistani (Riz Ahmed) on Wall Street, who rides roughshod over all and sundry in attempting to become rich. Post-9/11, he experiences widespread suspicion and humiliations that lead him to reconsider the values of Islam.

Making choices is endemic to most of these films. The latest offering from the director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu, is Beyond the Hills. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) leaves her orphanage to become a novice in an Orthodox convent, while her friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) moves from their native Romania, travelling to Germany in hope of a new start. When this doesn't work out, she appeals to Voichita for help. The film becomes a tussle between a woman's love of God or meeting her desperate friend's needs. These, it would seem, are regarded as incompatible claims on her.

Uncompromising faith groups tend to get more of cinema's attention than, say, a broad Church such as that of Anglicanism. An Israeli film, Fill the Void, is located in a Hasidic community where a teenage daughter is to be married to someone unknown to her. When other events intervene, she is torn between religious and cultural duties and emotions awakening her to new possibilities. Rama Burshtein, drawing on her own experiences, directs.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God likewise deals with extreme ecclesiastical behaviours in a documentary about clerical abuse of children in the United States. Blame is directed at the Vatican, which, despite warnings from archbishops about a priest's behaviour, continued to cover up gross misdeeds. The director, Alex Gibney, previously won an Oscar for his film about American torture practices.

Another documentary, What Is Love, contemplates, among others, a priest at prayer and a Christian husband and wife striving to keep up appearances in front of their children, but secretly undergoing therapy. The Austrian Ruth Mader has, we are told, brought much insight to what love of God and people can entail.

Racial, religious, and cultural differences feature in two French-language films. Hold Back deals with a North African Muslim woman, based in Paris, who falls for a black Christian, only to find one of her 40 brothers opposing the engagement. The piece is directed by the novelist and actor Rachid Djaidani in what looks like a searing investigation of ethnic and faith differences in the Western world.

The same goes for The Pirogue, which is a kind of fishing boat reluctantly used by its captain to transport a party of Senegalese to Europe. Religious and cultural tensions arise between crew and passengers until the plight of others in greater need puts their own issues into a proper perspective.

The Stoning of St Stephen alludes to the first Christian martyr in the context of a lonely old furniture restorer at odds with his only living daughter. He is comforted by the spirits of his wife and other child. The director has sought to depict the man's last days as if the film were a medieval altarpiece describing the story of martyrdom today.

Dead Europe is also haunted by the ghost of the continent's spiritual heritage in a journey from Paris to Budapest.

In the retrospective section of the festival is The Loves of Pharaoh, Ernst Lubitsch's 1922 German equivalent of the biblical epics of Cecil B. de Mille and D. W. Griffith. Previously believed lost, it has been almost completely restored to its original splendour.


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