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
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
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,
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
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.