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Mothering and the ministry

28 March 2014

Stephen Brown sees

two new films

Grieving: the Revd Rebecca Ashton (Catherine McCormack) in The Fold

Grieving: the Revd Rebecca Ashton (Catherine McCormack) in The Fold

THE FOLD (Cert. 15) begins with a quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke: "I want to unfold . . . because there where I'm folded I am a lie." The poem from which it comes may (or may not) be a cry to God to undo the creases and shake out whatever grime is secreted in our folded-up lives.

Catherine McCormack (who came to prominence in Braveheart, 1995) plays Rebecca Ashton. She is the newly arrived priest of a small Cornish parish. The film uses the church at Gunwalloe on the Lizard. Unlike Rebecca, its real priest (who with his wife features in one scene as a member of the congregation) has several parishes to run. It is also strange that Rebecca appears not to have seen the church to which she has been appointed, despite previously visiting the parish.

The preceding incumbent had an open-door policy, but, with one exception, we never see a parishioner cross the threshold of this remote vicarage or telephone the new incumbent. But why let such inconvenient facts interfere with a story that is, ultimately, about bereavement?

Leaving her husband behind, Rebecca travels with their teenage daughter Eloise (Dakota Blue Richards) to the West Country to take up religious duties. They cross the Clifton Suspension Bridge, notorious for suicides, thus providing a visual symbol of how the Ashtons' elder daughter had died.

Rebecca's work includes helping to staff a Redruth community centre for disadvantaged young people. One of these is a Bulgarian girl, Radka (Marina Stoimenova), whom she has already discovered sleeping rough in church. The young woman is in grief, too - in her case, for the home she has left behind and the lack of someone to mother her. She repeatedly self-harms.

Rebecca is drawn to her more as a substitute for her deceased daughter than as a parishioner to be cared for pastorally. This lack of professional judgement in someone with a duty of care is, of course, what creates the dramatic conflict necessary to move the plot along. And, while there is swift action on the part of the community centre faced with inappropriate behaviour, we are left to guess whether the diocesan authorities either know or do anything about it - and, likewise, whether the priest's inner turmoil is a crisis of faith.

We glimpse this best at a church choir rehearsal - Truro Cathedral, actually - of a setting (especially composed for the film) of Psalm 130: "Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord". As Rebecca and Radka sit listening, the younger woman recounts her earlier inability to see the light of God. She now perceives this in her priest and new-found friend.

It is not so simple for Rebecca. There is still a deal of straightening what goes erringly yet to happen. The film charts this deeply wounded pastor's search for that "plenteous redemption" that Psalm 130 offers those who trust in God. Whether the film delivers an unfolding that is congruent with an openness to God may well depend, like readings of Rilke's poem, on where you choose to stand.


WHEN is a miracle a miracle? Only if the Vatican says so. Or, at least, that is what sets The Borderlands (Cert. 15) off on its paranormal journey. Interestingly, it is the church officials Father Mark (Aidan McArdle) and Brother Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) who are the sceptics rather than Gray (Rob Hill), the technician they hire to install CCTV and other electronic equipment to assist investigations.

A West Country congregation has witnessed, capturing it on video, the altar shaking during a baptism undertaken by the parish priest, Father Crellick (Luke Neal). The film builds on the "found footage" idea used in The Blair Witch Project (1999), and no doubt comparisons will be made. Elliot Goldner, however, who wrote and directed The Borderlands, develops the notion beyond just seeing scraps of supposedly eyewitness filming. Instead, this is a consummately edited piece that builds up to a chilling climax. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

What makes this much more than a scary movie, however, is the interplay between the three investigators. After spending time in the recently reopened ancient church, Gray (who "believes in stuff" but isn't, perhaps, a Christian) asks the men from the Vatican "Don't you feel something?" But they, who have researched so many previous claims about miracles, are forever looking for rational explanations, including smoke-and-mirrors trickery. In a scene reminiscent of The Exorcist, the annoyed parish priest wrestles with, if not the devil, his very own soul in efforts to convince them of what happened . . . and continues to happen. If the many things that go bump in the night aren't convincers, then what will be?

The arrival of the unorthodox Father Calvino (Patrick Godfrey, introducing a humane element into ecclesiastical bureaucracy) is one factor. Prepared to take the occurrences seriously, he draws on the advice that Pope Gregory the Great gave the British mission: "By no means destroy the temples of the heathen gods but rather the idols that are within those temples. When you have purified them with holy water, place altars there."

All of this invites the question what kind of holy ground the team is standing on. Gray makes the point that pagan religions worshipped what they could see, like the sun or trees, whereas Christianity is all about "What if . . . ?" It is the transcendent nature of Catholic belief that is being examined in the film. Calvino's presence triggers for Deacon a more incarnational approach to faith, one in which pain and suffering are realities to be struggled with before any hope of redemption is possible, even when at a terrible cost. It is little wonder that Gray gives up on church commissions. "I'm going back to corporates," he yells. "It's boring, but it's a lot less grief. Dan Brown was right about you lot."

I doubt whether viewers will agree. They have seen too much not, at the very least, to ponder those borderlands between "real" and spiritual worlds.


Both films are released today.

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