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Monk, nun, and whale

16 January 2015

Stephen Brown sees two films on DVD


Theo Alexander in Metéora

Theo Alexander in Metéora

TWO recently released DVDs from Soda Pictures feature individuals contending with spiritual monsters. In Metéora (Cert. 15), Theodoros, a monk (Theo Alexander), and Urania (Tamila Koulieva), a nun, struggle with sexual attraction. Those in Peril (Cert. 18) has a modern take on the book of Jonah, a whale being equated with demonic oceanic activity.

"Metéora" means hovering, a reference to Greek monasteries atop sandstone columns. Enveloping clouds make them appear from ground-level to be suspended between earth and heaven. Theodoros and Urania live on twin peaks. Access for nuns is by hoist. Men have an arduous climb up rugged steps. Both ways visually represent St John Climacus's Ladder of Divine Ascent. Community members regularly visit the plain beneath to participate in the daily round of tasks inherent to rural communities.

It is here that Theodoros and Urania become drawn to one another. Back in their cells, they communicate with mirrors flashing in the sunlight, while striving to continue with their daily discipline of prayer: she through mortification of the flesh - burning her hand over a flame - while he spends hours mooning around the rocks. The story ingeniously segues between filmed narrative and animated icons, the latter being used to express the couple's fears, fantasies, and hopes.

In one graphic sequence, Theodoros enters a labyrinth, unwinding, Ariadne-like, a ball of wool held outside by Urania. The "monster" to be overcome here is deciding if they're re-crucifying Jesus by giving way to erotic feelings. "Does God love like we love?" they ask themselves.

The film is a journey of prayerful trust. It is broken up into episodes, each prologued by a phrase from Psalm 23. Under a shepherd's guidance, we watch his herd boundlessly scale the heights of "heaven". The human quest for freedom involves walking through the valley of the shadow of death, hoping goodness and mercy will follow. Can holiness also encompass sexuality? It's a vertiginous tightrope we all must cross. Barely 80 minutes long, this DVD felt like watching Test Match cricket. Nothing much happens for a while, and then suddenly it all does. So you need to maintain your gaze - rather as praying can be.

The General Synod may recently have sidelined references to the devil in new baptismal liturgy, but he's still a big fish for cinema - and not just in potboilers featuring exorcisms, hauntings, and demon-possession. For Those in Peril, unlike the biblical story, specifies the sea beast as a whale.

Aaron (George MacKay), an adolescent visionary, endures survivor guilt, being the only one to have escaped alive from a mysterious fishing accident off the Scottish coast. We are led to believe this disaster is the work of Satan. Being vomited from the beast's belly does Aaron little good, however. The devil continues to torment him through hostile villagers, who see him somehow responsible for the deaths of his fellow-fishermen.

We watch the action through a grey-dominated palette, making its setting a desolate place, i.e. one where the sun never shines. Aaron considers that the only way to end this misery is to capture the devil. His mother (Kate Dickie) tries unsuccessfully to temper his fervour with tales mixing biblical narrative with mythologies. Aaron's encounters with the local priest (Colin Dempster) and his congregation bring no solace either.

The film depends more on mood and collage (mobile-phone footage, photographs, voiceover, home movies) than coherent narrative, unlike Metéora, which causes it to drag rather than intrigue. If humanity is perilously all at sea, are Aaron's attempts to confront evil futile? Or is reliance on the divine the only way in which monsters can be defeated?

The director of Metéora, Spiros Stathoulopoulos, believes the latter, while For Those in Peril's Paul Wright vacillates between contesting and confirming it.

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