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A cinematic feast in the capital

02 October 2015

Stephen Brown previews the 59th London Film Festival

Our man in Havana: Alec Guinness

Our man in Havana: Alec Guinness

IT NEVER ceases to amaze me how much religion is packed into the London Film Festival every year. This one, running from 7 to 18 October, is no exception. From a Swedish comedy short, Kung Fury, where nuns plot Hitler’s assassination, to Lucifer, who confounds Mexican villagers, there’s no letting up on faith-filled movies.

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana has been given a 4K restoration. Primarily one of Greene’s “entertainments”, it nevertheless exposes the moral dilemmas surrounding doing “wrong” deeds for “right” reasons. Or is it vice versa? There is no question in Thomas More’s mind about which is which in the newly digitalised A Man for All Seasons, also showing.

Pick of the crop of Jewish-themed films is Remember. Its director, Atom Egoyan, whose films include Adoration (Arts, 3 February 2010), constantly asks theological questions. In this case, it’s the nature of evil, as Zev (Christopher Plummer) hunts down Nazis who butchered his family. Son of Saul has an officer of a concentration camp urgently seeking a rabbi to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, a sanctification of God’s name, over a dead boy.

Avoiding sacrificial slaughter is the theme of Lamb. An Ethiopian boy goes to extraordinary lengths to protect his pet from being the main dish at the next religious festival.

Beliefs and doubts abound in Listen to Me Marlon, a documentary in which the actor reflects on his life. The same goes for Gayby Baby, an Australian documentary about children brought up by same-sex couples who question the religious tenets of a straight society. Another documentary — Legacy — considers how religious tradition weighs heavily and shapes the lives of Chilean women.

I hope I’m wrong, but, from the look of it, Danny Boyle’s eagerly awaited Steve Jobs fails to take account of the Apple Mac computer king’s move from Lutheranism to Buddhism and how belief informed and drove him. It could be Hamlet without the Prince.

There is no mistaking religion’s influence for good or ill in the festival/art-house favourite Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s new film The Assassin. In ninth-century China, nuns train a young woman in martial arts.

My Scientology Movie is another documentary on this sect. The interviewer, Louis Theroux, fails like Going Clear (Arts, 3 June) to get present Scientologists to participate. Paradoxically, he finds that he himself has become the subject of a film being made by them.

What other effects does faith have on people? Black Mass features a barely recognisable Johnny Depp as Jimmy Bulger, a Boston mobster turned FBI mole. Viewers will be divided over whether it is simple expediency or his Catholicism that triggers repentance.

We humans are a bundle of contradictions. The director Terence Davies has ostensibly turned his back on Christianity, while still revering T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets as his favourite poems. In Sunset Song, Chris (Agyness Deyn) rejects the faith that her father (Peter Mullan) imposes on her in favour of an internalised spirituality. A bit like Davies himself.

Gonzalo (Alvaro Ogalla) pits his wits against institutional religion in The Apostate, a Uruguayan comedy about the absurdities of casuistry. The Club mines a similar vein. Unfrocked clergy and a nun are again under examination, but this time by someone from a new church.

Christianity can become a perversion when, as in The Witch, a devout 17th-century New England family start attributing their misfortunes to evil supernatural forces. The Nigerian film Fifty deals likewise with religious obsession in the face of terminal illness. The most extreme treatment of faith gone wrong is Blood of My Blood, in which a 17th-century Italian nun is accused and tortured for causing the suicide of a priest. Consequences of this are then felt up to the present day. Marco Bellochio directs what appears to be an insightful commentary on the idea that, the more things change, the more they stay the same, including religion.

That said, innovative theology is at the heart of a Belgian comedy, The Brand New Testament. God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is not dead but living in Brussels, and has degenerated into a malevolent layabout. Time for a new religion, which his daughter pioneers; but is the last state worse than the first? It could be as interesting as indeed many of the other titles at this year’s Film Festival promise to be.



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