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What the Church calls ‘suchlike fooleries’

13 April 2017

Stephen Brown on a film about a woman drawn to an occultist

On a quest, but why? Catherine Walker as Sophia in A Dark Song

On a quest, but why? Catherine Walker as Sophia in A Dark Song

“I DON’T do forgiveness,” says Sophia (Catherine Walker). Why a well-brought-up, Roman Catholic woman feels this way is only gradually revealed to us in the film A Dark Song (Cert. 15).

We know that Jack, her seven-year-old son, died a few years ago. Could the clemency she refuses to exercise be towards herself for not picking him up from school that fateful day? Or something else?

In desperation, she rents an isolated country house and employs Mr Solomon (Steve Oram), an occultist, to help invoke her guardian angel and thereby speak to Jack. The Kabbalistic rituals he employs date back to medieval times, developed from a mystical branch within both Judaism and Christianity. Kabbalah is best known today through celebrities, such as Mick Jagger and Madonna, who have studied its syncretic teachings. The film is virtually a two-hander, as the couple seal themselves in and undergo months of severe fasting, prolonged sessions of meditation within the ceremonial circles that Solomon draws, and a commitment to tell nothing but the truth, however difficult.

It’s a tough assignment for Sophia, and an expensive one. This particular occultist comes at £80,000, and he isn’t even very nice to her, cursing and bullying, with occasional interludes of tenderness and reflections on his own vulnerabilities. To some extent he is a Christ-figure. In an act reminiscent of holy communion, Solomon cuts himself and orders her to drink his blood so that she may receive the power to forgive. Acts of baptism frequently occur to “strengthen her soul”, and, while Solomon calls on figures such as Orpheus and Baal, the final one is always Christ. “This process isn’t about epiphanies,” he says; and yet we are treated to beautiful images of golden flakes descending on Sophia, as well as flowers’ mysteriously festooning the house.

There are also sinister goings-on, noises off and unholy presences. Are these merely hallucinations, or is it an invitation for viewers to consider the possibility of a deeper mysterious world? Religion and magic, Solomon declares, bow to the Everything, whereas science doesn’t.

It would appear that the debut director, Liam Gavin, who also wrote the screenplay, is on the side of the angels. The guardian angel so eagerly sought is a far cry from those in other movies; Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life he definitely is not. One would have thought that Sophia’s Christian formation might have given her an understanding that heavenly visitations, as with grace, come unbidden. She is at least able to acknowledge that there is a spiritual realm, but, because she attempts to manipulate it, her suffering persists. How can she sing the Lord’s song in such a strange land?

Relief becomes possible only when she changes her tune. What she has so ardently desired requires thorough transformation, and, for it to happen, Sophia will need all the angelic help she can get. Liam Gavin has pulled off a tour de force about humanity’s desperate need of God and the perverse ways we go about seeking divine comfort.

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