Moviemakers offer a spiritual feast

29 September 2017

Stephen Brown gives his preview of the London Film Festival

Commission: Forest Whitaker as Desmond Tutu in The Forgiven

Commission: Forest Whitaker as Desmond Tutu in The Forgiven

THE BFI London Film Festival (4-15 October) has several religious-themed movies, kicking off with Breathe. The screenplay by the Roman Catholic writer William Nichol­son (Les Misérables, Shadow­lands) tells of a polio victim’s fight, one involving the hospital chaplain, to live a normal life.

Apostasy, directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s Wit­ness, concerns a family torn between dis­owning a teenage child or being ex­pelled. Ostracism also features in Hagazussa — A Heathen’s Curse. When a 15th-century Austrian com­munity shuns Albrun for having an illegitimate child, she finds dream­like respite in paganism.

The influence of Tarkovsky, one of cinema’s spiritual giants, is unmistak­able, as with Little Crusader, in which a boy’s inner reality merges with knights of old. Barbet Schroeder’s highly topical document­ary The Ven­­erable W follows a Buddhist leader’s anti-Muslim cam­paign in Myanmar. Walk with Me chronicles the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh at his French monastery, practising and teaching contempla­tion. Benedict Cumber­batch narrates.

The Forgiven shows Forest Whitaker playing Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commis­sion. He’s sorely tested when faced with Piet Blomfeld, a murderer who seeks redemption from God.

The celestial court is at the heart of Powell and Pressburger’s newly restored A Matter of Life and Death (1946). This outstanding film, in which David Niven’s fighter pilot’s very existence hangs in the balance, is showing at the Festival before gen­­eral release.

Sheikh Jackson looks to be a fascinating Egyptian picture about a Muslim preacher devastated by the pop idol Michael Jackson’s death. He reconnects with the self he was before joining the Salafists, who censure music. The documentary Becoming Who I Was traces a young boy’s perilous but spiritual journey from India to Tibet, seeking a mon­astery in which to dwell.

Exploring Psycho: a still from 78/52, which is a case study of the work of Alfred HitchcockBilled as a morality tale, Equilib­rium concerns a Neapolitan priest taking on the Mafia, while Mani­festo is a paean to artistic pioneers. Cate Blanchett plays, as well as 12 other parts, a housewife whose even­ing prayer leads to monu­­­­mental creativity.

All in all, this is an impressively spiritual feast; but don’t be fooled by some other titles. Word of God is a Danish comedy involving a domin­ant father. Even so, the very fact that he’s nicknamed God tells us quite a lot about how characters perceive the divine nature. The biblical con­­notations aren’t entirely absent from Promised Land, either. Instead of Moses in the wilderness, we have followers of Elvis crossing the US, shining a light on its people’s beliefs.

Saturday Church also draws on reli­­gious terminology to describe a sanctuary for troubled teenagers run by volunteers with names such as Heaven. A Prayer before Dawn is an intriguing name for a story regard­ing a British drug dealer serving time in a horrendous Thai prison. So Help Me God is a documentary featuring Anne Gruwez, a judge. Hearing all those violent cases, day after day, she probably needs some divine assistance.

These are all films using religious language in a mainly secular way. Fair enough; but, for my money, I’m more interested in those that don’t appear to be par­ticu­larly spiritual and yet are full of Christian imagery.

Much has been made of how Alfred Hitchcock’s Catholicism in­­forms his movies — none more so than Psycho, with its shower scene redounding with baptismal motifs. Alexandre O. Philippe has directed a case study of this sequence, 78/52, in which a repentant Marion literally dies to the old self. It is nuggets such as this that make film festivals the glorious occasions they are, not least for those of a religious persuasion.


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Brimstone reviewed

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