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Preview: The London Film Festival

26 September 2019

Stephen Brown previews the London Film Festival this October

A still from Hope Gap. See gallery for more stills

A still from Hope Gap. See gallery for more stills

THE London Film Festival (2-13 October, venues across London) begins laughing with Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. The director of The Thick of It and The Death of Stalin jests at hypocrisy and religious cant.

Humour abounds in The Unknown Saint, in which a contest between pursuing Mammon or God arises. A robber tries to recover a stash that he deposited from a site now occupied by a shrine. The same battle occurs in Our Ladies. Six choir girls have their Roman Catholic upbringing hilariously tested amid the temptations of Edinburgh.

There are even touches of wit in the RC screenwriter William Nicholson’s Hope Gap, which he also directs. Annette Bening and Bill Nighy are the hapless couple confessing sins of commission and omission that threaten to destroy their marriage.

Roman Catholicism is tackled head-on when the progressive Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) contends with traditionalist Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) in The Two Popes. Given that the director is Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener), it may well be a thriller.

A couple of powerful morality tales are on show. Blackbird concerns a mother (Susan Sarandon) who is planning to end her life before a terminal disease does. Fanny Lye Deliver’d is a 17th-century drama of Maxine Peake’s spiritual liberation from Puritan beliefs. This struggle to be free haunts The Other Lamb, Malgorzata Szumowska’s examination of a female community. One woman’s refusal to comply undermines everything.

A still from The Two Popes

Skeletons tumble out of the cupboard in Saint Maud, in which a woman’s obsessive faith becomes a Gothic nightmare. In the festival’s Debate section, a new film from François Ozon, By the Grace of God, narrates a real-life case of clerical child abuse. Reports suggest that it adds little to the subject. If so, that is a pity from so distinguished a director. The same goes recently for Terrence Malick. Maybe A Hidden Life will restore his reputation. Franz Jägerstätter’s deep love of God impels his refusal to swear allegiance to Hitler. The work is a plea for obeying our consciences, no matter what cost.

Martin Eden is about a working-class writer’s journey through Italian society. It plays as a pilgrim’s progress, embracing spiritual, philosophical, artistic, and political matters. Burning Cane depicts booze-ridden Louisiana farmers, encouraged by their pastor’s malicious sermons, descending deeper and deeper into circles of hell.

In a futuristic Brazil, Divine Love derives its title from Evangelicals with a 24-hour drive-through pastor service. When a miracle occurs, is this a matter of faith, and why is it so right-wing? A Leap of Faith looks promising. It’s an in-depth analysis of the 1973 film The Exorcist: what influenced it, as well as its own effect on generations since.

Winner of the Berlinale Best Documentary Award, Talking about Trees chronicles four Sudanese Film Club members’ efforts to return cinema-going back to the country, despite religious and political opposition.

The Treasures strand features a 1982 documentary, Say Amen, Somebody, celebrating American gospel music. It pays tribute, among others, to “Professor” Thomas A. Dorsey, a blues player who turned to the Church.

On the festival’s final day, The Elephant Man is being screened. John Hurt reciting the 23rd Psalm, with his hope of goodness and mercy, is one of cinema’s most touching moments.

See whatson.bfi.org.uk for programme details.

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