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Film: We Still Say Grace, Servants, and Bonds & Other Broken Things

by
28 May 2021

Stephen Brown reviews new feature films and a short documentary

A still from We Still Say Grace

A still from We Still Say Grace

“TRUST in the LORD with all thine heart” (Proverbs 3.5). This is a key biblical text among many dozens quoted in We Still Say Grace (Cert. 15), cited to justify coercive control. The veteran actor Bruce Davison (X-Men, Those Who Kill) plays Harold, a patriarch ruling his wife, Betty (Arianne Zucker), and teenage daughters, Sarah (Rita Volk) and Maggie (Holly Taylor). They live in rural America on a farm 29 miles from the nearest neighbour.

At the start of the film, Harold bids his family drink deadly poison, making references to the Last Supper. “Do you trust me?” he asks each of them. It is a suggestive question, implying that there can only be one acceptable answer. The scene immediately introduces us to methods by which Harold holds sway. He’s isolated them from others, deeming the world wicked. They apparently have neither phone nor car, and presumably no radio or TV. The women’s activities are closely monitored.

Three young men, Randy (Frankie Wolf), Luke (Xavier J. Watson), and Fisher (Dallas Hart), seek help when their car breaks down. Harold is on red alert. After his seemingly charming and hospitable persona fails to impress one or two of them, he feels threatened, and devises ways of removing them from the scene. The longer they stay, the more dark secrets they will inevitably discover, such as what goes on in the bathroom. The plot gets a bit creaky. Why leave the door ajar for visitors to see? And how come the farmhouse is so well-stocked with provisions if there’s no means of shopping?

Randy’s bad language and impatience of religious talk incurs Harold’s dislike. Luke doesn’t fare much better. Maggie, however, is drawn to Fisher, the politest of the trio and with a Roman Catholic background. At table, she is intrigued by the boys’ road trip and their dreams of reaching California. One sees a yearning in her eyes to set out, free from Harold’s oppressive Christianity, unlike Sarah, a model of conformity.

When Fisher and Maggie start exchanging enthusiasms for John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harold silences her. As the film’s colour tones turn crepuscular, we learn more and more of Harold’s manipulative ways and that his own behaviour reflects the very sins of which he accuses the world and his guests. It is a bravura performance from Davison, by which we descend into several circles of hell.

We Still Say Grace is the better for steering clear of stereotypical schlocky gore, and opts for something equally unsettling. It could serve as an object lesson in fundamentalist abuse of the Bible. At another level, it parallels attempt by Moses to defy Pharaoh with his vision of a Promised Land. The earlier Steinbeck reference was no accident. I was reminded of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (2009) before he rose to fame with The Favourite (Arts, 11 January 2019). This time, the dis-graceful messianic delusions underscoring coercive control far outstrip the parental obsessiveness of the earlier film. 

On various digital platforms

 

CHURCH and State aren’t always happy bedfellows. The modus vivendi devised between Archbishop Lanfranc and William the Conqueror may have worked well enough, but cracks appeared in succeeding centuries. It is worth remembering this when watching the award-winning Servants (Cert. 15), directed by Ivan Ostrochovský. From 1948, in Czechoslovakia, the secret police persecuted priests who were unwilling to collaborate with the Communist regime. The State created Pacem in Terris, a clerical organisation instituted to adhere to government demands. This, in turn, led to the formation of an underground Church to preserve authentic Roman Catholicism.

A seminary scene in Servants

In an attention-grabbing opening, straight out of film noir, a car stops in a deserted tunnel while a body is taken from the boot. The scene then shifts 143 days earlier to a seminary where Pacem in Terris tutors, of whom the Dean (Vladimír Strnisko) is an abiding member, exchange meaningful glances as they cast students into politburo-approved shape. To resist this manipulation is a high-risk strategy, because upholding one’s moral principles can lead to surveillance, intimidation, or ending up in a car boot

As overseen here, Doctor Ivan (Vlad Ivanov) is a character sinister enough to bring one out in hives. Two young friends, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic), are admitted as seminarians, joining in classes and undertaking various household tasks. They soon become aware of the Church’s compromised nature. Both organised religion and communism are in the business of fulfilling their obligations to a higher power. The dilemma that the young men face is a timeless one: whether to accede to the temptation of conformity or dissent.

Perhaps that is why the cinematographer Juraj Chipík’s vaguely black-and-white tones, shot in Academy ratio framing, reflect an eternal moral ambivalence. All of us face the possibility of being scared into silence by public opinion, religion, tabloids, social networks, and employers, let alone autocratic politicians. As the director has said, we are all servants of some ideology or other, constantly under the influence of more or less visible powers that have the means of controlling and thus transforming our values and attitudes. This relativises and blurs the distinction between good and evil, blinding us, rewarding us, and sowing among us seeds of doubt and distrust.

A spiritual paralysis pervades the seminary and those entrusted to teach the faith. One of the staff summarises their plight. “You have to understand, we’re not here to be happy.” The superior claims of the corporate over individual conscience or needs are rationalised as the cross that Iron Curtain priests have to bear. And the film offers no easy answer to how the situation could be otherwise in an oppressive society. Rather, it has echoes of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), which explores the dialectical similarities and differences between Communism and Christianity.

In brief scenes of minimal dialogue, Ostrochovský spells out the connection between state-sponsored violence and the cold ascetics of seminary life. This is less “A plague on both your houses!” than a meditation on a symbiotic relationship. 

On Curzon Home Cinema and selected virtual cinema sites.

 

THE film Bonds & Other Broken Things (no classification) chronicles a Church of Ireland priest, Adrian Stringer, celebrating holy communion in various homes. It will interest those unfamiliar with house communions.

A home visit in Bonds & other broken things

The film, made by his son, Will, explores the relationship between time (a human construct) and eternity. In mid-Ulster, a land racked with painfiul memories of the Troubles, the priest speaks not just of taking the sacrament to the faithful, but finding a spiritual co-existence already there. 

The film is available on YouTube.

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