FIRST REFORMED it is the name of a church that is about to turn 250 years old, old by North American standards. Not many people come to the masses but they go, more than anything, to visit her on tours, to buy in her gift shop. Preserved as in the past, it is far removed from the most contemporary models of this type of institution. In fact, the Abundant Life church, very close to First Reformed, which it controls economically almost like a museum, is the one that brings faithful and politicians, businessmen and young people, the one that is full of “programs”, “meetings” and ” activities”. Modern, in every sense of the word. “More a company than a church”, a character will say later.
First Reformed is from the so-called Reformed Churches (of Dutch origin, Calvinists, like Schrader himself) and is run by Father Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a man over 40 years old and somewhat tortured, who has lost a son fighting in Iraq and, after that, underwent the dissolution of his marriage. That small and almost secluded spiritual place in a remote and almost rural area of New York State is the one he finds to grieve or, perhaps, to punish himself. He moves there heavily, drinks too much, does not show much interest or in repairing the old organ that does not work and gets annoyed when visitors go from his explanations of the history of the church to try on t-shirts and allusive hats. And, as a tortured good religious from the Bressonian school, he writes a diary in which he records his anguish, doubts and moods. And it has other peculiarities of that school, which we will find out later, and which almost transformed FIRST REFORMED in a remake in plan pulp from JOURNAL OF A CAMPAIGN PRIEST
Mary (Amanda Seyfried) arrives at the church, a woman who seems to take Ernst’s role as a spiritual guide and not a tourist guide seriously. Mary has a problem with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an activist for the care of the Earth who fights to prevent climate change, one of those who operate in concrete actions against companies that pollute the environment. She is pregnant and he does not want to have the baby because he feels that the planet will disappear in a few years. Ernst and Michael have a long conversation on the subject (perhaps the best scene of the first part of the film) in which both expose their points of view. Michael is a convinced pessimist and Ernst tries to offer a more optimistic and religious look that even he does not seem to believe entirely.
From this meeting and what happens afterwards, everything changes for Ernst. On the one hand, he begins to see the nearby and dominant church as a corrupt institution and run by the interests of the same oil businessmen who annoy Michael. And on the other, he realizes that his deranged faithful have some somewhat brutal ideas about how to combat them. Moving from Bresson to Bergman, the film takes on the characteristics of a drama in which a man not only fails to save the soul of one of his faithful, but also begins to convince himself that perhaps he is right. Or, to put it in another more “psychologist” way, that perhaps taking that kind of attitude (more active and critical of injustices than passive and God-fearing) is another way to combat their own personal demons.
The film will take other turns, and another tone, in the second half, based on certain dramatic events, some linked to the celebration of the church’s anniversary, which takes place in the midst of the pastor’s spiritual crisis. For there, Bergman and Bresson will have given way to the cinema of the ’70s that Schrader himself helped give birth by giving a more tint pulp and violent to the plot, with Ernst as a not-too-distant relative of Travis Bickle’s TAXI DRIVER. The film will put into play from then on a series of aesthetic procedures very different from those of the first, calmer and more rigorous half, opting for a kind of religious-carnal ecstasy that will leave many between shocked and confused and that must be taken more like an elegiac and poetic moment than anything else.
Although that transition is not the easiest to make (Schrader has tried ideas of this type in different ways and always comes out better when filmed by Martin Scorsese) in FIRST REFORMED, for the first time in a long time, one feels that the dramatic and even aesthetic turn is achieved, that the appearance of passion and violence with destinies not always clear are credible in the skin of Hawke, whose growth in emotional intensity throughout of the film is handled progressively and makes the story never completely stop having its feet on the Earth. Not literally, necessarily, but dramatically.
Some secondary roles and conflicts (the businessmen, a couple of characters from the other church and others that you will discover) are painted in a somewhat banal and obvious way, but this – which is uncomfortable at first, when the film seems to fit the codes of religious / rigorous European cinema of the ’50s and’ 60s – works most effectively when the film, in its second half, becomes “Americanized”, clarifies sides and understands that action and violence can become methods, wrong or not, to combat both the spiritual crisis and that of the environment. Answers the movie doesn’t offer and neither does Schrader. What it leaves us with is a lot of painful questions and an overwhelming film.
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Online premieres: review of “First Reformed” by Paul Schrader (Netflix)