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Stations of the Cross (2014)


Peter T Chattaway
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Cannes: Film Movement Takes N. American Rights to ‘Stations of the Cross’ (EXCLUSIVE)

New York-based distributor Film Movement has acquired North American rights on Dietrich Brueggemann’s “Stations of the Cross,” a highly-stylized religious drama that won critical plaudits and a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at 2014’s Berlin Festival.

Sold by Beta Cinema, it also won fest’s Ecumenical Jury’s best competition film award.

Told in 14 scenes echoing Christ’s journey to crucifixion, all but three made up of single fixed shot, “Stations” narrates the journey of pious 14-year-old Maria, who belongs to a fundamentalist family as, torn between devotion to her family, radical faith and adolesecence, she makes ever larger sacrifices in an effort to cure her younger autistic brother she adores.

Brueggemann (“Nine Scenes”) wrote the screenplay with his sister Anna. . . .

Variety, May 15

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 4 months later...

Well now, this looks like something special.

 

 

Paul Gallagher, ListFilm:

"This deliberate, meaty, provocative drama brilliantly uses the structure and form of religious art to deconstruct the damaging effects of religious indoctrination. Through 14 sections, each consisting of just one take, shot from a fixed camera position (with two significant exceptions), director Dietrich Brüggemann charts several significant days in the life of Maria, a teenage member of the Priestly Society of St. Paul, a strict Vatican II-denying branch of Catholicism. Each section takes the title of one of the Stations of the Cross – the 14 markers of Jesus’ Passion as defined by Catholic tradition – making Maria an explicit parallel to Christ; a parallel that becomes more poignant and devastating as the film develops. Yet while heavily critiquing the destructive power of heavy-handed religious structures, the film also asks searching questions about the value of Christian faith, and the potentially miraculous power of sacrifice.

Brüggemann exploits the potential of these fixed frames in a way that recalls Michael Haneke’s similarly meticulous film The White Ribbon: with often more than one detail calling attention to itself, we are forced to choose where to look and what to concentrate on. Brüggemann arranges characters in distinct positions akin to religious frescos – around a dinner table, a classroom, a hospital bed – and the relative stillness of each scene invites contemplation of faces and small movements. But while the scenes are evidently precisely choreographed, they also feel entirely naturalistic, like we are simply observing life.

This is partly down to the writing, by Bruggemann and his sister Anna, who also appears in the film. The script is pin-sharp, the dialogue crafted to subtly nudge questions about Maria’s worldview and how it has been shaped to the surface. But the success of the film is equally due to the performances, and particularly Lea van Acken, absolutely stunning in her screen debut as Maria. Her face is a gift to Bruggemann, pale and troubled like a classically painted martyr, conveying a genuine spiritual burden. The tensions that the film wrestles with are written on that face."

 

Cameron Williams, Popcorn Junkie:

"... The pressure builds from the opener where a priest tells a group of teenagers about the level of commitment required to live a life devoted to God; beware the satanic rock music. In other scene, Maria deflects the affections of a boy at school and is later berated by her mother (Franziska Weisz) for being the object of a schoolboy’s crush. Maria’s faith is noble, she’s a kind-hearted teenager who is thoughtful and is beginning to pave the path to independence like all teens do. When the fanatical sharks begin to circle it’s terrifying to see Maria succumb to stress with only pure intentions at heart.

 

The moral battleground lies between Maria’s selfless nature and the unbearable expectations of an institution that preaches love but thrives on oppression. Brüggemann and co-writer, Anna Brüggemann, craft acute conversations about the nature of religion, sacrifice and the extreme pressure traditional Catholic belief systems place on impressionable young minds; the ‘get them while they’re young’ formula is still as powerful as ever within the context of Stations of the Cross ..."

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Caught this at the VIFF last week with one or two other A&Fers. It's very well-done, though I wonder (as I often do with stories of religious fanaticism) if the fanatics (in this case the mother, especially) are given their due. They *are* human beings, after all. Or at least, they should be.

 

One thing the film pointedly *doesn't* show is the relationship between Maria's mother and her priest. Maria feels oppressed by her mother, she feels boxed in by her priest, but I kept wondering if the priest was paying attention to just how extreme Maria's mother was, and if the priest tried to intervene at all. As it is, we simply don't know. The priest (in the first scene at least) *seems* like the kind of guy who might be reasonable about things, who might eventually realize that Maria is taking things too far (partly because of her mother). But we don't get that. We don't get the ecclesiastical equivalent of the scene where Maria's mother stubbornly refuses to listen to the doctor. Which is not to say that she would have necessarily refused to listen to the priest. But we simply *don't know*, because the film never really puts those two characters in a scene together (unless I'm forgetting something, but I don't think I am).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Hmmm ... in my experience with fundamentalist churches of another sort, all too often it really was the parents who were more extreme than the pastor, and it always amazed me when the pastor spoke of moderation and also seemed oblivious of the fact that, for practical purposes, no one seemed to be listening to him.  So the priest not being a check to the mother sounds realistic to me.  I agree with you though that fanatical characters are often underdeveloped characters in film.

 

Of course, I haven't seen this yet, but I wonder how much symbol and metaphor there is in this film, and if so, whether that includes the characters like the mother.

 

Here's a few more reviews:

 

Bénédicte Prot, Cineuropa:
“... In Maria's family, the dominant character is the bitingly strict mother (Franziska Weisz) – in the second tableau, she humiliates her daughter by accusing her of coquetry whereas the poor girl had only taken off the coat covering her blouse in a spirit of sacrifice, to expose herself to the cold. Like Father Weber, the mother inculcates in her children, and especially the eldest girl, precepts which turn the most harmless pleasure into a feeling of guilt. By this permanent assumption of sin, she taints Maria’s purity, increasingly and mercilessly making fun of the poor devout child, who simply aspires to follow the path of a saint and martyr, even if it means being insulted (more and more frequently) and real physical suffering.  The mother's absolute control, which extends even as far as her child's soul, is the despairing reflection of religious fundamentalism in general which makes us tremble with indignation. As pointed out by Anna Brüggemann, ‘any system that allows no other truth than its own ... is always life-negating’ ...”

 

Rob Dickie, Sound on Sight:
“Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross is both an indictment of fundamentalist Catholicism and a testament to the enduring value of faith ... Brüggemann establishes a conflict between what we think and what we feel, questioning whether we can deny faith through logic and ridiculing the idea that we can spread it by force ...

The humour is welcome and often on the mark, but the ironic treatment prevents Stations of the Cross from being as powerful as it should be. There’s a knowing scepticism that makes it impossible to sympathise with the radical perspectives, even when they might be justified to an extent. Maria is genuine, loving and pure in her motives but when it becomes apparent that her devotions might have led to something truly remarkable, it’s difficult to take the suggestion too seriously. While there’s nothing concrete to confirm that her faith is misguided, the manner in which the film reaches its climax can only provoke incredulity and sadness.

Despite this flaw, Stations of the Cross is an outstanding formal achievement, filmed with assurance and technical skill. The fixed camera and long takes fully expose the dangers associated with fundamentalist dogma and the damage it can do to a receptive mind. Even in isolation, each of the 14 chapters is an interesting meditation on the nature of faith and the role of religious doctrine ...”

 

Andrew Robertson, Eye for Film:
“... As Maria, Lea van Acken is revelatory, possessed of a countenance at once despairing and angelic, heart-rending and alien. As her mother, Franziska Weisz manages to observe and not to see, to convey a righteous certainty which is all the more powerful when it collapses. Lucie Aron is the family's au pair Bernadette, Veronica among the stations, a voice that is contrast in a field of muted colours, emotions. Subtleties abound. To call it allegorical is almost to miss the extent to which it is grounded in observable fact and credibility, but to focus on the clarity of its depiction of the mundane is to miss the magic of faith.

Warned as they were by the progression through the first 11 stations, the title card for the twelfth, Jesus dies on the cross, brought a palpable hush to an already quietened audience. The camera seldom moves, but it carries watchers on a journey both temporal and spiritual, a stunning piece of filmmaking.”

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  • 4 weeks later...

I don't particularly like STATIONS OF THE CROSS but it is worth a look, and very much inside A&F's wheelhouse.

 

 

That kind of sums up my response.  But for me, that makes 3 times in 3 years that AFI has had a German film that deals with a fringe Christian group (The Paradise trilogy in 2012 and Nothing Bad Can Happen in 2013).  Makes me wonder just what is going on in Germany that leads to these.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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  • 11 months later...

I liked it more than I thought I would. Actually, I liked it a lot

While I would have liked the film to be a little more overt about some of its ambiguity, I did find it challenging and thought provoking. Just not necessarily inspiring. 

There have been plenty of depictions of suffocating and austere religious communities. What elevates the best of them is when there is a complementary vision of a higher way. Although I valued Stations of the Cross (★★★★½) highly, I couldn’t give the extra half star because in some of the best films (like OrdetBabbette’s  Feast, or A Man for All Seasons) there is usually a glimpse of “true” religion, and I’m not sure I saw it here. Seeing the tragic parts of the story is easy enough, but is religious life only tragedy? Recently on American television the trend has been to show Atheist parents befuddled by their children’s faith. (Think The Good Wife and The Americans.) Such depictions are perhaps unavoidably patronizing, since the line between child-like and childish has always been hard to negotiate. Maria may very well be a saint, but has anyone ever been bullied into holiness? And if she is the depiction of pure innocence, why do we long for her to break away?

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My review

Other scenes also show the subversion which this approach to faith results in. The sixth station is Veronica wiping the face of Jesus as an act of compassion. In that scene Maria’s face is wiped with her tears as she’s humiliated for apologizing to her mother. The eighth station is Jesus speaking to the women of Jerusalem to console them. That scene consists of a very upset Maria telling another student to leave her alone, because he’s an obstruction on her path to holiness.

....

Last year’s Ida similarly explored questions of faith and doubt in a broken world, using long takes and infrequent camera movement as well. One big difference between Ida and Stations of the Cross; however, was that Ida depicted characters struggling with doubts. Here the characters are rigid in their mentalities. Both films raise challenging questions for the viewer, but if there’s one thing that keeps Stations of the Cross just short of greatness, it is the unchanging attitudes of all its characters (including Maria). Nonetheless, this is still a very, very good film about faith, fundamentalism, and loss.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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  • 4 weeks later...

Spoilerish

:

I like the first third or even half of the film, but then it becomes a bit of a slog for me. It is a bit longer than it needs to be. It has a Jessica Hausner pacing (and even subject matter), but lacks the depth to really sustain that mood of contemplation. My biggest issue with the film is the way it veers into fable territory. I am fine with this tone in theory, but if a film is going to go there - it has to have something to offer. The end of this film is pretty drastic, but it feels unearned, kind of tagged on in an effort to underwrite the prior scenes with the weight of parable. 

 

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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In thinking more about this, I have a bigger problem with the film. There are some really clear formal errors here, in that it is trying to do too much at the same time. It has the current new German interest in fundamentalism, the Hausner realist vibe, the Lanthimos enfablement of EU cultural oddities, a very clear veer toward Bunuel in the end, a throwback Bergman use of Christian imagery as a framing device, and the intertitling. This is just a lot going on in one film. Too much.

And Stations is by no means a unique film, as there have been quite a few really interesting European films about Christian faith, notions of sacrifice, and absurdity over the past few years. LourdesNothing Bad Can Happen, Of Gods and Men, Letters to Father Jacob, The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun. More could be listed. Films like these, going all the way back to Nazarin and Winter Light have always asked a similar question: Christianity is built on a concept of redemptive sacrifice. Is this concept absurd?

A simple, important question. These films all answer it in different ways, on a spectrum from Lourdes (and Nazarin) to Of Gods and Men (and Winter Light). We could argue about where Stations lands, which really is its central conceit. It is staking a claim in the genre of films by evoking the absurdity present in notions of redemptive sacrifice, but what kind of claim? This is pretty ambiguous in the end, other than to propose that even though tragedy can have a humanizing effect - the radical application of self-sacrifice here is absurd. It does not elevate beyond brute tragedy. 

Just can't dig it on both the formal and thematic level...

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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3 hours ago, M. Leary said:

In thinking more about this, I have a bigger problem with the film. There are some really clear formal errors here, in that it is trying to do too much at the same time. It has the current new German interest in fundamentalism, the Hausner realist vibe, the Lanthimos enfablement of EU cultural oddities, a very clear veer toward Bunuel in the end, a throwback Bergman use of Christian imagery as a framing device, and the intertitling. This is just a lot going on in one film. Too much.

And Stations is by no means a unique film, as there have been quite a few really interesting European films about Christian faith, notions of sacrifice, and absurdity over the past few years. LourdesNothing Bad Can Happen, Of Gods and Men, Letters to Father Jacob, The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun. More could be listed. Films like these, going all the way back to Nazarin and Winter Light have always asked a similar question: Christianity is built on a concept of redemptive sacrifice. Is this concept absurd?

A simple, important question. These films all answer it in different ways, on a spectrum from Lourdes (and Nazarin) to Of Gods and Men (and Winter Light). We could argue about where Stations lands, which really is its central conceit. It is staking a claim in the genre of films by evoking the absurdity present in notions of redemptive sacrifice, but what kind of claim? This is pretty ambiguous in the end, other than to propose that even though tragedy can have a humanizing effect - the radical application of self-sacrifice here is absurd. It does not elevate beyond brute tragedy. 

Just can't dig it on both the formal and thematic level...

I can understand your concerns with this film, Michael. I certainly lack the experience and exposure to this genre that you possess - an issue which I will attempt to rectify this next year - but I found the formal and narrative approach absolutely effective. The structural awareness is so keen, allowing the stations to impose meaning directly onto Maria's path. Its widescreen tableau presses a sense of inevitability right through the screen. And it strongly mirrored liturgy itself. Its commentary on sacrifice seem more specific than to just point out the absurdity of it all. What's absurd is that when we assume sacrifice must be equivalent to austerity, yet Christ's exacted sacrifice redefines the nature of human sacrifice. 

Actually, my review of it at Reel Spirituality just posted this week:

 http://www.brehmcenter.com/initiatives/reelspirituality/film/reviews/stations-of-the-cross

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"The structural awareness is so keen, allowing the stations to impose meaning directly onto Maria's path... And it strongly mirrored liturgy itself..."

Yeah, but just having the form of a liturgy present does not mean that the performative value of a liturgy is also present. I am a bit allergic to artists helicoptering Christian imagery into their art so that they can score a few easy points. The harder work is to avoid the real obvious use of liturgy/format like this and actually make a film that evokes similar questions in more cinematic terms.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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5 hours ago, M. Leary said:

 I am a bit allergic to artists helicoptering Christian imagery into their art so that they can score a few easy points.

Enjoy The Hateful Eight.

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I actually have no idea what points the Christian imagery (and music!) in The Hateful Eight was trying to score.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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