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First Reformed


  1. Directed by: Paul Schrader
  2. Produced by:
  3. Written by: Paul Schrader
  4. Music by:
  5. Cinematography by: Alexander Dynan
  6. Editing by:
  7. Release Date: 2018
  8. Running Time: 113
  9. Language: English

Clips

  1. A&F Discussion Thread
  2. IMDb.com
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Netflix

At the beginning of Paul Schrader’s elegant take on contemporary Christian spirituality in the mode of classic transcendental cinema, a very faint white cross appears in the title card between First and Reformed. As the sun rises over the shot, the cross resolves glimmering on the steeple of Reverend Toller’s small Dutch Reformed church. The words of theologian Martin Luther spring to mind here, crux probat omnia ­– “the cross tests everything.” For Luther, the cross of Christ, in which we see the paradox of God’s violence and grace, is the filter through which we must process our disparate thoughts about God’s presence in our broken and corrupted world.

In First Reformed, this sense of the cross examining and uncovering is the unsettling motif through which Reverend Toller’s spiritual journey takes place. As pastor of this historic church, once a stop along the underground railroad, he finds himself trapped between a growing despair for what Christianity has become and the financial support of the local megachurch whose executive pastor keeps on his desk a copy of Charnock’s staid Existence and Attributes of God next to a text book on Family Therapy.  Christianity is a settled, polished affair in this office, in conflict with Toller’s struggle to cope with deep family tragedy through ascetism and isolation.

Toller’s decision to turn toward journaling as a prayerful outlet coincides with the request of Mary, a First Reformed congregant, to talk to her environmental activist husband about settling into fatherhood. At this point, overt strains of Dreyer’s Ordet and Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest begin to overlap with themes Bergman’s Winter Light. These formal allusions are no surprise, coming from the author of Transcendental Style in Cinema. Written by Schrader in 1971 and refreshed in 2018, this volume was a gateway for many theologically inclined cinephiles. It tried to name something ineffable in the films of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, a formal pattern in which such filmmakers created space for encounter with the divine. Though transcendence as a property of cinema remains a matter of debate, Schrader’s work is an important take on the reliability of framing, space, and duration in cinema as media of spiritual reflection.

But now in First Reformed, a sort of Bergman script for a megachurch era, this sense of wonder expands to include the hardest possible questions we can ask about God, history, and creation. Crux probat omnia. Toller’s voiceover, taking on the affect of pages drunkenly scribbled in his journal and discarded the next morning, begins to feel as unreliable as it is earnest. Images of environmental apocalypse, spurred by his devasting encounter with Mary’s husband, break through Schrader’s manicured framing. A striking transcendent interlude begins like a psalm of praise and ends like a psalm of lament. In an unexpected spin on Christ figuration, Toller can feel our deteriorating world in his own body, increasingly ravaged by grief, alcoholism, and disease. His search for this holy ground in a world ravaged by greed and indifference haunts the third act.

The end of First Reformed will simply remain, like all theological riddles, a matter of contention. Even if our last moments with Toller remain obscure, Schrader’s film captures the spirit of conflict in an era marked by the dwindling cultural capital of mainline Christianity. Appearing for the first time on the A&F Top 100 list, First Reformed is sure to inspire, antagonize, and perplex, just like the transcendental influences it openly engages.  


  1. Directed by: Paul Schrader
  2. Produced by:
  3. Written by: Paul Schrader
  4. Music by:
  5. Cinematography by: Alexander Dynan
  6. Editing by:
  7. Release Date: 2018
  8. Running Time: 113
  9. Language: English

Clips

  1. A&F Discussion Thread
  2. IMDb.com
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Netflix

At the beginning of Paul Schrader’s elegant take on contemporary Christian spirituality in the mode of classic transcendental cinema, a very faint white cross appears in the title card between First and Reformed. As the sun rises over the shot, the cross resolves glimmering on the steeple of Reverend Toller’s small Dutch Reformed church. The words of theologian Martin Luther spring to mind here, crux probat omnia ­– “the cross tests everything.” For Luther, the cross of Christ, in which we see the paradox of God’s violence and grace, is the filter through which we must process our disparate thoughts about God’s presence in our broken and corrupted world.

In First Reformed, this sense of the cross examining and uncovering is the unsettling motif through which Reverend Toller’s spiritual journey takes place. As pastor of this historic church, once a stop along the underground railroad, he finds himself trapped between a growing despair for what Christianity has become and the financial support of the local megachurch whose executive pastor keeps on his desk a copy of Charnock’s staid Existence and Attributes of God next to a text book on Family Therapy.  Christianity is a settled, polished affair in this office, in conflict with Toller’s struggle to cope with deep family tragedy through ascetism and isolation.

Toller’s decision to turn toward journaling as a prayerful outlet coincides with the request of Mary, a First Reformed congregant, to talk to her environmental activist husband about settling into fatherhood. At this point, overt strains of Dreyer’s Ordet and Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest begin to overlap with themes Bergman’s Winter Light. These formal allusions are no surprise, coming from the author of Transcendental Style in Cinema. Written by Schrader in 1971 and refreshed in 2018, this volume was a gateway for many theologically inclined cinephiles. It tried to name something ineffable in the films of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, a formal pattern in which such filmmakers created space for encounter with the divine. Though transcendence as a property of cinema remains a matter of debate, Schrader’s work is an important take on the reliability of framing, space, and duration in cinema as media of spiritual reflection.

But now in First Reformed, a sort of Bergman script for a megachurch era, this sense of wonder expands to include the hardest possible questions we can ask about God, history, and creation. Crux probat omnia. Toller’s voiceover, taking on the affect of pages drunkenly scribbled in his journal and discarded the next morning, begins to feel as unreliable as it is earnest. Images of environmental apocalypse, spurred by his devasting encounter with Mary’s husband, break through Schrader’s manicured framing. A striking transcendent interlude begins like a psalm of praise and ends like a psalm of lament. In an unexpected spin on Christ figuration, Toller can feel our deteriorating world in his own body, increasingly ravaged by grief, alcoholism, and disease. His search for this holy ground in a world ravaged by greed and indifference haunts the third act.

The end of First Reformed will simply remain, like all theological riddles, a matter of contention. Even if our last moments with Toller remain obscure, Schrader’s film captures the spirit of conflict in an era marked by the dwindling cultural capital of mainline Christianity. Appearing for the first time on the A&F Top 100 list, First Reformed is sure to inspire, antagonize, and perplex, just like the transcendental influences it openly engages.  

At the beginning of Paul Schrader’s elegant take on contemporary Christian spirituality in the mode of classic transcendental cinema, a very faint white cross appears in the title card between First and Reformed. As the sun rises over the shot, the cross resolves glimmering on the steeple of Reverend Toller’s small Dutch Reformed church. The words of theologian Martin Luther spring to mind here, crux probat omnia ­– “the cross tests everything.” For Luther, the cross of Christ, in which we see the paradox of God’s violence and grace, is the filter through which we must process our disparate thoughts about God’s presence in our broken and corrupted world.

In First Reformed, this sense of the cross examining and uncovering is the unsettling motif through which Reverend Toller’s spiritual journey takes place. As pastor of this historic church, once a stop along the underground railroad, he finds himself trapped between a growing despair for what Christianity has become and the financial support of the local megachurch whose executive pastor keeps on his desk a copy of Charnock’s staid Existence and Attributes of God next to a text book on Family Therapy.  Christianity is a settled, polished affair in this office, in conflict with Toller’s struggle to cope with deep family tragedy through ascetism and isolation.

Toller’s decision to turn toward journaling as a prayerful outlet coincides with the request of Mary, a First Reformed congregant, to talk to her environmental activist husband about settling into fatherhood. At this point, overt strains of Dreyer’s Ordet and Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest begin to overlap with themes Bergman’s Winter Light. These formal allusions are no surprise, coming from the author of Transcendental Style in Cinema. Written by Schrader in 1971 and refreshed in 2018, this volume was a gateway for many theologically inclined cinephiles. It tried to name something ineffable in the films of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, a formal pattern in which such filmmakers created space for encounter with the divine. Though transcendence as a property of cinema remains a matter of debate, Schrader’s work is an important take on the reliability of framing, space, and duration in cinema as media of spiritual reflection.

But now in First Reformed, a sort of Bergman script for a megachurch era, this sense of wonder expands to include the hardest possible questions we can ask about God, history, and creation. Crux probat omnia. Toller’s voiceover, taking on the affect of pages drunkenly scribbled in his journal and discarded the next morning, begins to feel as unreliable as it is earnest. Images of environmental apocalypse, spurred by his devasting encounter with Mary’s husband, break through Schrader’s manicured framing. A striking transcendent interlude begins like a psalm of praise and ends like a psalm of lament. In an unexpected spin on Christ figuration, Toller can feel our deteriorating world in his own body, increasingly ravaged by grief, alcoholism, and disease. His search for this holy ground in a world ravaged by greed and indifference haunts the third act.

The end of First Reformed will simply remain, like all theological riddles, a matter of contention. Even if our last moments with Toller remain obscure, Schrader’s film captures the spirit of conflict in an era marked by the dwindling cultural capital of mainline Christianity. Appearing for the first time on the A&F Top 100 list, First Reformed is sure to inspire, antagonize, and perplex, just like the transcendental influences it openly engages.  


  1. Directed by: Paul Schrader
  2. Produced by:
  3. Written by: Paul Schrader
  4. Music by:
  5. Cinematography by: Alexander Dynan
  6. Editing by:
  7. Release Date: 2018
  8. Running Time: 113
  9. Language: English

Clips

  1. A&F Discussion Thread
  2. IMDb.com
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Netflix
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