FilmWatch Weekly: Wrestling with God now and then

Veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader's "First Reformed" arrives just as an Ingmar Bergman retrospective kicks off

On the off chance that you have managed to maintain an optimistic perspective on the fate of the human species, Paul Schrader is here to bring you back to Earth. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he’s here to lift you up into a position where a God’s-eye view of our species’ grand folly leads to a sensation more akin to disappointment than anger.

So, obviously, Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” is not a feel-good summer hit. It’s not going to be a hit of any sort, frankly. But it is a towering return to form from the man who wrote and/or directed “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Mishima,” “Blue Collar,” “Affliction,” and more. Although Schrader intends to continue making films, this would serve as a fitting capstone were it to be the 71-year-old’s final feature.

“First Reformed” is also a triumph for Ethan Hawke, who brings all the hangdog weariness he exuded in “Before Midnight” and “Boyhood” to a midlife crisis of a much more existential bent. He plays Reverend Ernst Toller, the parish priest at a small Dutch Reformed church in rural upstate New York. The church is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, but continues to exist only due to the somewhat condescending patronage of a nearby mega-church headed by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a/k/a the comedian Cedric the Entertainer, in a very effective dramatic role).

Toller is seemingly content to play out the string presiding over a glorified tourist attraction, haunted by the death of his son in the Iraq War and writing in his diary every night over a glass of brown liquor. (If the title “Diary of a Country Priest” had not already been taken, Schrader would have been almost duty-bound to use it, but more on that later…) One momentous day, though, a young, pregnant parishioner suggestively named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks to speak to Toller privately. Her husband Michael, an environmental activist aghast at the state of the world, wants her to have an abortion, and she wants Toller’s advice.

As he involves himself in the lives of the young couple, Toller finds himself conflicted as well about the meaning (or lack thereof) of life, and the proper response to earthly corruption—especially after he learns that his church’s upcoming celebration is being funded by a corporate overlord known for committing environmental degradation. The collisions of spiritual and carnal desires, of hope and despair, of serene stoicism and violent opposition, come to a head in a finale that is as uncompromising as anything a recent American film has dared to present.

Schrader, famously, was raised in a strict Calvinist household in Michigan and saw his first movie at the age of seventeen. He studied theology before becoming a film critic, and later his rigid Protestantism merged with Martin Scorsese’s florid, guilt-ridden Catholicism to spawn some of cinema’s most bracing portraits of masculine isolation and rage.

Schrader’s 1972 book “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer” remains a masterpiece of analysis, and is set for a new edition later this year. Robert Bresson has always been a particular influence for him, especially “Pickpocket” and the aforementioned “Diary of a Country Priest.” But not until “First Reformed” has Schrader written and directed a movie explicitly concerned with religious themes.

After the almost nihilistic disappointments of his last two efforts (“The Canyons” and “Dog Eat Dog”), it’s literally a revelation to see one of our most rigorous filmmakers standing firm and crafting from his soul, as dark and twisted as it may be, once again.

(“First Reformed” is currently playing at the Regal Fox Tower.)

*****

It might be mere coincidence, or it might be the devious work of an omnipotent supreme being, but this weekend also marks the beginning of the Northwest Film Center’s weeks-long tribute to another master of metaphysical moviemaking, Ingmar Bergman. Bergman’s philosophical films could easily place him among the trio Schrader so perceptively critiqued, and to be frank, his cumulative oeuvre ranks above even those legends. If there’s one name that connotes Serious Cinema, it’s Bergman’s, and it’s impossible to overstate his influence on global film art.

It’s always my preference that retrospectives devoted to a single auteur unspool in chronological order, all the better to trace the development of a director’s vision. Another approach with Bergman would be to start with the most accessible of his works—“Smiles of a Summer Night,” “The Magic Flute,” or “Fanny and Alexander,” say—and proceed deeper and deeper into the unfathomable poetry and unflinching emotional intensity of “Persona” or “Cries and Whispers.” Instead, the Film Center’s seventeen-film series pinballs through Bergman’s career, frontloading some of his most iconic movies, such as “The Seventh Seal” (playing the weekend of June 1-3) and “Wild Strawberries” (June 8 & 9).

For those who’ve already seen the canonical films mentioned above, the most crucial boxes to check off in this tribute are a pair of surreal late-1960s efforts, “Hour of the Wolf” (June 9) and “Shame” (July 11 & 15), as well as the final film in Bergman’s “Faith Trilogy,” “The Silence.” (July 6 & 8). Look for reminders in this space as those screenings approach.

(“Ingmar Bergman: A Centenary Celebration” runs through July 22 at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. Check www.nwfilm.org for a full schedule.)

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