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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Finding Love’s light amid the world’s noisy darkness

Gerald SchmitzFirst Reformed
(U.S. 2017)

Once again the “Christmas movie” season started many weeks ago with the Nov. 1 release of A Bad Moms Christmas. More like a bad Halloween joke. Like early Santa Claus parades, the theme can become tiresome even before the calendar turns to December.

Appearing in two other November Yuletide movies is tireless Canadian thespian 87-year-old Christopher Plummer. He’s the voice of King Herod in the animated feature The Star, about a brave donkey named Bo who with a gaggle of animal companions plays an important role in the first Christmas.

Plummer plays Ebenezer Scrooge in Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, which purports to tell the story of how Charles Dickens came up with his classic story A Christmas Carol.

A third helping of Plummer is in the offing before year’s end in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World as the hard-hearted billionaire J. Paul Getty. That came about as a result of the tsunami of post-Weinstein sexual harassment and assault allegations taking down Kevin Spacey, who had already appeared in theatrical trailers for the movie. Damage control quickly kicked in with Scott reshooting the scenes of Getty with Plummer (30 years Spacey’s senior) in the role. ’Tis the season to be jolly indeed.

One can take solace in some of the perennial classics that regularly show up on television during the Christmas season. I’m thinking of the incomparable Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946 with the angel “Clarence,” who has yet to earn his wings, yet saves the Stewart character from suicidal despair. Memories were still fresh of the Second World War in which Stewart had been a decorated fighter pilot. A lot of anguished souls needed healing.

Less well-known is Stewart’s role opposite Claudette Colbert in It’s a Wonderful World from 1939, playing a private eye who gets caught up in the case of a man framed for murder, though justice prevails in the end. The movie manages to be a light-hearted affair in the year, often considered Hollywood’s greatest, that would see the start of the most deadly war in human history.

It seems to me that in our lives and in our world we could use something truly wonderful to lift up spirits. That is the gift of Christmas that keeps on giving — of God’s light shining in the darkness, made manifest in the birth of Christ as the light of the world. Christmas is a call to people of goodwill to be the light through all times, and especially when surrounded by the world’s noisy darkness.

So I want to discuss a movie that goes to that deeper challenge of faith beyond any superficial seasonal trappings of comfort and joy.

That film is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, which premiered at the Venice film festival and was also shown at the Toronto film festival. It’s a profoundly introspective and insightful work that relates to existential crises of the current global situation and of personal faith and conscience.

Schrader had a strict upbringing in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church and studied theology in a Christian college before going on to study film at the University of Southern California. A protégé of legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, he started his career as a critic. In 1972 his Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer was published by the UCLA press. Japanese master Ozu found transcendence in everyday family relations, as in the classic Tokyo Story (1953). Danish director Carl Dreyer is best known for The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); France’s Robert Bresson for The Diary of a Country Priest (1951), which finds echoes in First Reformed. Schrader went on to leave his mark as a screenwriter — famously collaborating with Martin Scorsese including on The Last Temptation of Christ — and as a filmmaker in his own right.

The central figure in First Reformed is an Episcopalian pastor, Rev. Toller (an extraordinary performance by Ethan Hawke), whose first assignment from his bishop, an African-American named Jeffers, is to minister to the dwindling congregation of a historic First Reformed church in rural New York State that once served as a sanctuary along the “underground railroad” route of slaves escaping to Canada.

Approaching a 250-year anniversary, it is regarded as a marginal “tourist church.” Toller’s mission, in fact, is a temporary transitional one: to prepare the valuable church property for sale. The bishop is played by Cedric Kyles, who goes by “the Entertainer,” which seems appropriate as his character is in charge of the prosperous, thriving, “Abundant Life” megachurch with a fancy choir and all the accoutrements of evangelical success. Meanwhile, Toller is tasked with delivering the bad news to the First Reformed faithful few.

Toller, aged 46, is a former military chaplain who has endured many dark nights of the soul since the loss of his son in the Iraq war and the breakup of his marriage. Alcohol only dulls the pain. He is a broken man grasping for the light of faith, for personal redemption.

Like Bresson’s country priest, he starts confiding his thoughts to a diary. He will do so for a year, then destroy it. He puts up a brave front and tries to maintain an outward calm even as some longtime parishioners, fiercely loyal to their little church, are suspicious of what is in store. Then an encounter with a parishioner leads to a catharsis that changes everything.

Mary (Amanda Seyfried), deeply troubled for her husband, Michael, a militant environmental activist who has returned from the frontlines of a protest in northern Canada, comes to see Toller. Mary’s husband is also involved with a local group fighting a petroleum development project over fears of contamination. The corporate CEO pushing it, Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), is a major donor to the Abundant Life church.

Mary is pregnant, but Michael does not want her to have the child because he despairs of the dire state of the planet. She has further reason to worry he may be driven to extremes. Toller agrees to meet with Michael during which they have a sobering conversation about the harms that humanity has inflicted on God’s creation, the nature of faith, and human responsibility.

Toller takes on Michael’s burden at a metaphysical level and later physically in a dramatic climax. As Schrader observed in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, he “has a sickness that Kierkegaard called a sickness unto death — a lack of hope, despair, angst. This sickness has manifestations. The cloth of the clergy is one, the diary is another, the alcohol is another, and finally the environment is a manifestation of his soul sickness. So he grafts this cause onto himself — in fact, picks it up as a kind of virus from another person.”

Why make the climate crisis the fulcrum that transforms Toller’s story? Because Schrader sees it as a fundamental existential moral question in terms of both collective and individual choice. In another interview he explains that “climate change has put so many of the historic and theological issues into boldface. . . . I’ve lived in the magic cone of history, the best era of history, the most selfish, most indulgent, privileged, laziest of human history that has ever existed. And in return for all this beneficence, we have in turn ruined the planet.”

Toller is shaken into taking a stand. He becomes a true pastor for his flock, determined to keep their church. He faces off against the dubious ethics of the megachurch’s corporate benefactor. He emerges from a self-absorbed solitude to draw close to Mary, and they cling to each other for mutual support after shocking events. There is a wondrous sequence in which they imagine taking a soulful planetary journey.

Coming to the 250th anniversary celebration that the church hierarchy has planned to take place in First Reformed, and at which the CEO will be a front-row guest, Mary dissuades an agonizing Toller from resorting to a radically destructive act. In suffering through a kind of passion, he experiences a spiritual rebirth that is underscored through a rendition of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Finding faith through such human connections, Schrader seems to suggest, is the saving grace when we feel overwhelmed by the world’s darkness. We need to find the light within ourselves and others if we are to have any hope of a better world. To me, that is a Christmas story for any season.

In theatres now:

For family viewing over the holiday season there is Disney Pixar’s newest animated feature Coco. The Mexican-themed story, which centres on a little boy, Miguel, and someone’s daughter, named Coco, is richly layered. The superb intricate animation is the year’s best and should be an Oscar favourite. Highly recommended.