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Thursday, 4 September 2014

Stigmata and sacrifice

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

4 September

* Contains spoilers *

Can one put one’s finger on what is so affecting about this film ? A young girl, Maria, just at confirmation age, who idolizes Bernadette, the au pair, and who is being pushed in certain directions by her family and the church :

We see Maria objecting to the rather tame music that the sympathetic PE teacher is playing – seemingly not for the first time – to accompany her class’ exercise on the hoof on the basis that it contains ‘satanic rhythms’. Just before, we have seen her urged in confession, and with similar descriptions of music characterized by Fr. Weber, to denounce it. Whose life is she leading that she should want to sacrifice the landscape, or her own life to heal her younger brother Johannes ?

The chill is in the zeal with which Maria’s mother, at the undertaker’s, talks of seeking canonization for her daughter – almost as if she sees past her daughter to a saint, although we have seen her treat Maria abusively for her selfish ill-will on at least three occasions. Kein Wunder that her husband leaves the table and goes aside to stand in quiet thought – and the mother finally breaks down in proper tears…

Is the mapping of Maria’s last days on the elements of The Stations of The Cross something that is partly imposed, from the mother’s eye view, after the event ? – although, theologically, one knows the injunction to Take up one’s cross daily, and that identification with Jesus is the stuff of The Imitation of Christ.

But does she, in the tears, finally realize that the contented smile that she had in the car, after she has humiliated her daughter and, by stopping in traffic with a provocative ultimatum, secured her compliance by sheer power-play is just another aspect of the domination of Maria's life and memory that she craves now ? Perhaps.

Yet, although one wonders that, at the third hour (by the hospital clock) and as Maria’s heart fails, Johannes finally speaks, at the age of four, to call her name and to ask Wo ist Maria ?, we are emotionally with Bernadette in the preceding scene, not wanting her to refuse food and make ready to sacrifice her life. The horrible liturgical humbug is, though, that Maria’s mother says that the sacrament of communion is received when the wafer touches the lips (although Maria chokes on it, and it has to be unceremoniously whipped out of her mouth by a nurse) :

Unnoticed by us, we connect with the first scene, and Fr. Weber’s dogmatic assertion that life begins not, as suggested by one of the confirmation class, at birth, but at conception. Here, we are at the other end of life, and, in urging this hypocritical beatification of her daughter, Whatever one may think of the pro-life position (and choosing an age in weeks up to which a pregnancy can be lawfully terminated does seem somewhat arbitrary), Maria’s mother is invoking similar clear-cut definitions of life and death, right and wrong, holy and impure.

The key thing to notice (third stumble) is that Bernadette, not Maria’s mother, is her sponsor for confirmation, and how, even so feverish and ill, what is on Maria’s mind to pour out to Bernadette is how she believes that he mother does not love her, and to feel responsible for what she sees as a lack of love.

The film is a masterpiece. It is so powerful, second time around and as one tries to link each station of the cross to the tableau in hand, that it deserves a much greater audience than it had at either screening at Festival Central : this time, no laughter at the hard-liners in church and family, no treating of this as some sort of risible entertainment at the expense of real people who do have such faith and dogma.

And a profound emotion for Maria, believing that she is doing as she should for her mute brother’s sake…

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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