Friday, 20 July 2018



‘Sous le Soleil de Satan’ is the title of a French film starring Gerard Depardieu. He plays a Catholic priest to whom a murderess confesses her story. ‘First Reformed’, a thoughtful movie I just saw, is plugged as ‘spiritual’ because its hero is also a clergyman (Protestant-Calvinist). Sounds good to this writer – another bloody priest – but under whose sun or sign does Ethan Hawke’s lonely, glum Revd Toller really serve? God’s or…Satan’s?

Asked by gorgeous Amanda Seyfield’s Maria (why, oh why did I never get a parishioner like that?) to counsel her troubled husband, the pastor dutifully complies. The man, an obsessed environmentalist, wishes his pregnant wife to abort their baby, because, he raves, this earth is too fouled up, too degraded for another human being to be born in it. It turns out the man hides a suicide bomber’s vest under the floorboards – terrorism is what he plans. Despite urging the husband not to abort, Revd Toller finds himself gradually sucked into the fanatic’s green cause, especially after the man’s suicide. Apart from that, the pastor has plenty of demons. A son, whom he had urged to join the Army, had died in Iraq. Toller’s congregation is non-existent, he is divorced, drinks like a fish and has terminal cancer. Enough to make anyone a tad depressed.

Martyrdom, of a perverse sort, beckons. On the eve of a smug church celebration, attended by the big bad capitalist responsible for industrial pollution, the pastor dons the bomber’s vest under his tunic and prepares for self-destruction, including that of the attendees. Oh, yes, he also wraps barbed wire around his naked skin. A weird, blasphemous reference to Christ’s crown of thorns, I should imagine.

Might religious faith drive people mad? Seems that way, judging by Revd Toller’s pathological behaviour. Note, however, that the film illustrates a liberal pathology. It is radical, apocalyptic environmentalism that inspires the pastor’s vision of self-sacrifice. An impeccably PC cause which, beyond the hero’s extreme version, is hailed as noble and sacred mainly by Western, white middle class people. Although thinkers like Roger Scruton argue cogently for a conservative ‘green philosophy’, it is from the Guardian reader brigade that the green zealots are likely to be drawn. In truth, the vision of murderous self-immolation embraced by ‘First Reformed’ is alien to the teachings and example of the Jesus of the Gospels. A Satanic ‘martyrdom’, perhaps, certainly not a Christian one.

What if Revd Toller had decided to embrace a different, less PC and more controversial cause? That of pro-life, for example? Though he advised against abortion, he did not choose to make that his personal mission. Yet over 54 million unborn babies have been aborted in the US since 1973. A holocaust that beggars belief. And one still ongoing. A Christian pastor called by his conscience to fight abortion would be a courageous, shining figure. He would be opposed to the prevailing culture – surely an example of genuine Christian witness. The film treads another path, sadly.

Further, there is the matter of suicide, which Toller contemplates at the end. Paul Schrader, the movie director, is theologically well-read. In an interview he quotes the teaching of St Augustine who condemned self-murder as sin but not in the case of Samson, the Hebrew strong man in the OT Book of Judges. Samson died not in sin but in glory, Schrader observes, despite having taken his own life. St Augustine claimed that Samson acted at the behest of the Holy Spirit - his action was therefore all right. Of course, the Bible passage says nothing about the Spirit of God so commanding Samson but that is not the key issue here. The point is that Samson’s holy war on the pagan Philistines is part of the history of salvation as enshrined in Holy Scripture. His awesome self-sacrifice gives no license to fanatical individuals or lunatics to set out to imitate him by blowing themselves up, as well as slaying other innocent people into the bargain. Schrader’s theology is a little wonky.

At last the hero is put off committing suicide by Maria, who appears unexpected in church. ‘Maria’. Allegorical name? Alas, this Maria is no Virgin Mary. Rather, she falls abruptly into the pastor’s amorous arms. They succumb to lust, leading to copulation and so the film ends. Thus Maria ‘saves’ the would-be suicide bomber priest. Fine as far it goes but does it go far enough? Make no mistake about it, sex in itself is not a sin in Christianity and no one could expect widowed Revd Toller to turn celibate monk but, if the idea is that unbridled sex is the way to redemption, well, that might perhaps be OK in Gnosticism. In Christianity, it is not. Satan again seems to raise his ugly head…

Yet, despite these de riguer strictures, ‘First Reformed’ is a serious film. One that makes you think. Much of the dialogue touches on the Bible and on spiritual and moral issues and how often you can say that about a movie? Moreover, the acting is superb. Ethan Hawke’s performance is beautifully, memorably restrained and yet impressive. The sparse, slow cinematography stimulates the little grey cells, as Poirot would say. Though feeling cantankerous about the liberal bias, I savoured every moment of it. If anything, it made me realise more than ever how vital it is to combat Satan and his minions. Not too bad, eh?

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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