First Reformed ★★★★½


The fundamental paradox of films about religious faith – at least in the West – is that the outstanding examples of the form are so often the work of apostates, heretics, and nonbelievers. Filmmakers who fit these descriptors crafted some of the 20th century’s high-water marks in spiritual cinema: 'Diary of a Country Priest' (1951) by Robert Bresson, a heterodox Catholic; 'The Seventh Seal' (1957) by Ingmar Bergman, a lapsed Lutheran; 'The Gospel According to St. Matthew' (1961) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, an erstwhile Catholic; and the immortal 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) by Carl Th. Dreyer, who was essentially irreligious (not Lutheran, as he is sometimes described). Not to be outdone, the 21st century has already produced two masterworks about faith. In their black comedy 'A Serious Man' (2009), Joel and Ethan Coen drew on their Midwestern Jewish upbringing to create one of the greatest features ever made about theodicy, aka the Problem of Evil. Meanwhile, no less a lapsed Catholic than Martin Scorsese crafted the Jesuits-in-Japan epic 'Silence' (2016), a staggeringly profound work about belief, doubt, and freedom that ranks among the director’s best films.

If there’s a biographical factor that tends to be associated with superlative religious cinema, it’s not present-day piety but, rather, the formative years spent in a community of faith. 'First Reformed', the harrowing new feature from writer-director Paul Schrader, is yet another compelling argument for this rule of thumb. Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church – a Calvinist, confessional denomination – Schrader has been open about the potent, lasting influence of his religious upbringing on his work. (In fact, the future filmmaker was pre-seminary at Calvin College in his native Grand Rapids, Mich.) Schrader knows a thing or two about spiritual cinema, given that he literally wrote the book on it: His 1972 study 'Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer' remains a seminal work of film criticism.

However, even a filmgoer who didn’t know anything about Schrader’s early life might suspect that the director has Calvinist roots after witnessing 'First Reformed'. It is the most ferociously Calvinist film Schrader has ever made, by an enormous margin, and not merely because its main character is a Calvinist minister. Schrader has grappled with matters of faith before in his work, most overtly in his screenplay for 'The Last Temptation of Christ' – even if said script was later reworked by director Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks. (It’s also strongly evident, funnily enough, in Schrader’s ill-fated horror feature 'Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist' [2005].) However, 'Last Temptation'’s anguished and faintly Gnostic vision of Jesus’ life has nothing on the austere suffering of 'First Reformed', a portrait of spiritual agony that veritably quakes with stifled, pleading despair...

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