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American Women's Club of Hamburg

A Religious Experience

by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

This year the Berlin Film festival concentrated on the Church. Several films looked at not only religious subjects but the structure behind the philosophy of religious belief. The first film that reflected this was Calvary by Irish director John Micheal McDonagh which, according to the gospels, is the site where Jesus was crucified located outside the walls of Jerusalem.  This foreshadows an Agatha-Christie-like plot where the good Father James (Brendon Gleeson) is given a sinister seven days warning that he will be killed during confession. The plot thickens as he inspects his parish to find the person who made this threat. We know from the beginning that the man making this threat had been abused by his priest while growing up and someone needs to pay for that sin. After finishing the film The Guard, in 2013, McDonagh and Gleeson were sitting in a pub discussing the current reputation of the church; they predicted that there would be many films made illustrating that point. But Gleeson had a very strong connection to the church when he was young and said that the father had been a mentor and someone who really cared about the people. McDonagh decided at that point to write a clever and witty script following the five steps of grief. The film is chalk full of dysfunctional characters trying to find their way in life. They see the good father, while, at the same time, are all trying to wait and watch him fall. So step by step the plot is full of surprises with a dark humor.
While Mc.Donagh's dark and humorous tale speaks of the fall of a good priest, director Brüggemann shows how fundamentalism cripples a family when taken to extreme in Kreuzweg.
He said that he thought that this fundamentalism had died in the 1980s but as he recently travelled through the U.S., he realized how mistaken he was. He indicated that while listening to the radio and hearing one religious talk after another dishing one another and watching the use of fear as a mechanisms to control the people, he deduced that joining the club of fundamentalism often leads to psychological abuse within the families. He used the fourteen stations of the cross to illustrate the self-destructive path of a family who attends a very conservative parish of the Catholic church.  The film begins with a priest quizzing a group of teenagers who are about to be confirmed. Maria (Lea van Acken)knows every answer but is troubled with the conflict of being a teenager in a modern society and a child from a highly religious conservative family. Her strict mother watches over every move she makes where she feels cornered and feels she needs to sacrifice herself in order to help her disabled brother.
Brüggemann separated each episode into these stations by integrating three diverging scenes: the church, the home life and school life. Brüggemann also emphasized at the press conference that it doesn't matter what the religion is, but the result of fundamentalism is the same. It ends in psychological abuse and often in self destruction since there lies no hope for the future. He also says that “in a large percentage of these families, it is the wife that has become the religious zealot and is the one who put the strenuous rules into place and tolerates no disobedience.”
Lars Von Trier has taken an oath of silence with the press as his two-part film Nymphomaniac has set the cinemas on fire. From the title alone we are captivated by Von Trier's shocking appeal to create an intriguing story that is both emotional and intellectually complex. it is a film that either stirs up curiosity or is rejected with heavy judgement due to the religious references that are the mainframe of this film. The film opens with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a tragic figure who has been discarded and left to face her undoing. She is found by the Good Samaritan Seligmann (Stellan Skarsgård) who at his age is an intellectual virgin who wants to open the Pandora's box by wanting to know the details of Joe's life. His motives seem to be that of neutrality but changes the more he knows. The story is broken up in chapters that begin with the innocent beginnings of Joe's life. She loses her virginity as well as having a religious vision that leads her to chose a life that for many of us is extreme. Perhaps she is Mary Magdalene who is saved by Jesus. The film includes references such as fly fishing and the Fibonacci numbers system as well as the separation of the Orthodox Church with the Roman Catholic Church, as Seligmann deciphers a Russian Religious Icon. The story drives us through Joe's sexual conquests and defeats as she tries to understand her sex addiction and fixation on one man Jerome (Shia LeBeouf) The film has shocking imagery which is threaded in between a lonely woman's demise. The climax seems unpredictable but is actually cloaked with a religious tale so heavily camouflaged that it takes a while to unravel it mysteries. Lars van Trier has indeed created a masterwork.  
The Berlin film festival never ceases to surprise me and leads me down unknown roads that take me into new and wondrous theme where I could spend hours contemplating the meanings of these films and their connections to our societies and universal understandings.

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