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First Reformed (15)

Director – Paul Schrader Starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried Duration: 108 min

This is a brilliantly brooding unfolding of a complex story. The main character is the pastor of First Reformed, described as a “tourist church,” 250 years old, with a formidable history but a congregation that has dwindled to a handful of attendees. 

A sense of falling short as a pastor, an illustrious list of former pastors, the presence of a controlling neighbouring mega-church pastor and a local businessman involved in a polluting energy business all conspire together to erode Pastor Toller’s confidence in himself and God. The film is full of religious clichés, yet never descends into the entirely predictable.

There is a great line where the mega-church pastor says that Pastor seems to spend all his time in the “garden”, referring to Gethsemane; “Not even Jesus spent all his time in the garden!”

The film is a reminder that Christians can be poles apart when it comes to how they cope with the complexities of life. Pastor Toller experiences a crisis of faith due to losing a son in the Iraq War, failing health, falling church attendance, and the suicide of the husband of one of the members. Toller is unable to adopt a form of Christianity that seems like a drug to dull the pain – he wants something more solid but sadly loses his way.

The final scenes are somewhat bizarre, as Pastor Toller’s life unravels into suicidal despair accompanied by the song of Leaning on the everlasting arms being sung at the 250th anniversary of his church, Although, there seems no prospect of rescue, there is a final surprising and bizarre twist of fragile hope.

There is not a wasted word or frame in this absorbing film. The director has woven a dark religious narrative in the spirit of the “Christ-haunted” landscape explored so effectively by the American Deep South author Flannery O’Connor. The film makes many nods toward the author’s novel Wise Blood.

First Reformed is not for the faint hearted; it is not a feel-good film. It is a film that requires effort and poses a variety of questions for the Christian viewer: with what form of Christianity depicted here do I identify, and why? How might this film help me be more sensitive to those who are different? How can I shape my faith in such a way that I am prepared for the complications, aching questions and storms of life?

He had the feeling that everything he saw was a broken-off piece of some giant blank thing that he had forgotten had happened to him”.  (Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor)

John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle in West Sussex

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