Stations Of The Cross (2014) – Review

Remember Rope?  Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller cleverly edited to look like one long, single take?  Or that Uruguayan chiller, The Silent House (and its English-language remake with Elizabeth Olsen), which employed the same trick?  Stations Of The Cross sort of evokes both with its rare audacity of, while not pretending to be a single take, employing just fourteen entirely music-less shots, all but two of which are completely static.  In fact, it almost evokes Tarantino in the way it breaks down into subtitled chapters (although that’s probably where the Tarantino likeness ends).  With such implements, Dietrich Bruggemann’s film may sound like a pretentious, tedious slog with no other purpose than to look snobbishly down at “lesser” films, yet it’s actually an acute and clever indictment of religious extremism in the modern world.

The fourteen chapters are broken down into the stages of Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary (where the film derives its title from), with young Maria, a devout Roman Catholic, attempting to mirror his actions in her desire to become a saint by sacrificing herself for the sins of others.  It’s undoubtedly an interesting and bold approach to the film that works well in many respects, like drawing subtleties from the performances that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen, but what’s most interesting about the way the narrative unfolds is the atmosphere created with it.  It pretty feels like we’re watching a play; as we observe every movement, expression and silence with awkward awareness, we soon realise there’s nothing for the actors to delegate responsibility to, no editing to hide behind.  Dialogue, essentially, is the only thing that drives each scene.

Thankfully, then, that dialogue is terrific.  The script, written by Bruggemann’s sister, Anna, is a sharp, stringent and deafeningly precise piece of work which manages to evoke powerful prosecutions of religious fundamentalism while simultaneously creating engaging, multi-layered characters and a story riddled with depth and substance.  Religion has always been a ripe subject for debate with such extreme and opposing views from each side of the argument, and it lends itself perfectly for a potent film narrative.  Anna simply takes that idea of being able to discuss science vs religion and does something with it that we’ve never quite seen before, somehow blending emotion and apathy, condemnation and sympathy, with one carefully crafted scene, without the slightest seam showing.

The performances are just excellent – particularly young Lea van Acken as Maria, who graces almost every single one of the unforgiving frames.  When you think of long takes, you tend to think of films like Atonement and Children Of Men, or even the brilliant sequence in TV’s True Detective, but while there’s nothing in Stations Of The Cross to better those sequences, you can’t take anything away from how dedicated the actors are to the cause.  Occasionally we’ll see a stray glance towards the camera or some momentary forgetfulness – just as in a play – but for the most part, these unknown actors are giving really terrific, focussed performances.  If we don’t agree with their ideals, we believe in their burdens and woes; whether at confessional or gym class, there’s such naturalism on display.

If everything else didn’t work well enough, the cinematography chimes in with a sort of strange, ugly beauty.  Not unlike The Babadook a few weeks ago, the film doesn’t ostensibly look good; every frame is washed with a cold, raw veneer that tends to push the audience away, perhaps intending to emulate Maria’s inability to dress up nice and wear “sinful” makeup, but on the other hand there’s a beauty to it because it matches the tone so accurately.  It’s just another element working to its full potential, offering an unusual film exactly what it needs.

None of this is to say, of course, that it’s a film for everyone.  It takes a bit of effort to be won over by the snail-like pace and conflict-light narrative – the opening twelve minute sequence is pretty much a make or break scenario – and even if you do, it’s not without the occasional slump which will try your patience.  If you’re not particularly interested, Stations Of The Cross could be a painfully dull experience, but it’s also the kind of film that it’s possible to find so much reward, if you want to, through its intelligence, depth and emotional resonance.  This is filmmaking perhaps not intended to entertain, but rather to make us contemplate, which it certainly does.  Strange, but impressively unique.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Read this review on Flickering Myth

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