Religious films rarely receive critical acclaim these days, but a recent exception is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed—a combination character study, psychological drama, and social-activist thriller about a Dutch Reformed pastor, Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), ministering to a small congregation in upstate New York. Toller’s sorrow and confusion as a divorcé and grieving parent draw him into eco-terrorism.
The film’s mostly positive reviews read like religious parodies: “As austere and revelatory as a church confessional.” “Greatness is often intertwined with insanity.” “Its steeple [is] in the clouds and its foundation on solid ground.”
This last, from the Wall Street Journal, comes closest to accurately estimating the film’s ambition and slow-witted, dubious, stolid artistic achievement. Reviewers seem impressed with director-writer Schrader’s secular storytelling, while underselling his spiritual affect. In contemporary film culture, the terms of religious appreciation have changed—flattened, such that Schrader’s story of a man’s worldly confusion is held in higher regard than his portrayal of that man’s devotion. These tongue-tied commendations are proof of the unpleasant tension that occurs when purveyors of today’s film culture attempt to reconcile faith and secular social awareness.
Few contemporary filmmakers deal with the sacred life of believers, saints, or deities—and even fewer critics seem to appreciate films outside the secular realm. The case of First Reformed epitomizes this cultural change. Consider Schrader’s own background—the film scholarship he practiced during the 1970s, and his oft-mentioned upbringing among a strict Calvinist sect in Michigan. Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film seemed to merge his religious and artistic fascinations by offering a detailed study of the themes and methods of three master filmmakers: Japan’s Yasajiro Ozu, France’s Robert Bresson, and Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer. Their works—such films as Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—all seem to verge on the eschatological.
Oddly enough, Schrader’s appreciation (published when he was 26) suggests a young scholar’s act of atonement. It was followed by his work as a screenwriter on movies that verged on naughty sensationalism, highlighted by his script for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver, which combined exploitation-movie tropes with art-movie contemplation. Taxi Driver’s story of a lonely Vietnam vet who keeps a journal of his worldly encounters in a hellish New York City and then becomes a psychotic vigilante bears close resemblance to Bresson’s deeply sympathetic diaristic priest—a connection that Schrader’s First Reformed makes explicit in Toller’s journal writing and his carnal involvement with an activist widow.
First Reformed emphasizes Toller’s private turmoil and anti-social behavior: He clashes with another local pastor (Cedric the Entertainer) and regional industrialists in scenes that recall Taxi Driver’s undercurrent of racial and sexual tension. This film’s narrative thrust suggests an act of repentance, but it never convincingly moves toward transcendence. Toller eventually abandons his faith. Schrader concentrates on Toller’s confusion, as if the filmmaker himself did not understand the tenets of religious teaching, or had lost personal belief in them.
Schrader’s focus on religious doubt in First Reformed is buttressed by the film’s trendy social concerns with ethnic diversity and the environment. This emphasis may satisfy non-religious reviewers but, strangely, it contradicts the focus of that 1972 tome and its enthrallment with how Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer found spiritual alternatives to social and existential crises. Schrader’s contradiction reveals the denial of modern filmmakers who do not commit to a search for faith-based understanding. And just like Toller’s, the critics’ negativity results in odd forms of self-flagellation and embarrassing hyperbole. (The New Yorker’s reviewer cheered Hawke’s overrated, obvious anguish—“I never knew the soul could frown”—apparently unfamiliar with Ingmar Bergman’s soul-searching actors.)
Another reviewer, who praises Schrader as “a gifted and deeply persuasive evangelist of the transcendental style—if not quite a canon saint,” also seems unaware that back in the twentieth century, European art films, such as Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence) and Hollywood Biblical epics, regularly reached a high point of mystical seriousness and awed respect for religious practice.
It may be asking a lot to expect filmmakers of this millennium, even veterans such as Schrader, to make faith-filled films when their reputations are determined by the nihilistic arbiters of a faithless culture. Yet that is the tradition that Schrader purports to understand. Even the clerical satires of Spanish filmmaker and professed atheist Luis Buñuel (Nazarin, Simon of the Desert, The Milky Way) posited how betrayals of and by institutional religions nonetheless created mortal standards by which worldly vanity and cruelty could be understood and criticized. Toller is at odds with that Buñuel character who overcame his secular confusion to proclaim, “My hatred of science and my horror of technology will finally lead me to this absurd belief in God.” The “religious” movies of Bergman, Buñuel, Roberto Rossellini, Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer could be both disturbing and restorative—a far cry from the spiritual passivity rewarded by the “transcendental style” of Schrader’s grim, guilt-inducing First Reformed.
Armond White is film critic for National Review and Out Magazine and author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.