Paul Schrader was born in 1946, so he is 72 years old and maybe feeling the chariot of death pressing on behind. While there is time he needs to make not just another film, but to revisit his youth in all its intensity: the rigour of his Calvinist upbringing, the life-changing discovery of moving images, the heady atmosphere of radicalism engendered by US involvement in the Vietnam War.
So, obviously, he must go back to Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman, art-house deities of his youth. Schrader belongs to that cine-literate Hollywood generation that emerged in the 1970s – Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, Lucas and others – only his cine-literacy was as much in the European arthouse film as in commercial or pulp film-making. As a measure of his precocious obsession, he published a book on Dreyer, Bresson and Ozu in 1972 at the age of 26, and when he got down to script-writing and later directing, their intensity informed his narratives. His main protagonists are ulcerous, and it seems in character that Schrader started his script for Taxi Driver while hospitalised for ulcer treatment in 1972. Travis Bickle wrestles on behalf of us all.
First Reformed draws on two particular films, Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne/ Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Nattvardsgästerna/ Winter Light, and the Reverend Toller is in a lineage that begins with the young curé of the Journal, and moves to Pastor Ericsson in Winter Light. (Bergman claimed to have been tremendously fond of Bernanos’ original novel, and had seen Bresson’s film of it seven or eight times before he made Winter Light.) Watching First Reformed, I felt blissfully happy to see that this noble line had not been extinguished.
So – First Reformed consciously, deliberately and imperiously starts from Bresson and Bergman, and in the Facebook age, Schrader asserts a deeper historical continuity about human corruption and the compelling need for salvation. The film is Pascalian just when I thought we had forgotten how to be so. Big question: do you believe in the environmental apocalypse to come? Big answer: it is better to say yes, since if you’re right you will do something about it. Anyway, can you dare bet it won’t happen in view of what we are doing to the planet? This is a version of Pascal’s Wager, and, as Bresson said in 1965, “Pascal is for everyone.” We are predestined for destruction, and although Toller argues that humans cannot predict the future, you have a sense that having wrestled like Jacob with the angel in the person of the young environmental activist Michael, he cannot get rid of the idea that the future is determined for us, and it is grim. This engenders not doubt about the existence of God (as with Pastor Eriksson), but doubt that he can ever forgive us.
For a Hollywood film, it is extremely spare. Admittedly Ethan Hawke plays Toller, well known to audiences from a lot of films, especially those of Richard Linklater, but, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he manages to offload this baggage. At any rate to me the rest of the cast are unknowns, and certainly unfamiliar. Although Schrader is closer to the Bergman mantra, “Actors are trained to express complexities” than to Bresson’s idea of the actor as ‘model’ who is “involuntarily expressive”, yet with his small cast of characters Schrader manages to echo in an authentic manner the whole society Bresson conjures up in Journal.
I watched the film wondering whether it would end with Bernanos’/Bresson’s “All is Grace” but Schrader steers it convincingly in his own non-slavish direction. And the boldest, super-contrarian move he makes is to film his story in the 4:3 format of classical cinema, which in an age of hyperbolical wide-screen film-making especially catches us out, reminding us that this format has not been bettered for allowing the intense, microscope-like gaze of the camera.
The big theme of the film is apocalypse. The narrative not just reinvents the curé’s psychosomatic cancer in Journal, but Michael’s pessimism about the environment rhymes with Persson’s fear of nuclear destruction in Winter Light. It rhymes too with the central idea of Bresson’s most pessimistic film, Le Diable probablement / The Devil Probably, which in the face of man-made environmental catastrophe rejects the church, Marxism, outright libertarianism – and other nostrums – in favour of suicide. Is this too melodramatic? But then so many powerful dramas and films hinge on a melodramatic premise, and in First Reformed the idea makes for compelling viewing. It poses too a central challenge for theists. A director as Bible-literate as Schrader manages deftly to bring in the counter-arguments to outright pessimism: the apostle Paul’s “The whole of creation is groaning for release from bondage” (Romans 8.22) and God’s words in Job chapter 38.4: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” But are they a sufficient counterweight?
How all this comes to a climax should be discussed as well, but I shall refrain for fear of revealing the ending. Suffice it to say that Schrader unexpectedly moves into Tarkovskian territory with the levitation from Offret / The Sacrifice, but then goes beyond it, and miles too beyond the Bressonian universe, with a magical sequence of digital film-making. You almost wish he had done the whole film in 3-D.
Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky are central figures in my New Filmgoers Guide to God, published by Matador in 2014, available on Amazon.