Crisis of faith and existential dilemma of of priests is a theme that’s been powerfully explored by European Masters, from Bergman’s Winter Light and Bresson’s Diary of A Country Priest to Dreyer’s Ordet and Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice to even Melville’s Léon Morin and Graham Greene’s novels (The Power and the Glory, A Burnt-Out Case, etc.). And, in many of these works, this has straddled across both personal doubts and external political turmoils. Hence, there have been powerful antecedents which Paul Schrader alluded to in First Reformed. However, it also had defiant elements of radical political activism blended – Bergman meets Costa-Gavras or Elio Petri or Mrinal Sen, if you will – which made it a daring, gripping work, even if the two opposing elements did create some dissonance. That Scharader also punctuated the muted, minimalist aesthetics with surrealist blasts made it formally bold too. The central protagonist is Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a conflicted pastor at a historic church with a dwindling congregation that’ll be celebrating its 250th anniversary soon; his broken past – his son died in the Iraq War which led to marital dissolution – and his crumbling health, are exacerbated by his loneliness and borderline alcoholism. Things, however, take a darker turn when he’s approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), the pregnant wife of radical environmental activist (Philip Ettinger), who’s morally opposed to bringing a kid to a world on the verge of being ravaged by climate change. The man’s shocking suicide, the realization that the parish’s billionaire donor owns a string of heavily polluting companies, and his complicated feelings for Mary lead the reverend to extreme despair and disillusionment, and, in turn, to the cusp of a potentially violent rebellion.
Director: Paul Schrader
Genre: Drama/Religious Drama