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That Old Time Religion

That Old Time Religion

I have more to say about Bruno Dumont's exceptional Hadewijch in the latest issue of Cinema Scope magazine, but to briefly summarize: Somewhat like The Sound of Music without the music, Dumont's film follows a troublesome young novitiate (extraordinary newcomer Julie Sokolowski) as she is turned loose by the mothers superior and sent back into the world with the hope that she may there find her "true self." Which may indeed be what young Hadewijch (whose secular name is Céline) finds, depending on how you interpret the outcome of her blossoming friendship with the Arab youth, Yacine, she meets in a Paris café. It's Yacine who takes Céline/Hadewijch to meet his older brother, Nassir, leader of an Islam-centric religious discussion group, who tells her, "You must act if you have faith. You must continue the Creator's work." And with that, Céline/Hadewijch begins her

transformation into a full-fledged soldier in the army of God.

Like Samuel Maoz's Lebanon,

Dumont's film seems almost certain to be misconstrued by viewers who

can't parcel out a movie's politics from their own. In Venice -- a

festival, along with Cannes, that reportedly passed on presenting

Dumont's film -- one French critic who hasn't yet seen Hadewijch

herself told me she had heard it was deplorable in its one-sided

depiction of Arabs as radicalizing terror-mongers. But to read the film

through such a narrow prism would be to ignore the fact that Dumont's

protagonist is a religious fanatic from the film's start, dismissed

from the convent in part because she confuses acts of abstinence with

those of martyrdom. So Hadewijch is less about a conversion

than a sublimation, as one form of fanaticism gives way to another. And

rather than apportioning blame, Dumont sets for himself the

considerably trickier task of making us share in Hadewijch's

transformation; to make us feel it where she does -- in our guts, our

souls -- even as we may fail to entirely comprehend it.

That Old Time Religion

A

different sort of religious devotion gives shape to Austrian director

Jessica Hausner's very fine Lourdes, also screened in Toronto (by way

of Venice), in which the resourceful French actress Sylvie Testud gives

a mesmerizing performance as a young woman crippled by MS who travels

to the titular Pyrenees holy place in search of a miracle cure. As with

Dumont's film, what exactly happens shouldn't be discussed too much in

advance, except to say that Hausner (whose previous film was the

puzzling minimalist horror yarn Hotel) strikes and maintains an

intriguing tone that manages to be skeptical of the religion business

without ever turning cynical on the faithful or, for that matter, on

faith itself.

As good as Testud is (as well as Eline Lowensohn, who plays a

cancer-stricken nurse), the true star of the film is the town of

Lourdes itself -- an unapologetically (or maybe just obliviously)

tawdry Disneyland of religion which Hausner films with an

anthropological fascination, from its neon-accented Virgin Marys to its

"Pilgrim of the Year" awards. Nearly dwarfed by all that spectacle are

the busloads of walking (or wheelchair-bound) wounded, who have crossed

oceans in search of a healing that can be neither bought nor sold.


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