Spiritual Brothers 55 Years Apart: Winter Light and First Reformed

Guest review by Jonathan Dorst

Image result for winter light 1963Related imageGunnar Björnstrand in Winter Light, Ethan Hawke in First Reformed

Warning: Light Spoilers

If you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best. In Paul Schrader’s new film, First Reformed (2018), he doesn’t even try to pretend he’s not stealing from Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film, Winter Light.

Consider the story written by the director of the film who grew up in a strict religious environment: a minister who has a foreboding cough and has lost his ability to pray serves communion in his traditional church with just a handful of people. After the service, a pregnant woman asks if he will talk with her husband who is very distressed about the future of the world. After the husband and the minister talk, the husband goes out and shoots himself in the head with a rifle, after which the minister has to tell the widow about her husband’s death (and she is sad but holds it together). Soon, we meet another woman who is clearly in love with the minister, who was married once but does not think he’s in a position to get married again, and so he eventually has to tell this woman in no uncertain terms that she repulses him and she needs to leave him alone.

I’ve just described both movies in their first hour or so, and I’m surprised no one is talking about First Reformed as a remake of Winter Light (although Schrader, in interviews, definitely cites Bergman as an influence for this film). Both films wrestle with the intersection of hope and despair, but eventually Schrader goes his own way. Where Bergman focuses on the predicament of a tired man who seems to have to speak for God even while believing God is silent and uncaring, Schrader focuses on the ways that God might be speaking in a new way to someone who’s become lost in his own anger and despair.

Bergman’s film is a classic Bergman drama, with a cast of his usual actors- Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow, and Ingrid Thulin. Schrader’s film, with actors- Ethan Hawke, Cedric Kyles, and Amanda Seyfried- he’s never worked with before, is a different kind of film for him, more European than American, although most viewers will see some resemblances to Taxi Driver, the film that Schrader is most closely identified with as a writer. Bergman’s film is straight realism while Schrader’s film employs magical realism.

I would recommend both movies to anyone wanting to watch a serious examination of faith and calling, although I imagine many people will be mystified by the ending to First Reformed. I confess I’m a much bigger Bergman fan than Schrader, yet I identify with First Reformed a bit more. As a Reformed pastor myself (and someone who has been told he looks a lot like Ethan Hawke) I identified with many emotions of Hawke’s Pastor Toller, from the desire to say just the right thing in a counseling situation to the frustration with arrogant businessmen who don’t think pastors live in the real world. I’ve never lost faith in God, as Winter Light’s Pastor Ericsson, but I’ve certainly wrestled with doubt and felt myself going through the motions of ministry.

Some will see criticism of the church and Christianity in one or both of these films. There is certainly criticism of hypocritical religion in both films, but I believe an honest attempt to look into what it is like to be a minister of God in the modern world.

-Jonathan D

Check out more of Jonathan’s reviews at:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/chorusinthechaos/author/jonathandorst/

 

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Is It Really Stealing If It’s Fun?: Ocean’s 8

Image result for ocean's 8

Ocean’s 8 follows a simple premise, tried and true from the previous entries in the Ocean’s franchise (which disclaimer, I have not seen): head con gets crew of other cons, does dope stuff while being ridiculously cool and glamorous, gets away with it, everything is awesome.

This the perfect so-called “summer movie.” Was I surprised? No. Was I entertained? Yes. Did I assign the roles in the film to my real-life friends and begin imagining a heist of our own? I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.

If you are reading this review, I have a feeling you have some interest in seeing Ocean’s 8, and if the above sounds like what you want, then I say go see it. All of the actresses are amazing, director Gary Ross is competent, and if you don’t see it soon, the handful of celebrity cameos and pop-culture references are already going to be outdated. This movie is about seeing Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett blow bubbles outside of a window where Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway are talking about Met Gala dresses (true scene) and that’s almost exactly what I expected and got.

But is Ocean’s 8 more than that? Watching the film, I tried to scour it for messages and hidden depth besides “crime is fun and kinda easy” and “if you use stolen money for personal satisfaction, and you’re a likable person, all is well.” Here’s what I found:

One of the reoccurring themes in the film is that of women being invisible- and how in this game, it’s an advantage. At one point, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) and her partner Lou (Cate Blanchett) discuss candidates for their crew and when Lou suggests a man, Deb says no because he’s “a him, and a ‘him’ get interest. A ‘her’ gets ignored.” Then throughout the film, the ladies show how their invisibility helps them, whether it’s using their bodies as a distraction, acting dumb and ditsy, or using the power of women’s bathrooms to hide. These women know how to use being ignored and silenced against others.

The film’s point is obviously to show that the joke’s on everyone who underestimates these women, including the moviegoer. You want to underestimate women? Okay, but now you’re 150 million dollars short and in jail. Take that, patriarchy.

Now that’s a serviceable message, but right now culturally we’re finally moving towards women being encouraged not to be silent. We’re are getting attention for all sort of things, getting interest for what we say and do. Leading up to its release, Ocean’s 8 had created a media narrative about being a part of this change, which is a good thing. Except, despite the fact that the film is about women who expect to be silent and ignored, and who use that to make a big statement (in the form of their successful heist), this film actually has nothing besides that to say. It’s thematically silent, pretty, and very shallow. So… you know…. like a stereotype of a woman?

Now to be fair, the Ocean’s franchise has always been a vanity project, first for Frank Sinatra and his buddies, then George Clooney and his buddies, and now Sandra Bullock and all these other famous ladies. There’s nothing wrong with making a sleek, fun, completely fantastical and glamorous film to make the rest of us feel inadequate.

So it’s wrong for me to ask this film to be extra, because as Ani Bundel says for NBC in her review of the film, “A women’s movie must be outstanding to get attention — especially if it’s funny. It cannot be a ‘Dante’s Peak’ style film; it must be ‘Bridesmaids’ or ‘Steel Magnolias.’” I don’t want to add to the pressure that films starring women must be extraordinary (and make millions at the box office) to be noticed.

But, as I try to do with all of my reviews, I assert that films should have something to say. And here the message goes no further than, “we can do it like the boys.” And that’s kind of disappointing, particularly since I think we’ve gotten past that as a culture. Women being “bad” is already chic right now.

I don’t love these full gender-swapped films because it causes the pendulum effect. Hollywood is high on girl-power right now, to right the wrongs of #MeToo, and so it’s going from the standard extreme all-male films to all-female films. Soon, it will hopefully settle in the middle, where everyone can be represented in media. But for now, this is what we’ve got, and while I wish it was a little more, it’s a fun ride and even has the potential to bring people together, as exemplified when my sister walked out of theater, turned to me, and said, “I would rob the Met Gala with you.”

As if I wouldn’t have been able to convince her otherwise.

-Madeleine D