Gunnar Björnstrand in Winter Light, Ethan Hawke in First Reformed
Guest Review by Jonathan Dorst
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.
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