The Nun (1966)

Usually when an older film resurfaces in digital restoration, it means brighter colors, shaper lines, a renewed vibrancy. Such joys are sparse, if at all existent, in the new digital scan of the 1966 French New Wave political screed La Religieuse (The Nun). That’s not to say the restoration itself is lacking in any technical achievement or attention to detail; The Nun is given a new, bellowing potency in its restored form – both in the refreshed patina of its imagery and in the thunderous effect of its sound design. The lack of vibrant color and lush imagery in the restoration is more a result of the material it’s servicing. This is a grim prison sentence of a motion picture, a harsh reminder of the punishment that awaits anyone born a woman under the “wrong” circumstances. Although it’s never as overtly, sexually blasphemous as later arthouse nunsploitation pieces like the Ken Russell classic The Devils or the recent sex comedy The Little Hours, it’s not difficult to see why the Catholic Church pushed to have The Nun banned upon its initial release. Any brief flashes of joy, light, color, or relief detectable in the film are quickly stamped out by exploitation, guilt, and misogyny, all in the name of serving God and the Church. I watched the new restoration of The Nun in a crowded theater at this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest, but it felt as if I were locked in solitary confinement for all 140 grueling minutes of it, which may as well have lasted 140 years.

Director Jacques Rivette is generally understood to be one of the more cerebral, surreal artists of The French New Wave, but that reputation doesn’t come into play too frequently in this instance. His most experimental, challenging impulses surface in The Nun as a dissociative approach to sound design. Story-wise, Rivette remains relatively faithful to Denis Diderot’s 18th Century novel of the same name. Roaring winds, deafening church bells, disorienting thwaps of arrhythmic jazz: the soundtrack of The Nun is pure auditory madness. It places the audience in the overwhelmed, dissociative mind of its protagonist in the exact same way modern auteurs like Josephine Decker still establish first-person POV in the 2010s. As the titular nun is starved, isolated, forced to kneel in repentance for vaguely-defined “sins,” and sold by her parents into a life of perpetual boredom, the audience is miserably in sync with her. Sometimes, a harsh edit will mimic her disoriented sense of time as she loses track of the clock & calendar while also losing sense of her autonomy & self. Mostly, we’re left to rot within the grim, grey walls of her cell as a Kafkaesque battle for her freedom unfolds in locked rooms far offscreen, away from her control and our observation. As overwhelming & figurative as the sound design can be, Rivette holds back substantially in the potential mental escapes offered by verbal or narrative experimentation. It’s an artistic restraint that emphasizes the constraint in freedom suffered by its protagonist – locking us all away to die alone in misery right along with her.

French cinema legend Ana Karina stars as the titular, tragic nun. Her story is meant to be reflective of many unmarried, unwanted young women of her era: locked away in a convent for her family’s convenience. Born out of wedlock to parents with at best moderate wealth, she’s treated as a burden that weighs her family down; she can’t make a life on her own without a husband, and the circumstances of her birth render her unmarriable in “decent” society. Her trips to the altar to take vows as God’s bride, under protest, read as funeral marches. She pleas to her parents not to sacrifice her to God from behind prison bars, causing great public scandal. Her birth mother coldly requests, “Do not poison my life any further” and gradually breaks down her resistance to taking vows as a nun, an act she cannot remember once it is done. From her birth mother’s cold indifference to her mothers superior’s varying modes of tyranny, she’s never allowed an inner life or independence. Across two convents and countless authority figures’ rule, she’s tortured, coddled, groomed for rape, consoled, pitied, shamed, and silenced – all while prisoner to a religious cause she was forced to assume under duress. And everyone around her has a nerve to contextualize her path as God’s sacred plan.

For all the shame, confinement, physical abuse, and sexual grooming that awaits Ana Karina’s reluctant nun, the greatest tragedy of the film is the way The Church extinguishes her inner life before it gets to fully develop. She’s allowed no feeling, no emotion, no dreams, no desire. When asked how she’s getting along in the convents, she replies only “I obey my fate” and “Time passes.” There’s a soul-crushing emptiness to her perpetual boredom that weighs heavily on the tone of the picture. Any brief promises of relief from a seemingly kind priest, lawyer, or mother superior who might break her free from her vows or allow her to explore her own inner life are quickly stamped out as those authority figures reveal their true selfish, lustful desires for her – purposes that offer no personal ambition or autonomy. In The Nun, being born a woman under the “wrong” circumstances is a life-long prison sentence – a mandatory sacrifice of self to others’ piety, lust, and vanity. It may not be an especially pleasant sit and it’s understandable why The Church might bristle at its political implications, but it’s a true account of a very gendered, widespread form of human misery experienced by countless women across history – one the film replicates almost too vividly.

-Brandon Ledet

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)

Oz Perkins’s debut feature I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House displayed an impressive command of an ambient art horror tone, but bottled it up in such a stubborn sense of stasis that it felt wasted on a story that didn’t deserve it. His follow-up (paradoxically completed before Pretty Thing and since left floating in a distribution limbo) is just as tonally unnerving as that quiet nightmare of a debut, but applies it to a much more satisfying end. Perkins’s sensibilities as a horror auteur are wrapped up in the eeriness of droning sound design and the tension of waiting for the hammer to drop. That aesthetic an be frustrating when left to rot in a directionless reflection on stillness, but when woven into the fabric of a supernatural mystery the way it is in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it can be entirely rewarding, not to mention deeply disturbing.

Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men) & Lucy Boynton (Sing Street, Don’t Knock Twice) star as two Catholic boarding school students left stranded for their one week winter break when their parents fail to show and collect them. One girl is dealing with the complications of a secret teenage romance while the other just feels painfully alone. Left in an empty school with only snow & prayers to fill their days, their dual sense of loneliness begins to feel violently oppressive. Meanwhile a third girl, played by Emma Roberts (Nerve), escapes from a mental hospital and hitchhikes her way towards the school, establishing a sense of mystery about exactly how her story will merge with theirs and how the three girls’ loneliness will manifest into a real world evil. Evil is both physical & metaphysical in the film, as it is in most Catholic setting horrors, but the way it will choose to present itself is obscured until its presence is inescapable.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter follows a fractured, non-linear structure that teases the possibility of a puzzle that isn’t meant to be solved. Flashbacks of priests, hospitals, boiler rooms, and cops wielding rifles are filtered through multiple unreliable POVs, paradoxical timelines, and unexplained occultist rituals that strongly suggest the film will ultimately be a Lynchian puzzlebox, a question without an answer. Suddenly, without emphasis, its story does become very clear and relatively simple as the cloud of mystery lifts. Notes of classic horror milestones like Halloween & The Exorcist emerge from the film’s deceptively loose, mysterious tone, bringing it to the mix of high art aesthetic & low genre film familiarity I love so much. What starts as an art film meditation on loneliness gradually reveals itself to be a much more familiar mode of violent horror filmmaking, a genre exercise masquerading as a complex mind puzzle. I love it for that.

In some ways The Blackcoat’s Daughter is just as languid as I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, but it sets in motion so many more moving pieces and is a lot more willing to deliver the violence implied by its horrific tone. Personally, I should probably be giving Perkins’s command of tone much more attention as an audience than I am already. Both of his features are hinged on a roaring, ambient soundtrack (crafted by his brother Elvis Perkins) that would probably be better experienced through headphones, or at least on a more expensive sound system than the one I have at home. If you’re curious about his work or just have an appetite for ambient horror in general, I highly recommend starting with The Blackcoat’s Daughter and giving it the full alone late at night with headphones treatment. I really enjoyed it the first time around, but I’m going to have to revisit it for that immersive soundscape experience myself.

-Brandon Ledet

Little Sister (2016)

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threehalfstar

The Sundance-style indie drama has formed into a concrete genre all of its own, especially in the years since titles like Little Miss Sunshine & Lars and the Real Girl broke out of the festival to find mass audience success. Mixing melodrama melancholy with cathartic moments of black humor can feel a little formulaic & small in those dirt cheap indie dramedies, but every now and then one will break through to reveal something genuine & carefully considered in its approach to capturing & exploring human behavior. There’s nothing especially mind-blowing or unique about the small scale familial drama Little Sister once you look past the visual details of its ex-goth-turned-Catholic-nun protagonist; in fact, the basic structure of the film reminded me a lot of the similarly minded indie dramedy The Skeleton Twins. Instead of setting itself apart with any immediately apparent stylistic details, Little Sister excels by searching for moments of humanism & genuine empathy in its narrative beats. Every theme & story arc proves to be far kinder & less sensationalist than where I consistently feared the film might be going and Little Sister‘s warmth & familiarity ultimately proved to be its greatest storytelling, not a fault of its adherence to genre.

A young woman studying to be a nun makes a pilgrimage alone to her home town to confront unresolved issues from her past. Her pristinely preserved bedroom reveals her past life as an angsty goth teen, with all of the upside down crosses, drawers of black clothing, and leftover containers of Manic Panic hair dye that past life implies. The people she left behind are in shambles. Her mother is a suicide attempt survivor who gets by through self-medicating with massive doses of marijuana; her brother has returned from the War in Iraq with a disfigured face, resembling a low-rent version of Deadpool; her future sister in law is desperately lonely in the wake of her fiancee’s wounded ego; her only high school friend is a spoiled rich brat with the delusions of a wannabe political activist. She feels deep sympathy for every one of these broken loved ones, but as a vegetarian, straight edge virgin who’s never even tried a beer, she also stands as a constant target for peer pressure, an insistent urging to indulge in drugs, sin, and a breaking of her vows to God. This tense family reunion devolves into a sort of late-in-life coming of age story as the future nun reverts back to her goth teen ways and struggles both with her own inherent innocence in a not-so-innocent world & her family’s cyclical run-ins with hereditary chemical imbalance.

Little Sister‘s themes are heavy and its stakes can be high for individual characters but overall its conflicts are played as a delicate melancholy and any potential for dramatic shock value is sidestepped for deeply empathetic kindness & humanism. For instance, Ally Sheedy’s role as a drunken, unhinged mother who purposefully says hurtful things like, “I am a disappointment to you and you are a disappointment to me,” could easily be played as a tyrannical monster, but the film instead searches for what’s worthwhile & wounded within her and that’s what for the most part makes it special. That’s not to say that Little Sister doesn’t distinguish itself with a highly stylized aesthetic. Besides it’s basic hook as a coming of age story featuring a young goth nun, the film also gets a lot of mileage out of its 2008 temporal setting. This allows for Brooklyn hipster performance art that cruelly satirizes 9/11 and some historical positioning of the Iraqi War as a Second Vietnam, where wounded soldiers’ hero status is complicated by the futility & illegitimacy of the cause they served. I also really admired the way old camcorder footage of children playing Universal Monsters, VHS copies of movies like Carnival of Souls & The Wizard of Gore, and dinky homemade Halloween parties boosted the film’s themes of familial nostalgia & stuck-in-a-rut goth angst. Best yet, the disfigured brother’s continuous, frustrated practice on an impossibly loud drum kit provided a great tension building score that played beautifully into the way his presence & depression left his family on edge.

Mixing these specific stylistic choices with their overall sense of unexpected empathy makes Little Sister work as a series of memorable, but minor successes instead if floundering as formulaic, Sundance runoff. There’s so many ways this film could have slipped into cruelty or tedium at every turn, but it maintains its tonal balance nimbly & confidently, never settling for easy dramatic beats or quirk-for-quirk’s-sake character work. Successes like this often go unappreciated because they seem so easily manageable from the surface, but Little Sister could have very easily been a total tonal disaster. It’s honestly kind of a minor miracle that it isn’t.

-Brandon Ledet

Silence (2016)

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fourhalfstar

If you can claim that a film successfully marries the philosophical inner-conflicts of Ingmar Bergman with the epic majesty of Akira Kurosawa, is there really anything more to say about its worth as a work of art? Martin Scorsese’s latest is undoubtedly one of the most impressive technical feats to reach cinemas in the last year and likely one of the greatest accomplishments of the American master’s long cinematic career to date. Silence is a passion project. A hand-wringing reflection on what Bergman scholars would call “The Silence of God” set in 17th Century Japan, this three hour historical epic is essentially and spiritually a form of box office poison. It should be considered as something Scorsese got away with (after more than a decade of false starts), not something that failed in its wide theatrical release. Silence was designed to lose money, something it’s been doing quite well in its first week of national distribution. Its ambitions reach beyond financial concerns and easy critical points to search out something within its auteurist creator’s soul, as well as something possibly divine & transcendent outside human reach. The journey getting there is long, brutal, hopelessly cruel, and, in its most honest moments, a destructive force of self-deluded madness.

Two Jesuit priests from Portugal continue a failed mission to spread Catholicism to Japan despite the Japanese government’s systematic destruction of the religion. They use the disappearance and reported defection of their former teacher to justify the excursion, which partly sets up a Search for Colonel Kurtz type storyline straight out of Apocalypse Now. For the most part, though, this suicide mission is a spiritually selfish act for the holy men, who take dictums like “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” way too close to the heart. They practice a religion that asks them to spread the Truth globally no matter what the personal sacrifice. The problem is that the sacrifice is rarely personal and the Japanese Inquisition that meets their efforts crucifies, drowns, and burns the very people they intend to “save” through Catholic conversion. They practice an outlawed faith, praying in secret & hiding in daylight like Holocaust victims. It’s a true war on Christianity, unlike whatever delusional Evangelicals think is happening in modern America. They’re the invading force in this war, though. They travel to a foreign nation to spread a faith that doesn’t belong in an Eastern philosophical context, only to see the native people tortured for the transgression. Japanese officials are exhausted by the routine of the exercise, taking time to host theological debates (which are, of course, corrupted by an imbalance of power), arguing that the converted are merely the poverty-stricken taking solace in the promise of Paradise after death, never truly understanding the Christian faith beyond that hope for posthumous rebirth. Until the priests can repent and revoke their imposition of a Universal Truth that’s proving to be not so universal, they struggle with delusions of their own Christ-like godliness, whether the mass death & torture of their converts is God’s Plan, and whether God is there at all. The answers to these questions are difficult, insular, and widely open to audience interpretation.

There’s so much to be impressed by in Silence, but what most strikes me is its rough around the edges looseness. For an expensive religious epic that took over a decade to realize onscreen, it’s a work that feels oddly misshapen, which is a blessing considering how dull this literary adaptation might have felt if kept “faithful” & tightly controlled. Like with Altman’s Short Cuts, PT Anderson’s The Master, and Friedkin’s Sorcerer, there’s a surprising immediacy to the ways Scorsese allows Silence to feel oddly unfinished, as if he were still wrestling with the film internally well after it was shipped for screenings. The film is masterful in its high contrast nature photography of coastal & mountainside Japan, but fuzzy around the edges in its epistolary narration, violent zoom-outs, and strange moments of possible hallucination. Even the casting & performances can feel oddly loose. Liam Neeson provides some A Monster Calls style narration in an early scene before going fully into full Ra’s Al Ghul mode for his Colonel Kurtz-type defector. Andrew Garfield & Adam Driver are a little goofy & out of place in their roles as the film’s main Portuguese missionaries, but it’s a feeling that plays well into their characters’ in-over-their-heads naïveté. This becomes especially apparently as they’re outshone by the film’s Japanese cast (which includes Tetsuo: The Iron Man director Shinya Tsukamoto among its ranks), who clash with that goofy naïveté with a heartbreaking emotional gravity. The film’s visual craft and sudden bursts of cruel violence all feel tightly controlled, purposefully positioned in regards to how they affect the overall narrative. Everything within that narrative is much less nailed down, though, as if Scorsese himself is using the confusion to reach for something beyond his own grasp. It’s fascinating to watch.

It’s going to take me a few years and more than a few viewings to fully grapple with Silence. My guess is that Scorsese isn’t fully done grappling with it himself. What’s clear to me is the film’s visual majesty and its unease with the virtue of spreading gospel into cultures where it’s violently, persistently rejected. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate destination of that unease is meant to be personal or universal, redemptive or vilifying, a sign of hope or a portrait of madness. Not all audiences are going to respond well to those unanswered questions. Indeed, most audiences won’t even bother taking the journey to get there. Personally, I found Silence to be complexly magnificent, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of paradoxically loose & masterful filmmaking craft, whether or not I got a response when I prayed to Marty for answers on What It All Means and how that’s reflected in his most sacred text.

-Brandon Ledet