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Some people will exit Dietrich Bruggemann’s film “Stations of the Cross” thinking it to be an attack on religion. But I think a lot of religious people would gain a great deal from it. Indeed, as someone who has straddled the agnostic fence for some time, it provided a lot of food for thought on my end. I took it to be a study of adolescent self-loathing, one of the sharpest and most palpably convincing I’ve seen, exploring a young girl’s struggling mental health as viewed through the lens of a tight-knit, religious community. Sure, the girl places religion at the centre of her life, but what if she was drawn to, say, testimonials of self-harm, instead of the Sacrament?

Indeed, it should be mentioned that “Stations of the Cross”, as a title, works as a complete plot synopsis. The film, as best it can in its everyday, domestic setting, mirrors exactly Jesus’s steps towards crucifixion, with a 14 year old girl called Maria (Lea Van Acken). It may be the most spoiler-proof film made since The Passion of the Christ (we all know how Jesus met his maker), but I will still tread carefully. Let’s just say the film is enormously concerned with how the ways Jesus made his sacrifice translate into a modern day setting, and what his sacrifices mean today.

To match this thematic dedication, the film is presented as fourteen largely still, meticulously composed tableau, and here credit must be directed towards Bruggemann, who manages to create a world that feels simultaneously real and theatrical. The camera moves three times, that I spotted, and two of those were out of narrative necessity. It finds a necessary anchor in Maria’s performance, which is one of the most committed I’ve seen from a child. She effortlessly depicts her own self-castigation with fearlessness, and each step into her emotional descent is earmarked with a more dogged commitment to her faith.

Maria is, indeed, dogmatically faithful, and belongs to a branch of Catholicism that would be the stuff of parody were it not treated with such respect and austerity. Dance music is the stuff of the devil, fraternising with boys is strictly prohibited, lies, however trivial, are mortal sin, and just about the only things permitted are Gregorian chants and Bach’s choruses. Her mother (Francziska Weisz) is ferocious, constantly fluctuating between warmth and harsh admonishments, and the film drops numerous clues that it is her mistreatment that leads to Maria’s downfall, an irony the film is aware of, given Jesus’s relationship with his parents. Her father (Michael Kamp) is monosyllabic and barely present.

In this sense, the film is more of a study than a movie in any strict sense. Despite the obviously signposted structure, the film feels like at times like a gut-wrenching downward spiral, perhaps a descent, starting big and swooping and growing tighter and more inert the closer Maria comes to her fate. Or is it her fate? A clever scene near the end of the film seems to posit Maria as someone beyond reason, who has chosen her fate and is sticking to it.

This is undeniably a stern, strict film that won’t be for all tastes. It is quietly respectful of religion, whilst also deeply wary of what can happen when people take it to its ends (indeed, it is somewhat sobering and very timely to see what happens when religious extremism is applied on the micro, interpersonal level, as opposed to some wider setting). It ultimately works dually as a study of a young girl’s deteriorating mental state, and the desire inherent in some of us to be martyrs.

It is not entirely without hope. Maria’s nanny, Bernadette (Lucie Aron), stands at the centre of the film like a quiet, beaming pillar of love, just enough to counterbalance the gloom. And whilst the film doesn’t spell out that Maria’s mother becomes aware of her abuse and its complicity in Maria’s fate, but there is a hint of redemption. And it is not a spoiler to say that Maria’s final act, in less enlightened times, would unequivocally be considered a miracle.

This is a difficult film that will not be seen by many, and a great deal of those who do see it would be excused from shying away from the harshness it contains implicit in its themes and content. But despite the rigorous formality, this is not a film without heart, and it has weirs of emotion and feeling running through it, gently. If a masterpiece is judged entirely in terms of how well a vision is conveyed by the artist, and how apparent the artists’ mastery is, this is a masterpiece.

Some might come away from it as if it is fodder to attack religion; but we must all remember that in times of crisis, when we are pressed to make a point or express ourselves, as adolescents often are, we reach for whatever is there, and make it work, whatever it takes.

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