It has taken me more than six weeks to shake the dust out of my soul that was left by seeing Hadewijch, the Bruno Dumont film that screened at TIFF in September and won the FIPRESCI critics prize there. It is a good year when there's a film that offers me something both immensely personal and beyond personal, touching something at the core of my spirit and causing it to linger there, unshakeably entrenched. I missed the first two screenings of this film and caught it on its third, relieved that I was going to fit it in after all. Within minutes of settling in the theatre, this story of a theology student whose passionate faith leads her into mysticism and danger, had lodged itself within me.
From an objective point of view, Hadewijch can be appreciated as a formal departure from the kinds of movies that get made these days about people of faith. It lacks something important, an anticipated axis. We keep thinking we know where the filmmaker is headed, or where he's coming from, and then we don't. But the film is not into surprises or twist turns for their own sake, or in order to manipulate us. This is a deeply felt and deeply considered portrait of the profound moments of affirmation and detachment, loss and catastrophic separation, joy and redemption that accompany being in love with God.
Celine (a breathtaking Julie Sokolowski) is a 20-something theology student and postulant at a convent called Hadewijch as the movie begins. The allusions to the 13th century Christian mystic who was known by that name begin here, and like Hadewijch of Antwerp, Celine never seems to be fully accepted into cloistered life, but neither does she belong to the bourgeois family she grew up in either. When she is sent out by the mothers superior to try her way in the world, she is spiritually homeless, subject to the vagaries of contemporary life. The long contemplatively shot opening sequence of the film that leads to this decision allows us to feel keenly her contemplative commitment and be afraid for the transition. The film takes its time to establish it: there is no rush into narrative, no desire to set up important details. Instead, Dumont takes pains to introduce Celine and her life in the real time of a mystic, in which whispered prayers lean out of the darkness of a room toward the Crucifix on the wall, and the penitence is real. After she is dismissed, the image of Celine running through the woods to a small chapel grate in order to pray, is our first hint at the emotional journey ahead.
There is nothing unusual about the scenes of Celine's piety. She feeds her food ration to the birds and prays long and hard, just as we have seen other religious figures do in other movies. What we have not known or seen on film (to my knowledge) is what happens when that spirit loses its structure and enters into a contemporary world in which there is absolutely no real place for it. Back in Paris, Celine's depth of faith collides almost immediately with the lure of rebellion. Falling in with a young Muslim man named Yassine (Yassine Salihine), she rides on the back of his bike and feels the presence of danger almost like an ecstatic drug. She is hesitant and uncertain, doesn't want to participate, and yet goes willingly. This is an astonishingly accurate portrayal of what blind and deep faith are like. Blind faith does not resist all temptation. Blind faith is most vulnerable to it, since it believes itself to be most immune from it.
Into this reality, comes a young charismatic man named Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), the brother of the motorcycle driving youth. The older brother is as committed to Islam as Celine is to Christianity. They pray together in his family's small flat, with deep respect for each other's traditions. The radical activism of Nassir's faith begins to inhabit Celine in carefully crafted scenes of mutual religious instruction. Another surprising aspect of this film is its deep respect for a Christian vocation to chastity. (And where are you ever going to see that?) The Muslim characters Nassir and Yassine understand and accept Celine's commitment to Jesus as his lover and his bride. It is not easy for Yassine, but he ultimately gets it. These are not easy concepts, but the encounters allow us to respect the language each character offers the other. The centrifugal axis of it is the same: they all love God.
The anti-narrative movement and pacing of this film provide a perfect mirror to the journey of our heroine. We linger exactly as we should in the mystical transcendent experience she has in two radically different musical moments. The first is at an outdoor rock concert she attends with Yassine. The music defies a genre: both atonal and punkish, it is mostly about sound, a sound that perhaps may have been meant to represent a mystical sphere of vision and spiritual ecstasy. Celine rests in it with apparent ease and grooves gently, her eternally girlish face more and more transported. The scene is repeated in a church where she has gone in to pray. A young group of musicians are rehearsing baroque music. She listens with the same rapt experience of being inside the music.
As the film starts to take a formal narrative turn, and Celine's choices and decisions start to have consequence, a critical sequence occurs in which Nassir takes her to a middle eastern country that is never named. There she witnesses the senseless injustice of a violent-laden oppression of peoples, eternally in the crossfire of religious politics. Her witness of suffering there leads her too quickly to conclusions of meaning: deepest faith is always prepared to act radically in the name of justice. The line between ecstatic faith experience and catastrophic behaviour requires tremendous control to navigate: even Jesus overturned tables in the Temple and began cracking a whip. As the film careens into its final moments, we are both certain and wary of what is coming.
Throughout the movie, the story moves occasionally and unexplainably to follow a young man through his daily life. The connections seem remote: he is a roofer at the convent where Hadewijch/Celine started out. His movement in and out of prison, conversations with his mother, confessions of desire for better life seem only innocuous markers, and not signs of any deeper sense of purpose. We have no idea why we are even being asked to invest in this character at all. But just as our heroine has fully understood the weight of her faith and its impact on the world, he is there for her in a wholly unexpected, wholly spiritual way. The moment of redemption that then occurs has nothing at all to do with the sensuality present in this picture, which conveys a completely false message about this film when viewed out of context. The baptism of Hadewijch is neither the beginning nor the end of her journey, but a stop on the way of her mystical transformation, a living water out of which all things rise that truly want to know the face of God.