Archive for January 2019

First Reformed (2018)   2 comments

Above:  The Blu-Ray Cover for First Reformed

Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor

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FIRST REFORMED (2018)

Starring

Ethan Hawke as the Reverend Ernst Toller

Amanda Seyfried as Mary Mensana

Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles as the Reverend Joel Jeffers

Michal Gaston as Ed Balq

Written and Directed by Paul Schrader

Rated R for some violent images

One hour and fifty-three minutes long

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The desire to pray itself is a type of prayer. How often we ask for genuine experience when all we really want is emotion.

–Ernst Toller, in First Reformed

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How easily they talk about prayer, those who have never really prayed.

So writes the Reverend Ernst Toller of those, such as some Evangelical teenagers, believers in the heresy that is Prosperity Theology, in First Reformed.  One of those adolescents says,

If happiness came in pill size, it would have JC stamped on it.

Toller, in contrast, writes in his journal,

These thoughts and recollections are not so different from those I confide to God every morning. When it is possible. When He is listening. This journal is a form of speaking, of communication from one to the other. A communication which can be achieved simply and in repose without prostration or abnegation. It is a form of prayer.

He understands what St. John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul.  The teenager with the JC happy pills has no clue regarding spiritual maturity.

First Reformed is a staggering, thought-provoking, spiritually honest and profound work.  The movie, set in Snowbridge, New York, outside Albany, is about the spiritual struggles of Ernst Toller, a former U.S. Army chaplain.  He is 46 years old, divorced, guilt-ridden, depressed, and physically ill.  He drinks too much.  Toller blames himself for the death of his son, a casualty of the Second Iraq War; the father, following the family tradition, encouraged the son to join the military.  Toller, unwilling and unable to justify that war morally, feels very guilty for the death of his son.  The suicide of a parishioner’s husband, an environmental terrorist, sends Toller down a path potentially destructive of more than just himself.  Given that Schrader wrote both this movie and Taxi Driver (1976), the spiritual kinship of Toller and Travis Bickle is obvious.

Toller is the pastor of the First Reformed Church, a 250-year-old congregation that functions more as a tourist trap than as a church.  He has few parishioners.  First Reformed Church is a chapel of Abundant Life Church in Christ and Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational, “Spirit-filled” megachurch in town.  Joel Jeffers, the head pastor at Abundant Life, is at least as morally ambiguous as Toller, who contemplates using a suicide vest.  Whereas Toller understands the Christian obligation of environmental stewardship, Jeffers ignores the issue.  After all, the generous contributions of Ed Balq, a local industrialist and a major polluter, finance Abundant Life’s media programs and much of the community outreach.  Furthermore, Balq is paying for the repair of the organ at First Reformed Church and the reconsecration of the congregation on the occasion of its anniversary.    Jeffers does, however, care about Tollers and want him to be physically, spiritually, and emotionally well.

A pastor needs a pastor,

Jeffers advises Toller.  Furthermore, according to Jeffers, Toller is always in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The reaches its climax in an ambiguous scene, the meaning of which the director’s commentary does not explain clearly.  Schrader wants to avoid easy answers, as do the two reverends in the movie.  I still do not know of Toller emerged from his Dark Night of the Soul, or even if he was alive when the end credits rolled.  I have an idea, but no certainty.

First Reformed is a movie that shuns certainty.  Much of the best art does.  Uncertainty invites the viewer of the art to interact with that art.  My advice is not to watch First Reformed immediately before going to bed, for, if one does, one’s mind will be busy trying to make sense of the film when one should be sleeping.

The cast is excellent.  Amanda Seyfried, actually pregnant while portraying a pregnant widow, plays the character with whom Toller connects more than any other.  If anybody can lead Toller out of the Dark Night of the Soul, she can.  Ethan Hawke plays a depressive very well.  He is believable in his portrayal of a spiritually disturbed minister.  Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles proves that Joss Whedon is correct; comedians are fine dramatic actors because comedy is more difficult that drama.  Kyles portrays Jeffers as a believable, generally sympathetic character.  The only unambiguous character is Ed Balq, who professes Christianity while destroying the environment and dismissing criticisms as unfounded and politically motivated.  Michael Gaston plays him believably, without the figurative mustache-twirling.

I do have one minor criticism regarding an error.  Why are members of a Dutch Reformed church using Episcopal hymnals?  The answer, of course, is that the structure labeled “First Reformed Church” in the movie is actually that of an Episcopal congregation.  The Prayer Books are out of sight, to present the illusion that the building is for a Calvinist church, albeit one with a central altar and a pulpit on the right.

If you, O reader, seek to watch a spiritual movie that will force you to think for yourself and ponder ambiguities of faith, First Reformed is a movie to schedule.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JANUARY 21, 2019 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT MIROCLES OF MILAN AND EPIPHANIUS OF PAVIA, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS

THE FEAST OF SAINTS ALBAN ROE AND THOMAS REYNOLDS, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIESTS AND MARTYRS

THE FEAST OF SAINT GASPAR DEL BUFALO, FOUNDER OF THE MISSIONARIES OF THE PRECIOUS BLOOD

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN YI YON-ON, ROMAN CATHOLIC CATECHIST AND MARTYR IN KOREA

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The script is here.

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