First Reformed (2017) dir. Paul Schrader

At the time when Paul Schrader wrote Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, almost fifty years ago, he told himself that he never wanted to make that kind of film. With First Reformed (2017) he demonstrates that he has changed his mind and yet, at a closer look, in over forty years of a film career, the signs of his search for spirituality, the need to have an answer to the cause of human anxiety , the explanation of the great mystery of life, can somehow already be read in his previous works.

“When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy” writes Reverend Ernst Toller in First Reformed. This is what Schrader did when he wrote the script for Taxi Driver (1976).

He was then in a period of life in which he was suffering from what Kierkegaard called ‘The Sickness Unto Death’, a sense of despair towards oneself and others, an anguish that leads to isolation and with which Schrader creates the character of Travis Bickle, a man like him complex, tormented, looking for a reason to live.

Reverend Toller is tormented too and lives his Sacred Agony in his small reformed church, two hundred and fifty years old, now more a center of tourist attraction than a place of faith and prayer.

First Reformed / Taxi Driver

Simultaneously with the filming of the film, Schrader also worked on a new edition of Transcendental Style in Film, where, in addition to the now famous stylistic analysis of the works of three great directors, such as Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer, he wrote a new introduction, in which he says something more about narrative and contemplative cinema, citing other directors, including Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, Lynch, who, in different ways, have followed a path similar to the three protagonists of Schrader’s essay.

When the film came out in 2017 the director joked that this could be his the last film of his career and admitted that, if so it was, he could not have found a better conclusion. (Fortunately, we now know that this will not be the case).

We cannot blame him since we are faced with a work of great sensitivity and expressive force, religious and political, spiritual and passionate at the same time, almost a tale of a painful process of transformation by the young Paul / Travis into the mature Paul / Ernst, a heartfelt and complete manifestation of his own thought, in which Schrader spares no quotations or tributes towards those artists who helped him become the author he is today.

First Reformed / Winter Light

Schrader and Bergman

At the beginning of the film Schrader introduces us to the physical place where the drama of its occupant is consumed, a church that in its geometry of lines, in its austerity and finesse, reminds of the Bergmanian one in Winter Light (1963), in which also the Pastor Tomas Ericsson lives his personal inner turmoil.

In Bergman’s film Pastor Tomas must convince the aspiring suicidal Jonas that the world is not about to end, threatened by the Chinese and their atomic bomb, equally the Reverend Toller tries to explain to the environmental activist Michael why he should give the possibility to come out into this world to the son who waits with his young wife Mary.

Both will fail their mission, unable to convince themselves with their own words, trying in vain to fill the emptiness of abandonment to which God has condemned them.

Schrader and Ozu

Schrader uses a particular setting to underline Toller’s profound sense of discomfort, which owes a lot to Ozu’s aesthetics.

Where do we place ourselves in the framework of existence?

On the edge, crushed by the weight of solitude.

First Reformed / An Autumn Afternoon

From Ozu, Schrader also takes up a recitative composure that forbids the actors to express their emotions excessively.

The only moment in which the Reverend lets himself go is when he confronts Pastor Jeffers, head of the great congregation on which the church of Toller depends. The man reproaches him for not being able to live in the real world anymore, it seems that he has barricaded himself forever in that garden of the olive trees where Jesus felt his deepest anguish. But Toller, who has internalized the concerns of the young Michael, cannot accept the fact that men are slowly destroying God’s creation and reaches the very moment that Schrader, in the analysis of Ozu’s films, defines of the ‘Stasis’, like Noriko’s tears in Tokyo Story (1953).

First Reformed / Tokyo Story

Schrader and De Oliveira

Transcending reality to find comfort from a world we no longer recognize. It seems a bit like the story of the photographer Isaac in The strange case of Angelica (2010) by Manoel de Oliveira, who in his shots tries to stop time, to return to an age now lost where people are still able to appreciate the simple things in life.

Angelica, an ethereal creature, dead in the eyes of others, is the most true and wonderful the young man can see.

First Reformed / The strange case of Angelica

As Isaac imagines flying high in the sky together with this enchanting being, far from an imperfect place, which is the earth, so we see Mary accompanying Toller in a magical mysterious journey that raises them towards the Wholly Other, both determined to leave the real world to embrace the dream.

Schrader and Tarkovsky

Representing the aspirations of man towards the divine was the aim of Byzantine art which in Russia found its maximum expression around the fifteenth century thanks to artists such as Andrei Rublev, to whom Tarkovsky dedicates a film in 1966.

Even Tarkovsky’s Rublev experiences his moment of affliction in the face of the brutality of the human being, his faith falters, as does the trust in men, before whom he has shown himself to be blind. It no longer makes sense to pronounce other words or attempt to speak to others through his works. It is time to decide, choose a new form of prayer and seek salvation through suffering.

First Reformed / Andrei Rublev

“God will forgive me if he will forgive me,” says Rublev, and this is what Reverend Toller thinks of when he too becomes aware of an alternative way of approaching him.

“Every act of preservation is an act of creation. Everything preserved renews creation. It’s how we participate in creation”, writes Toller. To defend this creation, sacrifice is the only solution.

The martyrdom to defend the environment imagined by Michael transfigures into the Reverend, who believes that in self-destruction he can redeem the sins of the world.

First Reformed / Gertrud

Schrader and Dreyer

“She goes by, aware of their praise,

benignly dressed in humility:

and seems as if she were a thing come

from Heaven to Earth to show a miracle”, wrote Dante Alighieri about Beatrice.

The woman is the light that illuminates the path in this dark forest, form and substance of love, mother of dreams in which to abandon oneself because “all life is nothing but a succession of dreams, without end, that bind the one to the other”. This is what Gertrud used to say in the 1964 movie of the same name from Carl Theodor Dreyer, a woman who for all her life had one and only faith, love. And this could also be Schrader’s response to the reason for our existence on this earth. The important thing is to love and give shape to this love, to make it tangible in order to be able to draw consolation from it.

We return to the flesh, that flesh that Schrader has analyzed, dissected, decomposed for all his life, to his impulses and desires, to sensual embraces, like the one between Mikkel and his newly risen wife Inger in Ordet (1954), as an expression of the highest spiritual embrace.

First reformed / Ordet

Schrader and Bresson

In writing and directing this film, Schrader owes a great debt to Bresson and his Diary of a Country Priest (1951). By his own admission, it is thanks to the French director if Schrader understood he wanted to do this job, struck by the vision of Pickpocket (1959) at a young age.

The Priest of Ambicourt and the Reverend Toller share many common features. Both keep a journal in which to record every single event or thought of their day, both use alcohol to alleviate their suffering, both believe they have been abandoned by the Lord and by human beings.

Diary of a Country Priest / First Reformed

The minister of God tries to give consolation to his faithful but who gives consolation to him?

His poor soul finds no peace, perhaps turning his torments into written words will serve to give an answer to the questions that plague him, without hiding anything, taking into account also imperfections and excesses, to try to get out of that garden that seems to have trapped him.

Reason cannot give answers, one can only try to be honest with oneself and at the end of the journey to understand that everything is Grace.