Review: Stations of the Cross (Brüggemann, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Stations of the Cross is a religious drama brought to us by German brother-and-sister team Dietrich and Anna Brüggemann–one for which the filmmaking duo won the 2014 Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for Best Script. The film’s protagonist is 14-year-old Maria (newcomer Lea van Acken), a devout Catholic striving to take her church’s fundamentalist teachings to heart. Unlike her secular peers, Maria’s most urgent desire is to become a saint. But despite her diligent efforts to be a good servant of the Lord, her severe, contrarian mother (Franziska Weisz) still manages to find fault, alternately accusing her of vanity, impertinence, and a host of other sins. Her father, though less vocal, stands behind her mother’s words, and Maria’s only friend and consolation is the family’s au pair Bernadette (Lucie Aron), hired to care for Maria’s younger brother, who cannot or will not speak.

A movie that I could easily have found boring–what, after all, could be less scintillating to a secular audience than an earnest girl’s obsession with her Catholicism?–turns out to be much more relatable than I expected. Though other critics have focused on the film’s supposed critique of religious fanaticism, I find the most fascinating aspect of the movie to be the fraught relationship between Maria and her mother. Their verbal battles (repressive on the mother’s part, probing on Maria’s) reflect the age old butting of heads between adolescence and adulthood. From Maria’s mother’s uncommonly harsh (though not heartless) perspective, her daughter is far from perfect. There is a streak of stubbornness–what we would more generously consider strong will–in Maria’s dogged desire to be good. And if her questioning seems from our perspective to be the product of a curious, thorough mind, could they not also be viewed by an exacting mother as a subversive form of disrespect? It is a strange, stunted sort of adolescent rebellion, but the rebel is defined by her context, and Maria’s mother has caged her in quite a small box. At any rate, the Brüggemanns have created a mother-daughter dynamic that crackles with suppressed energy–and one that feels if not universal than at least familiar, true-to-life.

That dynamic is built on what I feel is the film’s strongest point: its excellent dialogue. The dialogue and the mostly stationary shots give Stations of the Cross the feel of a theater play. For me, play-like films (e.g. Closer, Revolutionary Road) have never been able to escape a sheen of artificiality, but my misgivings always collapse under the intense pleasure of that charged back-and-forth that hit me at once in the mind, the heart, and the gut. In Station of the Cross, the dialogue’s pulsing momentum, full of a young girl’s aching longing, is what pulls the film forward and rivets our attention to the screen, despite a paucity of visuals. It is from their words that Maria, her mother, and Bernadette emerge as fully realized as our own family and friends. And, if nothing else, the plentiful conversation is a breath of fresh air in a great indie film expanse of quiet moments and silent gazes.

The film’s one great weakness is its structure, a perfect example of elevating style at the expense of meaning. The movie is organized into a series of scenes, each matching one of the fourteen Stations of the Cross. What other critics call innovative I find gimmicky and off-putting. Where the symbolism of the particular “station” obviously aligns with the scene’s content, the correspondence seems too cute; where it doesn’t, it’s distracting. The filmmakers would have done better to stick to good old-fashioned storytelling.

But overall, Stations of the Cross is an unexpectedly gripping drama that deserves the critical acclaim it’s received. The picture screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past spring.