First Reformed is a good film, and it’s not something you can take for granted when it comes to Paul Schrader. What’s impressive about this work is its solidity – at least for the first 60 minutes. It tells the story of ex-military chaplain Toller (Ethan Hawke) who is now reverend of the church First Reformed in Albany; he is tormented and keeps a daily journal writing down all of his thoughts. One day, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to speak with her husband, a radical environmentalist who has sunk into depression. The dialogue between the two is stripped-down and intense, and the theses of the husband about the world’s end affect the reverend deeply. Since his family drama, Toller’s life has depended on simple day-to-day activities such as doing guided tours to the little church, selling memorabilia from the shop; now, absorbing the darkness around him, he has found a purpose.
There haven’t been many career highlights for Schrader – with a few exceptions – after the masterpieces he wrote in the late 70s; this is an all-around accomplished work. The darkness of the story is reflected both visually and in the script, its elegance heightened by the academy ratio 1.375:1. The journal is an effective plot device that keeps together all the scenes, telling us what our protagonist is thinking: “This journal brings me no peace, just pity, nothing more.” The performances from Hawke and Seyfriend are very sober; the Before Sunrise actor is flawless in his portrayal of the demure of this troubled spiritual man.
First Reformed is an inner exploration of existence and faith in the everyday life of a small community. It’s very interesting that both the first two films presented in competition this year in Venice are focused on global warming and environmental activism.
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
First Reformed doesn’t have a UK release date yet.