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Suffer Little Children

Film Movement

Stations of the Cross (2014)

Dietrich Brüggemann's deftly moving film about the dire consequences of religious devotion teeters between black satire and blacker comedy, but settles in the end on simple tragedy. "Stations of the Cross" adapts the stages of the Via Dolorosa into 14 extended scenes of staged formal rigor, an ongoing domestic calamity regarded almost entirely from a stationary camera at roughly eye level.

Watching adolescents acquire deep religious principles on screen can disconcert anyone located somewhere on the agnostic scale or beyond, as Mr. Brüggemann knows full well. Fourteen-year-old Maria (Lea van Acken) makes a particularly unsettling case, coming to believe that denying herself comforts, pleasures and even food can give her mute younger brother Johannes (Linus Fluhr) a voice. Stirrings of interest in sinful music and a boy in her class conflict at first with this conviction; but Maria's compassion for her brother and the prosaic scriptural nuggets delivered by her priests combine to reinforce her spiritual mission — or to set in her mind like concrete, depending on your perspective.

The pitiless gaze of the camera and flat-plan horizontal layouts lend the images the tone of religious icons; and given Maria's no-fun-at-all mother (Franziska Weisz) and practically vacant father (Michael Kamp) — neither of whom merit given names — the fixed drollery of Roy Andersson films is clearly a big factor too. But "Stations of the Cross" is a trial, in several senses. Mr. Brüggemann's cross-examination of religious conviction is unnuanced and doesn't intend to be: Its fourteen individual jabs at Maria shove her inexorably toward the edge of a cliff. Meanwhile Maria's trial is self-prescribed (and well played by Ms. van Acken), a parable of adolescent power and powerlessness. And the viewer's trial is to recognize a stacked deck and make up his or her own mind about problematic issues of faith, while resisting the more primal urge to try to save a suffering child even if no one else seems to want to.


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