When you hear about a feature film with only fourteen shots you’d be forgiven for expecting a Béla Tarr-style endurance test. However, Stations of the Cross – with its Kieslowskian concept of presenting one scene in the life of a girl brought up in a fundementalist Catholic household for each station of the cross – is surprisingly dynamic in its storytelling. As the film progresses, these single take shots don’t offer us the ability to look away, however much we want to.
Maria is a fourteen year old girl whose family is part of a branch of Catholicism that rejects the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. In the opening scene “Jesus is condemened to death”, she is informed by her priest that God is willing to accept sacrifices. From this she takes it to be her responsibility to sacrifice her own life so that her younger brother may finally speak.
Like last year’s Beyond the Hills, Stations of the Cross takes religious fundementalism to its logical conclusion. Its tendency to represent natural human emotions as sacrilegious perversions becomes particularly effective in turning Maria’s burgeoning self-awareness against her. The film becomes difficult to watch because of how believable her emotional turmoil is. The single take shots allow us to see the pressure she is put under by her family and how her desire to follow her emotions and her guilt at not being able to help her brother begin to tear her apart.
This is an angry film, and rather than trying to represent religious ideals from any sort of balanced perspective, its focus is distinctly on the indoctrination and emotional abuse of children by these institutions. The brilliance of it is how it feels like Maria’s narrative trajectory goes the only way it could have. There are people in this film who care about Maria more than they care about their religion, but the domination of her mother and priest, as well as her belief that she is helping her brother and serving God, make us realise early that her path is set.
It’s fascinating to get a film that deals with such abusive authoritarianism without ever crossing into the ridiculous. We get a meaningful insight into the mind of a child just as she reaches the age at which her desires for her own life begin to diverge from what her parents want for her. With a different setting this could have been a very different story, but with the weight of eternal salvation resting on her young shoulders, Maria is condemned from the moment she’s born. Stations of the Cross doesn’t afford us the opportunity to accept this and move on, it makes us watch until the bitter end. In cinemas 28 November. Watch the trailer here.