A number of films broach the subject of faith in the 21st century

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WHAT PEOPLE believe, and the creeds by which they live, is a source of fascination for many in the secular West. Tabloids and newspapers seize upon dramatic stories that have Abrahamic belief, or deviations from it, at their core. Cases such Shamima Begum’s—a Muslim girl who left Britain to join Islamic State (IS) in 2015, and was consequently stripped of her citizenship—spark national debates, and serve as a public reminder of the radical extremes of faith. Others, such as that of Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s former treasurer found guilty of sexual abuse of children, cause outrage by exposing injustices in religious institutions.

Such reports might belong to, or eventually end up in, films; indeed, the subject of religion in the modern world is already exercising European film-makers. A number of features screened at recent festivals in Berlin and Solothurn probed the tension between old beliefs and 21st-century mores. Seraina Rohrer, the director of the Solothurn Film Festival, says 11 films “with similar concerns…[but] quite distinct stories”, as well as four documentaries on religion, were submitted this year. It “forced a theme,” she says. 

In Berlin André Téchiné, a veteran French director, offered “L’adieu à la nuit” (“Farewell to the night”). Its narrative is not dissimilar to Ms Begum’s, focusing on a group of young converts in the south of France planning to join and fight for IS. When viewers meet Alex (Kacey Mottet Klein), he seems a nice and normal, if lost, young man—one close to his grandmother Muriel (Catherine Deneuve), who farms horses and cherries. But encouraged by Lila (Oulaya Amamra), a fellow young convert, he steals from Muriel, consumes extremist dogma delivered by imams via Skype, and books his passage to Syria. 

The film makes it clear that Alex’s choice is between the sunny prospects of the eastern Pyrenees or violence in a place of which he knows nothing. The conflict proves disruptive to the kindly Muriel and, desperate for an explanation of what her grandson is thinking, she turns to a reformed Islamist for help. As she seeks to convince Alex to stay, “L’adieu à la nuit” offers a compelling look at two incompatible views and expectations of life. It finds tension in opposing forces of common sense and fanaticism, contemporary views and doctrinal antiquity, the reality of fighting for IS and the glory the group promises.

From Macedonia (also screened at the Berlinale) came “God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya”, directed by Teona Strugar Mitevska. Each year, young men participate in a ritual, diving into a river to retrieve a little wooden cross thrown by a priest. Petrunya, a 30-something woman, livens up her jobless life by leaping into the water and grabbing the object first. She is taken into custody on the flimsy charge of having stolen the cross and the men, not altogether dissuaded by the priest, turn on her.

Depicted here in microcosm is a society almost disintegrating under the weight of a long-cherished certainty: that only young men can compete and, in the name of faith, win. Like the young adults in Mr Téchiné’s film the contestants are fanatics, and Petrunya’s calm demeanour contrasts starkly with their aggressive belief. She holds her own, knowing herself to be a free and enterprising woman, rather than engaging with the men on religious point-scoring. The film’s narrative and emotional payoff comes when she eventually triumphs over their unreconstructed prejudice. 

In Solothurn, Simon Jaquemet’s excellent drama “Der Unschuldige” (“The Innocent”, pictured top) provided an intriguing counterpoint. Ruth (Judith Hofmann), a married woman with children, is a member of a free “church” that worships in a town hall. She also works for a company experimenting on animals: in the name of pioneering neuroscience, technicians have grafted the head of one monkey onto the body of another. The hybrid lies paralysed in an incubator, and Ruth hopes to restore the animal to full health. As such, Mr Jaquemet draws a parallel between modern scientists “playing God” and the biblical creator. 

The film takes a strange turn when an old lover, a convicted murderer thought dead, turns up at Ruth’s door. She has sex with him, but it is never made clear whether he is real or a hallucination—and her sect insists that he is the devil incarnate. The film’s setting and action are resolutely modern, with laboratories, cars and smartphones, but the way some adults behave stems from almost medieval superstition. The force of their faith is unsettling, as is the effect of “Der Unschuldige” on the viewer. “The film in a way does what life does to you,” Mr Jaquemet has said, “making you believe in some kind of religious explanation or in a rationality which is another belief system.”

Faith is portrayed in these films as a powerful—if sometimes misleading—force, even as the number of believers declines in the West. It is often tempting to see a resurgence of interest in religion as a response to politically or socially turbulent times, but Ms Rohrer offers another explanation. “It has something to do with a cinema and its silence being a place not least of all to think,” she says. “People want to reflect on what they want and believe. Perhaps engaging in faith issues on screen is today an alternative to church or worship.” Film-makers, then, have set upon hallowed ground.

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