Two crises unfold in Paul Schrader’s movie First Reformed, which had its world premiere Thursday at the Venice Film Festival — one spiritual, the other environmental.
It’s one of several films exploring the effects of climate change and environmental degradation at a festival that’s taking place as, across the Atlantic, former Hurricane Harvey is demonstrating the devastating power of nature.
Like Schrader’s film, Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow and Alexander Payne’s sci-fi story Downsizing look at the profound impacts on humanity of a changing climate.
Schrader is not surprised the topic is on many minds, including his. First Reformed is one of 21 films competing for the Golden Lion prize, the festival’s top honour.
“If you’re hopeful about humanity and the planet, you’re not paying attention,” he told reporters Thursday. “I don’t see humanity outliving this century.”
Schrader is best known for delivering blood, sweat and visceral shocks, from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull — both of which he wrote — to his work as a director on Cat People and American Gigolo.
In contrast, First Reformed is stark and austere. It’s a spiritual thriller in which the conflict rages inside Ethan Hawke’s character, the uneasy minister of a historic old church in upstate New York.
He is wracked by moral doubts, and when he meets a despairing young environmental activist, the cracks in his belief system begin to split wide open. Ultimately, he starts to contemplate extreme action.
Hawke says he was excited to be part of a film that asks important questions about where faith institutions stand on one of the biggest issues facing humanity.
“Obviously our country is rooted in the separation of church and state, but you hear an awful lot about God all the time,” he said before the festival. “You don’t really hear much about it in regards to where the faith community is on environmental stewardship. And it’s something that really does need to be talked about.
“These are real issues, and that community and their moral intelligence could be really used right now.”
For Schrader, raised in the Dutch Reformed church, an interest in spirituality has been a lifetime in the making.
“I’m a church kid, I went to seminary... This is certainly not an area I needed to research,” he said. “On the other hand, even though I still go to church I wouldn’t call myself an unthinking believer. Maybe more of a thinking non-believer.”
The film spends a lot of time resting on Hawke’s granite face, in a way that recalls religiously themed films such as Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.
Schrader makes another comparison, saying Hawke has “that Montgomery (Clift) look from I Confess,” Alfred Hitchcock’s moody thriller about a priest suspected of murder.
“Normally you should never think about an actor when you write because it makes you a lazy writer,” Schrader said. “You’re sitting there and you’re hearing Al Pacino do your lines and you think, ‘Wow, I’m a great writer.’ So I try not to. But about halfway through (writing) this, I was saying ‘This sure sounds like Ethan Hawke to me.’”
The deliberate pace and ambiguous ending of First Reformed may puzzle some viewers. Schrader says he likes it that way.
He said his philosophy is: “Give the mystery some elbow room.”
“Most movies have very little interest in what the viewer wishes to contribute,” Schrader said. “The nature of film is to lean into you and control you.
“There’s another kind of movie, another kind of artwork, that leans away from the viewer and is withholding certain things. And then it’s up to the viewer whether to lean forward or not.”