By Anna Husted
EBS Film Critic
“First Reformed” asks the question, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” Ken Russell’s 1971 film “The Devils” answers with a resounding no: God cannot forgive us for our sins against humanity and Mother Nature, and we should stop asking and embrace our evil natures until we break—or the earth does.
It was a happy accident that I watched these films back-to-back. I left The Ellen’s screening of director Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” with a bad taste in my mouth. What had I just watched and why do I feel so bad about it? “First Reformed” is about a pastor (Ethan Hawke) in a small community in upstate New York who councils two of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), because Mary is pregnant and Michael cannot stand the thought of bringing another human into the decaying world.
The next day, per a film-loving friend’s suggestion, I watched “The Devils,” a French film starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. “The Devils” is about Father Urbain Grandier (Reed) who falls in love with almost every woman in his church and sleeps with half of them—nuns included. And he’s the good guy. The Cardinal and a sexually-repressed nun are the antagonists, spreading mass hysteria about the evils of sexual pleasure and the unforgiveable complicity of witches.
Without “The Devils” I would not appreciate “First Reformed” as much. This film pairing is perfectly matched thematically and aesthetically. Visually “The Devils” is a cross between “Brazil” and “Hard to be a God,” emulating the eccentric props and overpopulated mise-en-scène of the former; and the moral decay and confusion of the latter. While “First Reformed” is not as strange as “The Devils,” the film expresses a similar sense of moral decay with shots of oil spills and polar bears dying.
Thematically the two films are alike in that the antagonists of both films declare that sex leads to destruction, while the protagonists ask if it is not prideful to assume sex leads to destruction—God is greater than our dalliances, but hubris leads to destruction.
Neither film is easy to watch due to their discordant portrayals of faith. But the fact that they made me uncomfortable is also why I liked both films. Faith is not always comfortable, nor should it be, or we would never learn and never grow.
“First Reformed” is available for purchase on Amazon.com. “The Devils” is now streaming on archive.org.
Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema or hiking up a mountain. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s running, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.