J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blinding Faith: Hadewijch

Céline obviously never read Eric Hoffer. Ardent devotion is all very well and good, but her excessive self-denial thoroughly creeps out the nuns of her prospective order. At least the leader of the local Islamist terror cell appreciates her extreme need for an ecstatic religious experience in Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch (trailer here), which in a case of rather odd timing opens this Friday, Christmas Eve, in New York at the IFC Center.

Céline is known as Hadewijch in the convent, where she has turned the sisters into Italian mothers, who implore her to eat something and dress warmly. Gently but firmly, they send her back to her life as Céline and her parents fabulously opulent Parisian home, for the sake of her health and stability. However, her budding platonic friendship with Yassine, a horny Muslim youth from the projects, brings her into the orbit of his older, radical brother Nassir. Sensing her vulnerability and idealization of martyrdom, he whisks off for a whirlwind tour of the West Bank. Those only slightly more intuitive than Céline will realize Nassir has some rather ominous plans for her.

To Dumont’s credit, Hadewijch is far superior to his previous film, the brutal and didactic Flanders. Though it is a quiet film burdened with a heavy allegorical load, Hadewijch still provides a fairly substantial plotline to hold onto, until mysticism finally trumps narrative logic in the third act. In contrast, its implications are more than a bit fuzzy.

On a surface level, the Catholic nuns come across relatively rationally and humanely, telling Céline “the convent door will never be barred to you,” but you have to leave for your own well-being. Yet, Dumont seems to suggest a pious Christian is just as likely as a Muslim to become a suicide bomber, even though the very reality posited in Hadewijch hardly lends credence to such a Bill Maher stance. If nothing else though, it offers some insight into how extremists like Nassir so easily manipulate the spiritually hungry and disaffected.

Perfectly cast as Céline/Hadewijch, Julie Sokolowski (in her screen debut) is a picture of waifish innocence, which Dumont fetishizes with his intimate close-ups and not infrequent scenes of ostensibly incidental nudity. Though her challenging character is deliberately cold and distant, Sokolowski manages to project something redeemingly genuine about her. Though Hadewijch features a small cast with few concretely developed figures, Karl Sarafidis also takes a memorable supporting turn, portraying Nassir with appropriately malevolent charisma.

Throughout most of Hadewijch, Dumont clearly appears to critique faith and religious fervor, yet even that take-away is ultimately muddled. As a result, it is devilishly difficult to know what to make of it all. A tangle of contradictory polemics blessed with a shockingly good central performance, Hadewijch opens for the bold tomorrow (12/24) in New York at the IFC Center.

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