A Hard Time with the Mother Superior

in 34th Toronto International Film Festival

by Diego Lerer

Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch, the winner of the FIPRESCI Award at the Toronto Film Festival 2009, opens in a convent, where a young girl is having a hard time with the mother superior. Isn’t she committed enough? Au contraire… Céline is maybe too committed to God, confusing abstinence with martyrdom, spending days without food and wishing to be with God, like a devoted wife and dedicated lover. What should the nuns do with a girl like her? In Bruno Dumont’s fifth and magnificent film, they ask her to leave and rejoin society. They think that’s the way she might find herself.

Once outside the convent, Céline does find more than they thought she would. At the beginning, she starts using her real name again (in the convent she was calling herself Hadewijch, a homage to the Flemish mystic of the 13th century who wrote a lot about her all-consuming passion for the Lord) and spends her days praying in her house. Céline is the daughter of a government minister and the family lives in a huge but strangely empty house on the Ile Saint-Louis, in Paris. Soon she meets a trio of young Arabs in a café and starts hanging out with them, going to outdoor rock concerts and taking rides on motorcycles.

One of them, Yacine, shows his interest in her, but she rejects his advances, saying that she’s saving her love for God. Nevertheless, she invites him to her house for a strange and almost eerie encounter with her patronizing and confused parents. Noticing that he won’t be able to make her change her mind, Yacine –a devoted Muslim- introduces Céline to his older brother, Nassir, who invites her to join him in his Islamic discussion group, where she listens to what they say about God and the religious wars, and how a devoted believer should act in those circumstances. Céline listens and prays with them. Her life is going to change after that.

Hadewijch is a film about the difficult connection between the spiritual and the real world. In her quest to be closer to God, Céline gets involved in the world of religious fanaticism. But instead of giving the story a political spin, Dumont keeps his camera closer to Céline’s face, so we can follow her gradual transformation from “lover of God” to “soldier of God”.

As he did in Flandres, Dumont interweaves the political violence of today with the intimate, personal stories of his characters. If he wants to comment about the state of today’s world, he does it with his usual spare touch: a few lines of dialogue, a short trip to an unnamed Arab country, a silent prayer.

As in all his other films, Hadewijch is a story about violence, but the context is completely different. Not only because the film takes place in Paris –far away from the Bailleul, the setting of most of his other movies-, but for the explicit religious context in which the main character lives (at least in her head). Céline is a hyper sensitive loner, a person completely detached from the everyday issues, and her quest in life is, basically, to find a way to be closer to God, as she says, “in a physical way”. This means what we find out is secondary.

This is the most Bressonian of all Dumont films, with a main character who wouldn’t be out of place in either Diary of a Country Priest or Mouchette. In fact, one of the surprising endings of the movie –and there are at least three- could be analyzed as a reworking of Mouchette’s finale. There are also echoes of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, in the intensity of feelings reflected in Céline’s eyes; or even the recent Silent Light, by Carlos Reygadas, with certain situations –in the third act- that can be considered in the realm of the divine.

Even if he still aims to provoke strong reactions from his audience –here, by comparing Islamic fundamentalism with Catholic devotion-, Hadewijch is a more restrained, simple and sincere work in relation to his previous films. The content might be extreme and controversial, but the way he presents it to the audience is not.

Céline is a new addition to a long list of devoted believers unable to faze and fully understand the harsh realities of the world. In the strange coda of the film (is it a dream, a flashback or just the miraculous continuation of Céline’s story?), she breaks up and, in probably the most touching and poignant scene of all Dumont’s movies, she realizes the consequences of her acts. And, through that, she might finally be able to be one step closer to God.

Edited by: Steven Yates