Directed by Bruno Dumont
Spend enough time with second-tier festival films and arthouse "rigor" may start to seem its own variety of lazy default, but when done with conviction the long take can be akin to a religious experience. Camera and viewer share an experience of contemplation—of aesthetics and psychology, and whatever loftier concerns may percolate as a result. Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch proceeds at a meditative pace that seems dictated by its spiritually intense teenage protagonist; taking extended looks at French landscapes, secular and religious music in performance, and simply lit faces, we end up somewhere near her wavelength, so that Dumont's skeptical story feels like an authentically complicated consideration of faith and practice.
Céline (Julie Sokolowski) is introduced as a novice at the titular convent, in the typically Dumontian offseason countryside. We watch her at prayer, and on solitary walks in the mucky wood. She feeds her ration of bread to the birds, with a blissed-out mystical expression: she's avoiding food as a spontaneous gesture of self-abnegation, and in one of the film's many lucid parsings of religious principle, the Mother Superior sends her away, explaining that devotion is at heart an act of humility, not the ostentatious martyrdom the quiet, fervent Céline evidently desires.
Expelled from the godly grounds and gardens she'll later claim, to a friend, as her birthplace (eh? eh?), Céline returns to the old-world bougie opulence of her parents' Parisian flat, and during one of her aimless days she's befriended by banlieue-dwelling Yassine (Yassine Salime), whose disregard for traffic signals is a wondrously singular mishmash of primal ignorance and protest. She tells him "I'm in love with God"; perhaps as an excuse to keep seeing her, he introduces her to his brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), who runs a Koran study group.
From here on out, what seems superficially like a hopeful parable about the common ground of Abrahamic faiths becomes, in conversations audaciously gentle and elliptical given where they're headed, a cautionary tale about the perils of righteousness and the misguidedness of the search for God, which Nassir at one point explains as almost a conjuring act, the invisible made manifest in the deeds of the faithful.
Hadewijch, though it moves like a movie out of time (even a raucous outdoor folk-rock concert seems out of the 19th century), eventually reveals itself as a very engaged contemporary work—but hardly a political one. And more unlikely still, its ending reveals Dumont to be the rare filmmaker whose interest in extremism doesn't preclude the equal possibility of grace.
Opens December 24 at IFC Center