First Reformed: A Reminder that Cinema is a Spiritual Art Form

The battle of hope and despair

First Reformed was a film of tumultuous dark moments, and deep silence. From the beginning of the film, we see two contrasting truths pitted against each other: hope and despair. See the trailer below.

The story presents Reverend Toller, a pastor of a dwindling congregation in upstate New York. He struggles with pains of the past (the tragic death of his son), and pains of the present (his current struggle with alcoholism causing health problems). The film begins with a journal:

I have decided to keep a journal. Not in a word program or digital file, but in longhand, writing every word out so that every inflection of penmanship, every word chosen, scratched out, revised, is recorded. To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. I will keep this diary for one year; 12 months. And at the end of that time, it will be destroyed.
— Rev. Toller, First Reformed

The journey of Reverend Toller is seen through his journal. He even says at one point: “…it is a form of prayer.” He uses the journal to wrestle with God, and to make sense of the world around him. The journal provides opportunity for us to enter into his tormented mind, and to empathize with his weakness and pain.

Reverend Toller goes to a congregant’s house, Michael and Mary, a soon to be expecting couple. Michael is pressuring Mary to abort their baby, out of fear of bringing the child into the world. However, Mary is adamantly opposed to the thought of abortion. Michael and Mary are essential characters to this film, as each of them represent the contrasting ideals of hope and despair. Michael, on one hand, is an extreme environmentalist that is so devout in his beliefs, he doesn’t want to bring life into this world; he represents despair. Mary on the other hand, has a hope. It’s no coincidence that Schrader named the character Mary, as Mary was the mother of Jesus, who sang in Luke 1:46 shortly after an angel just told her that she would be bearing the Messiah. Instead of collapsing under the weight of the responsibility and fear of this enormous event that would change the course of history, she chose to sing in Luke 1. She chose hope over despair.

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Writer/Director Paul Schraeder made this film as a personal testament to his background, as he grew up in a dutch reformed church. This film is an incredibly personal portrait. One of your first questions may be, what is this film saying about Christianity? It may be hard at first to read into what Schrader is trying to say, but let me offer my interpretation.

Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one’s certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are.
— Rev. Toller, "First Reformed"
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the silence of god in dark moments of life

Throughout the film, we see unnervingly silent moments. It’s awkward, unsettling, and we are unsure whether the story is about to take a horrifying turn. And in a sense, it does. The silence in the film points to something profound: where is God when all hope seems to be lost? Sometimes it feels like He is nowhere, even though He is everywhere.

My favorite shot of the film is shown below. I believe it illustrates that exact point:

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In one side of the frame, Toller is isolated and alone. He is secluding himself. But in the other side we see a much different story…This empty chair quite possibly represents God’s omnipresence. Toller is clearly wrestling with his belief that God is actually there with him, amidst his darkness. And not only does God seem to be absent, but he feels separated from Him. However, no matter what Toller feels, He is still there.

Once again, this is my analysis, I am not speaking objectively as if I know Schrader’s motifs and attributed meaning behind the mise en scene. But this is how I interpret this powerful narrative.

The Freedom of grace and hope

(SPOILERS BELOW)

By the end of the film, Toller’s darkness has fully manifested itself, into something that is unexpected and masqueraded as a just cause. He’s at the turning point of darkness, he has been taken over by his darkness. We see the true gruesome nature of what has been going on in his mind, for the first time manifested on the screen in front of us. He is about to attempt suicide.

Then we see Mary. She is the picture of hope that appears when Toller has hit rock bottom. Often times, it is the darkest moments of life, when hope makes a special appearance. Perhaps Toller did not understand what hope meant until now. However, Mary also represents Grace. Hope is one thing, but experiencing Grace, is a freeing thing. That is why the camera is rigid for the entire film, and for the first time, moves freely in the ending scene…He has experienced the freedom of Grace and Hope. (John 8:36)

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As we hear the faint singing of the old hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” he runs into Mary’s arms. He sees her, and despite how ugly the situation is, he doesn’t hesitate to run into her arms. They embrace each other. Toller, who has been totally secluded until now, experiences the freeing nature of Grace that transforms the soul. I believe this is what the scene is pointing to…

First Reformed is not an easy watch for the everyday cinema-goer. But it will make you think—it will challenge your faith—and it will ask the questions about hope, despair, evil, God’s presence, and faith, that will leave you pondering for weeks after viewing.