Structured around the Stations of the Cross- the series of depictions of Jesus as he carries the cross to his crucifixion- we follow 14 year old Maria (van Acken) through 14 short vignettes, as she pursues a religiously motivated mission of self-sacrifice. Maria is a member of a strict, ultra conservative German Catholic sect, a sect deeply critical of mainstream Catholic practices, along with the other corruptions of the contemporary world; pop music and cross gender relations. Maria has an overbearing, zealous mother, for whom she is a constant frustration, and a brother who can’t speak. It is an unhappy and claustrophobic home life of ever erupting tensions. Taking very literally the advice of her Priest, Maria is inspired to offer up her life to Jesus to heal her mute brother, her dedicated worldly-denial echoing the paths of the early Catholic saints.
I was raised a Catholic and had a passing phase, between the ages of 7-8, in which I firmly believed if I didn’t say a silent prayer before all crucifixes I could expect eternal damnation, or, at least, some kind of divine punishment. I thought back to this period whilst watching the Stations of the Cross. By no means did I display the all-consuming religious fervour of the protagonist, but the experiences of Maria resonated; capturing very accurately the way children or the vulnerable, can interpret religious messages in very particular, often obsessional, ways.
The film opens with the local Priest addressing a class of young teens who are preparing for Confirmation. As in almost all of the film, the camera remains static, unobtrusively observing- as one would regard the Stations in a church. He tells the group they must be prepared to sacrifice more for their religion; he’s talking about giving up petty distractions, things like chocolate and make up, but Maria believes this an invitation to give up her life for Jesus. And she pursues this cause adamantly, refusing food and warm clothing, becoming skeletal and fever ridden. Children, as the film portrays so well, are liable to a peculiarly vehement and naïve type of devotion, often encouraged by circumstance (Maria’s stifling home life, for example), a type which becomes incredibly difficult to contend. The wider cast of the film must watch, helpless, as Maria wastes away before their eyes. Until the end she remains unswervable in her mission.
The director and his sister, who co-writes the script, were raised in a similarly conservative Catholic community- the Society of St Pius- and this is obvious; the psychological nuances of the relationships in the film so well depicted they could only be drawn from personal experience. The tensions of the dinner table as the mother criticises her daughter’s potential impurities. Maria’s own disconnect from wider society and school as she refuses to run to the ‘Satanic’ pop music in gym class, inviting the jeers of her classmates. The atmosphere is cold and oppressive, a film of long silences, simmering emotions- restraint and denial.
While compelling the film is not without flaws. The structure, at times, appears contrived and risks becoming a gimmick. The pressure to align each vignette with the theme of the corresponding Station leading to the inclusion of scenes that sometimes jar; a budding relationship between Maria and a male classmate- ‘Jesus falls the first time’- hastily and unconvincingly depicted. The film also struggles on occasion with the balance between its realism and the often heavy handed use of symbolism. There is one scene in which the Priest and the mother are stood at Maria’s hospital bedside before being ushered away into a dark corner by nurses, where they watch the girl mournfully; Bruggemann driving home their complicity in Maria’s decision. The acting is sometimes equally overdone; the character of Maria’s mother especially, exaggerated to the point of being one dimensional.
Like Ida, Stations of the Cross offers an insightful, absorbing depiction of religious experience; exploring the complex factors, internal and social, that lead people down the path of religious devotion. This tale of fervent spiritual commitment in the young and disaffected, and its negative implications, is psychologically convincing and compellingly tackled.
Starring: Lea van Acken, Franzisca Weisz, Lucie Aron
Director: Dietrich Brueggemann
Running Time: 110 minutes
DVD Release Date: 19 January 2015