Stations of the Cross

MPAA Rating: NR | Rating: ★★★★
Release year: 2015
Genre: Coming-of-Age, Drama, Foreign, Spiritual Director: Brüggemann

When the Catholic priest encourages the small group of catechumens to be “warriors for Christ,” it made me pause. Up until this point, his approach with the group of young teens seemed more or less…well…priestly, encouraging and equipping the young saints for the work of ministry, fostering a deep discipleship which requires the utmost in piety. But while his religious passion feels urgent and genuine, his spirituality is a heavy yoke. He calls for the renunciation of demonic music, of worldly clothes, of all earthly desires and passions. He’s asked the students to make a list of things they enjoy, then invites them to give up those things for the sake of God. This should make us begin to ask questions–what sort of spirituality is this priest promoting? 

The quietly zealous Maria (Lea van Acken) wants to live such a life of sacrifice. She’s willing to give her entire being to God, and goes to great lengths to renounce these passions and desires. From refusing to wear her coat in the cold weather, to fasting from food, refusing to run in gym class to demonic music, and all sorts of other strict behaviors, Maria’s spiritual disciplines are harsh and self-demeaning.

There is a tiny line between faith and fundamentalism, between a gracious piety and a weighty religiosity, between sainthood and self-flagellation. Stations of the Cross explores this invisible line through a unique formal approach, framing the entire narrative around the fourteen stations of the cross depicting Jesus’ passion journey. The series of images invites contemplation and prayerful reflection, and the film’s stationary aesthetic invites such meditation. The camera moves only three times throughout the entire film, and at significant narrational moments. Otherwise, every shot is static and firm, framing every scene like a painting or icon.

The fundamentalist sect of Roman Catholicism–the film describes their church as the Priestly Society of St. Paul–is anti-Vatican II and views itself as the small tribe of true believers. The frail, pale Maria embraces this belief system with a youthful zeal; she whole-heartedly buys in to the priest’s exhortations to stand up for her faith and renounce worldly desires and relationships. Her mother is a shrill, volatile woman who is often scolding or correcting Maria, despite Maria’s upright behavior and motives. When Maria is invited to join another parish’s youth choir by a male classmate, it sets off a chain reaction of condemnation and self-shaming, ultimately leading to tragedy.

A deliberate, haunting film, Stations of the Cross examines the crushing weight of shame and the culture of condemnation that emerges from any religious fundamentalism. Like this year’s Timbuktu, which explored the consequences of Islamic fundamentalism on a particular family, Stations of the Cross reveals that youth are often the greatest victims of spiritual manipulation. While the performances here may feel extreme or outlandish, I found they rang true to my experience. I’ve met Christian folks like Maria’s parents and priest, well-meaning people who embrace doctrinal issues with such a rigid grip it doesn’t allow for grace to seep in. It’s very difficult to convince these true believers otherwise, as they feel like anyone outside their circle doesn’t really have the true revelation of God. Maria’s au pair Bernadette is a small beacon of grace in Maria’s household (just like a similarly-named Babette embodies grace to a strict sect in the marvelous Babette’s Feast), but she cannot convince Maria to give up her self-destructive religious behavior. “You’re not a bad person,” Bernadette says, but we can see that Maria sadly remains unconvinced. The guilt and shame of the religious environment has worn away at her soul; what she believes will bring salvation is only bringing death. Lea van Acken gives a phenomenal performance, one which feels genuine and fosters a deep empathy for her situation.

I am a pastor and a youth worker, and Stations of the Cross should be essential viewing for both. It’s a difficult film to watch as we are led on a progression towards death. But it shouldn’t be easy viewing, just as contemplating the passion of Christ shouldn’t be a cakewalk. As adults who are the spiritual mentors and guides for the emerging generation of Marias, we can remind the Maria’s of the world of Paul’s words in Romans: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). No condemnation. That’s not the Christ we worship. In true Christian spirituality, we have not received a spirit of slavery, but of sonship–we are beloved children of God. Yes, we have been called to take up our cross and follow Jesus. But that doesn’t mean we are called to save ourselves through self-crucifixion. He’s already done it for us.

Stations of the Cross is now streaming on Netflix in the US.

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