December 7, 2023

Hadewijch – Islam and Christianity meet on film

A ‘cinematic meditation on the boundaries of faith in contemporary culture’ could turn out to be a difficult watch, especially when it is two hours long and in French. Many people would scan the synopsis and move on to the next film that is showing. But they would be missing out. Director Bruno Dumont has crafted a story about religion and belief in Paris which draws out questions that are rarely asked in film. Some scenes do outstay their welcome – a concert on the edge of the Seine comes to mind – but the subject needs space to breathe and allow time for reflection.

Before any speech we meet our heroine in a convent. She has taken the name Hadewijch and embraced God, but the atmosphere is one of service and repressed feeling. She doesn’t look at one with her surroundings. What is she doing there we wonder. Filmed in the winter, we see her breath as she feeds the birds with her luncheon bread, watched by the mother Superior. It is for her own sake that she is expelled from the convent.

Long single shots allow the viewer to take in everything on screen. When we first meet three Muslim men in a cafe, for the whole conversation we focus on Celine’s face and the crucifix wrapped around her fingers. Questions about her beliefs come from offscreen almost as though she is questioning herself. Daughter of a government minister her gilded physical life is contrasted with her internal unhappiness and the unhappy experiences of others.

The interaction of Christianity and Islam is currently a vital subject and this film studies a young Christian’s introduction to the other faith. She is in love with God and a Muslim helps her to understand her own faith. But is he helping or converting her? Where does her love for God take her?

A film about seeking after God is a rarity and when one comes along it must be grabbed and studied. Hadewijch is not an attempt to explain religious belief, but to look at the painful search that believers often endure. There is too little explanation though. Much plot is suggested without being explicit enough. Has she just done that? we wonder. Ambiguity is fine when it comes to her faith, no doubt the character is feeling that anyway. But we need to be told whether she has played a part in the events that we see unfold.

Dumont took home the Critics prize at Toronto for Hadewijch and earned himself comparisons to Ingmar Bergman. High praise indeed. He was lucky to have found Julie Sokolowski to play the lead role. She gives a performance which makes this film more than just a typical slow-moving art house production.

France, 2009

directed by Bruno Dumont

120 minutes

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