The Flock of the Lord (Die Herde des Herrn): Venice Review

Two-part study of contemporary Catholic fervor becomes increasingly unconventional and illuminating.

A German documentary from director Romuald Karmakar takes a singular look at Catholicism.

The late Pope John Paul II's beatification, the penultimate step on the path to sainthood, in May this year lends a certain topicality to The Flock of the Lord, latest documentary from uncompromising and versatile German filmmaker Romuald Karmakar. Consisting of two 40-minute sections, it examines with anthropological curiosity a certain strain of energetic Catholic Christianity in the 21st century as displayed by those visiting the birthplace of the present Pope and by those making a pilgrimage to the Vatican to pay their respects to his predecessor.

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Rather more accessible than Karmakar's formally conceptual and dry, detached recent efforts, this film should enjoy a healthy life around the festival circuit. A boxy-looking production shot on digital video, The Flock of the Lord is a natural for small-screen exposure particularly in Germany where Karmakar's wry approach may spark debate and even a measure of controversy.

Having addressed the hot-button issue of radical Islam in his starkly austere Hamburg Lectures (2006), Karmakar now shifts his attention to some of the more avid adherents of Catholicism. The first half of his film visits Marktl-am-Inn, the tiny upper Bavarian market town where Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, was born in 1927.

Ratzinger didn't grow up here, but in the wake of his 2005 election to the papacy his birthplace nevertheless quickly became a considerable tourist magnet. Local shops cash in with such delicacies as the Ratzinger Slice, a sweetmeat containing precisely sixteen raisins. Marktl's mayor engages in irrepressible boosterism, predicting that the influx of visitors will mean "a lot of things will change for the better." An off-camera Karmakar doe pose some challengingly blunt questions to Marktl's residents and visitors although his droll interjections of calm, cool objectivity do little to dampen the mood of generalized, sometimes religious euphoria.

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The atmosphere is rather different in the second half of the film, shot 11 days earlier in the precincts of the Vatican while the late John Paul II lies in state nearby. Vast throngs of passionately devoted Christians are present, their sheer numbers causing logistical nightmares for the various authorities tasked with keeping order. The resulting scenes will do little to improve Italy's reputation for organizational inefficiency.

Karmakar here refrains from direct comment, but the images — the elderly and infirm being forced to stand in line for many hours — speak eloquently and distressingly. This second section is the stronger of the two, to the extent that many might wish that the whole documentary had been composed of the Vatican footage, much of it quite remarkable and of considerable interest as an historical record.

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In terms of editing, Karmakar and Karin Nowarra perform a competent job of cutting together material from different points around the square over the course of several hours. That said, this task is hardly sufficiently complex to answer the baffling question of why six years elapsed between the film's shooting and the Venice unveiling. It seems the Lord isn't the only one who moves in mysterious ways.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti)
Production company: Pantera Film
Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Romuald Karmakar
Producers: Romuald Karmakar, Avgoustis Tatakis
Editors: Romuald Karmakar, Karin Nowarra
Sales: Pantera Film, Berlin
No rating, 82 minutes