Hadewijch -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

SAN SEBASTIAN -- "Hadewijch," an unsettling exploration of a young Christian girl's overwhelming faith in God, is one of Bruno Dumont's more balanced works, an intimate psychological portrait pregnantly poised between the heroine's interior reality and what the audience is lead to believe about her. On another level altogether, Dumont boldly if somewhat clumsily equates the dark sides of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, suggesting that terrorism can find fertile ground in the minds of anyone for whom the world has ceased to have meaning.

Many layers; much head-scratching. Probably only the creme-de-la-creme of viewers will make the effort to come to grips with this challenging example of upper-crust French cinema, from the director "Humanity" and "The Life of Jesus."

Those in the know will know that Hadewijch was the name of an early Christian mystic for whom the love of God superseded all else. Soft-spoken theology student Celine Hadewijch (Julie Sokolowski) first appears as an uncombed, emotional aspirant in a religious convent.

Her behavior is so over-the-edge it makes the wise nuns question her vocation. The viewer can choose whether to agree with their sensible judgment, or believe the girl is an inspired visionary. In any case, she is sent away to find her "true self" in the world.

Surprise: Outside the convent, Celine is the demure daughter of a French minister and lives in a fairy-tale Ile Saint Louis apartment full of tapestries and gilded mirrors. It is clearly not her world. She casually falls in with an Arab boy her age, Yassine (Yassine Salime), an angry rebel who joy rides her around Paris on a stolen scooter and has trouble relating to this rich girl who practices chastity.

However his older brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), a preacher in the local mosque of their housing project, grasps the depths of her religious fervor and her belief that God is the ultimate and only love possible. Unfortunately he intends to utilize her extreme faith for very sinister and practical ends.

The last part of the film becomes very sketchy and schematic as the characters embark on an improbable journey to the Middle East, then rushes to an open-ended conclusion that can be interpreted in various ways. The ending does more to reinforce stereotypes about Islam than to counteract them, though the point Dumont seems to be making is it's dangerous to disconnect from the world, whatever religion you follow.

However opaque, the film has an undeniable fascination constructed first of all through young Sokolowski's naive innocence in depicting Celine's otherworldly love, passion and despair, always just this side of madness. Yves Cape's subtle and penetrating camerawork makes certain every moment has great presence, suggesting some mystery that lies just off-screen.

Dumont's use of music is austerely sparing, but is used to highlight two scenes to show Celine's ecstatic involvement: a concert of accordion rockers and a Bach quartet rehearsal in a church.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival
Production company: 3B Prods
Cast: Julie Sokolowski, Karl Sarafidis, Yassine Salime, David Dewaele
Director: Bruno Dumont
Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont
Producers: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb, Muriel Merlin
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Jean Marc Tan Tan Ba
Costumes: Annie Morel-Paris
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Sales Agent: Pyramide International
No rating, 105 minutes