Over the past few years, Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick has developed a penchant for adding relatively unknown French directors to the competition, and to moderate overall acclaim (Etienne Comar’s Django last year, Alone in Berlin by Vincent Perez before). At first glance, Cédric Kahn’s 2018 Golden Bear contender The Prayer might seem to fit this mould — until one remembers that this is his second shot at the honour after being invited by Kosslick 14 years ago with Red Lights, and that his 2001 feature Roberto Succo was Palme d’Or-nominated. Moviegoers won’t have to wait that long for his next film, as Kahn is about to work with Catherine Deneuve on Joyeux Anniversaire.
Kahn indeed makes an award-worthy comeback with The Prayer (La prière), a film about Thomas, a young drug addict who wants to end his habit by joining a community of former addicts isolated in the French mountains. “Ora et labora,” the Cistercian order’s work-and-pray motto, encapsulates their new life. “It’s this or death,” one boy pinpoints it. Kahn expertly plays the viewers’ expectations like a violin; when you think things are safe, there’s a shift in the atmosphere, and when you think it’s over, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
The film about a lost boy looking for answers begins harshly and silently with not much to hold on to, just like the boys in the home. Kahn takes viewers on a slow-burning but absolutely worthwhile, empathetic journey (based on a real community that Kahn researched) to engage with these difficult young men, bringing the characters into the fold, gently and awkwardly, through ups and downs, as the young men start to talk through their fears and hopes.
Thomas is unassumingly and earnestly portrayed by Anthony Bajon, who offers a spectacular range, flipping switches at a moment’s notice (to the point where he might be a Silver Bear contender). Thomas complies with the strict rules at first, while not buying into the Christian superstructure. He gets better, he gets cocky, he rebels, he goes off the rails, he digresses, he stumbles, he loves, he overcompensates, he believes, he has to make crucial choices at every turn.
Aided by the cool, detached camera work courtesy of Yves Cape, the director successfully follows through on his non-judgmental, relentlessly observational style that evokes film’s lasting intensity. This is mirrored in the plot that features Alcoholics Anonymous-like group “testimonials” (thanks-giving and apologies, never justifications, as one boy explains to Thomas). Kahn passionately stressed the importance of these scenes, exemplifying “the transformational power of getting to tell your own story.”
In supporting roles, Damien Chapelle as Thomas’ “guardian angel” and Alex Brendemühl (full disclosure: a very distant cousin of mine) as the group’s supervisor portray a tremendously nuanced breadth and depth of identities, struggles and emotions, oscillating between their demons and sacrifices, and their friendships and redemptive brotherhood.
Women are nearly absent, but when they appear, they are game changers. A core scene between Thomas and the old sister who founded the community (a fitting role for Hanna Schygulla) is hard to swallow but proves to be the boy’s crucible.
Faith, temptation, obsession, fight or flight, community vs. individualism — The Prayer is not lacking in philosophical questions. When challenged about the title at Berlinale, Kahn explained that he was thinking mostly of “meditation and insight,” to “arrive at a point of truthfulness,” as Schygulla added.
The film is an unusual experience, defying current trends and themes so consistently that every second comment at the press conference contained the words “brave” or “courageous.” This is no Christiane F.-like addiction drama nor a chamber play like Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf (Berlinale 2017). The Prayer — and its strange mountain community — is oddly timeless or out-of-our-time. Perhaps we are seeing a new wave alongside Christian Petzold’s Berlinale experiment Transit. “The film is about doubt and choice,” Kahn explained, especially the ending, “une chiffre de la vérité,” a sign of truth.
Jutta Brendemuhl (@JuttaBrendemuhl) is an arts writer and programmer (among others) for the Goethe-Institut and the European Union Film Festival Toronto. Jutta has worked with Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders, Robert Rauschenberg, Pina Bausch and other luminaries. When she isn’t sitting in an arthouse cinema in Berlin or Toronto, she might be watching old Die Hard DVDs in her living room. Her writing has appeared in POV, ScreenPrism, DIE ZEIT, German Film @ Canada blog and she’s indexed on IMDB. Jutta holds a master’s degree in English Literature and is a fellow of the Toronto Cultural Leaders Lab.